Families Under Pressure
Helping Relieve Today’s Parents & Kids
In late July, a tight-knit group of parents gathered online to mourn the loss of in-person school for the coming fall. We’d been holding out hope that our children could return to their classrooms at least part-time—for everyone’s well-being and sanity.
“Who’s got booze?” Ari called out, lifting his snifter of whiskey into the video frame. A high school coach and dad of three, he’d been holed up for months with his husband and their kids a few hours away from my home in Washington, DC. We watched as he took a giant gulp and grimaced. “I’ve been drinking since yesterday’s email from the chancellor,” he said. To tittering laughter, a flurry of hands gripping beers and stemware crowded the screen. Sharon, the mother who’d requested we all get together, took a sip of her wine and smiled weakly. “It’s so good to see you guys,” she said.
We’ve all known each other since our soon-to-be third-graders were navigating pull-ups in pre-K, and with a mix of mordant humor and monthly nights out, we’ve had each other’s backs through all manner of parenting joys and fails. But none of us had ever encountered anything like the unrelenting parenting stressors wrought by the pandemic. How were our families supposed to survive intact—much less thrive—under pressure-cooker conditions such as these?
The night of the Zoom call, we were all struggling in our own ways, but Sharon’s situation took precedence. Married to an EMT who works nights and sleeps during the day, she’d been shouldering the burden of helping her twin girls with school at home while juggling a deadline-driven communications job that she worried wouldn’t survive the pandemic. Since we’d last talked, her elderly father had contracted COVID just months after her mother had unexpectedly died.
That night, though, she wasn’t grieving for her parents, or herself. What was weighing most heavily on her was the emotional health of her twins, who hadn’t seen any other kids since classrooms had shuttered in early spring. Their exuberant personalities had flatlined, and they were having intense nightmares. Her face was tight with worry as she asked, “Is the mental health of your kids starting to feel like an emergency, too?”
Before we could answer, Sharon rushed ahead. “How about if we set up a learning pod so our kids can be together during school hours?” she proposed. “It’d mean each of us taking turns to teach them at a central house. We’d all agree on a set of shared rules about lockdown behavior that could keep everyone safe.” Smiling wincingly into her camera, she took a breath before asking, “So, what do you guys think?”
The call got uncomfortably quiet. Then, haltingly, people started to speak without actually answering her. Could she give more details about what exactly she was thinking? Had she considered helping her girls safely see another child or two at a playground? No one said what they were truly thinking: that we all were working full-time and teaching our kids already, and we felt like we were failing extravagantly at both.
None of us had the bandwidth left to consider an additional duty—even one that might benefit us.
At the time of the call, my younger son was spending mornings in remote summer school to catch up on reading and writing. That morning, the teacher had asked the kids to come up with a descriptor for what each member of their household was especially good at.
I was wolfing down some toast and watching as he thought hard about my strengths—his little brow knitted, his marker frozen over his mini-whiteboard. Just when I was about to step in and offer some help, his eyes lit up and he scribbled fast. “Look, Mom!” he said, flipping the board around so I could read the all-caps pronouncement: Y-E-L-L-I-N-G. “Did I spell that right?”
Later in the week, the teachers gently helped the kids name the emotions they were feeling in quarantine. I was working in another room and tripped over his scattered books on my way to grab water. When I emerged from the kitchen and saw that he’d tipped over his lunch plate and his sticky fingers were gripping my sensitive laptop, I shouted at him to stop. He turned to me, dazed and teary-eyed. “Mommy,” he said. “I’m sad.”
A quick, grudging hug was all I could muster before dashing off and dialing into a work meeting. When the faces of all my child-free coworkers appeared on the screen, I swallowed the familiar stew of fury and regret that had bubbled up in me a hundred—a thousand—times since the pandemic began. Why doesn’t he do what I ask? But also, What’s happened to me? Why can’t I hold my shit together?
To calm myself I thought of Sharon, Ari, and every other parent hanging on by a thread these days—how we’re all falling apart together. Then I turned on my laptop’s camera and smiled.
As I write this, I’m aware that despite how difficult this all is, I’m still going through it as a privileged, middle-class person. I have a job that lets me work at home during this time, a spacious city condo with lots of green space for my kids to play in, and laptops and decent Wi-Fi for all of us. I’m also physically healthy, and white. Our friends of color have talked to me about the particular stress of having to experience racial injustice on top of this new COVID reality.
People of color are losing their jobs and dying from the virus in disproportionate numbers. And my friends tell me they’ve felt pushed, sometimes before they’re ready, to explain why these disparities exist to their already anxious children, and what the protests in the streets outside their windows mean for their very lives and futures. Yes, we families are in this together, but our experiences are not always the same.
Families at the Brink
One day, we hope, all our families will be able to return to some species of “normal”—a normal where schools fully resume, and we safely see one another indoors without counting the feet between us. But in the meantime, this near-year of relentless stress and togetherness has created an emotional petri dish, in which families often feel very much alone. Perhaps no other event in modern history has cried out so loudly for the expertise of mental health professionals, and many are stepping up and speaking out—on social media, to the press, and via online summits. Among these clinicians is trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk, whose research and interventions for traumatic stress in children and adults have been shaping the field since the ’80s. At an online summit this fall, he observed that particularly for parents with a trauma history, who often have difficulty keeping their cool, “this is a dangerous time.”
Van der Kolk warned that data had already come out from early-hit countries like France and Spain, showing a sharp increase in child and spousal abuse. A different but related phenomenon is taking place in the U.S., which has seen a sharp and eerie drop in child abuse reports. Why? Teachers are known to be among the primary reporters of this abuse, and with the closing of so many schools and daycare centers, they’re no longer able to keep their eyes on their students and assess their well-being.
While physical abuse is obviously traumatic to a child, lesser acts of aggression also affect kids deeply. Blow-ups, repeated criticisms, chronic testiness—these kinds of parental behaviors leave permanent imprints on children’s brains. To prevent such damage, van der Kolk says that every family member needs the space to acknowledge the intensity of their feelings—to “mourn and cry”—and then learn concrete practices that can restore calm and connection.
When my family was first semi-quarantined at home, the kids were scared that the virus might get them and sad about not seeing their friends. My partner and I scrambled our work commitments around their schedules and focused on our sons. We hugged and reassured them countless times each day, saying things like, “Kids rarely die from this” and “Something as simple as wearing a mask can really stop the spread!” We also said, frequently, “It’s a treat to see so much of you.”
They were buoyed when they could see their friends on screens, and we talked up the positives of that. Glancing over their shoulders, we’d say, “Look at that cool poster Carmen has above her bed! You’re learning so much more about her!” And: “Is that James’s new puppy? Sooo cute. Let’s check in with him every day and see how fast she grows!” We even made time over dinner to help them download their feelings a few times a week, and carefully shared our own. “I’m sorry that you still can’t see everybody,” I told them. “I miss my friends, too. I have a feeling lots of kids and parents are feeling just like we do. It’s such a weird time.”
But it wasn’t long before the stress in our days started overwhelming our good intentions. Caring for the kids so entirely during the day meant that we regularly labored late into the night or rose before dawn to get the bare minimum of our own work done. As weeks turned into months, chronic exhaustion and irritability set in. Our exasperation grew at any trouble the boys might be having in mastering their schoolwork, so we could get back to our work commitments, which—as the rates of the newly unemployed multiplied around us—took on a blinding urgency.
Anything that required an unexpected extra few minutes of our shrinking work time could send us over the edge. “You knew how to spell that word yesterday! What happened? Think, or we’ll never get through this!” At times, we outright shamed them. “C’mon, you’re looking for the total of six barrels of 25 ears of corn. How could that possibly be 31? Why, in god’s name, would you add instead of multiply?”
Bringing in the Body
The multiple threats of COVID-19—home stress, social isolation, and the looming portents of illness and death—are difficult but not necessarily traumatic for kids, says van der Kolk. But certain conditions make trauma likelier, including feeling disconnected and unseen, and losing a sense of safety and predictability. To help prevent and counter these hazardous states, we need to help kids reconnect with their bodies. Parents can help children “get the sensations going of touch and balance” by doing things like throwing balls back and forth, dancing and yoga, creating safe places with cushions and blankets, and fostering imagination with art supplies. Kids need more snuggling, too. “Safe touch is our primary mode of calming ourselves down, no matter what’s happening in the world, and it’s one of the most important things we can offer our kids,” he says.
Because of the strains of daily life, hugging is down in our little pressure-cooker of a house, but everyone doing their thing from home has a silver lining. Early mornings, which used to be harried sprints to get everyone out of the house on time, have become precious times for resetting and forgiving if the previous day has gone off the rails. Now, when the kids try to crawl into our bed with us before daybreak, instead of enforcing the old rule of respecting mom and dad’s private time and ordering them out, we act on van der Kolk’s advice. Whichever parent isn’t already on their laptop or out for their sanity-preserving jog, holds them both and listens as they recount their dreams or make their latest pitches for the new toy they claim they need. We’ll cuddle and sometimes laugh until it comes time to throw off the sheets and try again to do more than white-knuckle it through another day.
As for movement, the kids and I have long been fans of before-bed dance parties. But after so much time spent in the living room, the scene of daily eruptions over schoolwork and general confinement fatigue, I quickly learned that shifting the vibe of the space was going to take more than lowering the lights and cranking some funk. Recently, we’d made it through a little Beyoncé, but a minute into the Isley Brothers singing “It’s Your Thing,” the little one shoved his brother for dabbing too close to him, sending them both into the credenza and a framed picture of their late grandmother crashing to the floor. The three of us stood suspended in silence for a moment, before the shouting erupted. “Look what you did, you idiot!” “I’m not the idiot, you’re the idiot!”
“E-nough!” I shouted, bending down to assess the damage. The photo beneath the shattered glass was fine, but I was so frustrated with them for blowing up this chance at fun reconnection that I cradled the portrait, and in my most guilt-inducing voice, intoned, “If only she could see you two right now, she’d be so disappointed. Just go to bed!”
Dance parties remain on hold for now, but we’ve discovered that taking our bodies outside to move is working for us. If we can get through schoolwork before the sun goes down, we’ll go out on the grass and encourage the boys to team up against us. Passing a soccer ball to each other around us lumbering old people and giddily kicking it through the fallen branches we’ve stabbed into the ground for a goal is sometimes the only victory in their day, and they celebrate it with the kind of obnoxious strutting that at any other time we’d somberly confront them about. These days, it’s been more than okay to let them relish this small rush of success any way they want.
Honoring Feelings, Restoring Calm
For both kids and adults, experiencing strong, unruly feelings are a part of living, but COVID has upped the freak-out factor considerably. Like adults, kids are absorbing the dangers of the pandemic, but they lack the coping mechanisms that many adults rely on. Jennifer Cohen Harper, who heads up the School Yoga Project in New York and teaches body-based mindfulness and yoga to children, observes that kids’ brains are constantly asking, “Am I safe?”
When they feel scared or upset, many parents instinctively rush in to “fix” the feelings. Harper says, “It’s important that we be conscious of not conveying a message that children need rescuing from strong feelings, or inadvertently teaching them that having big feelings is inherently bad.” In the wake of a family blow-up, it’s vital to validate everyone’s feelings. Then, says Harper, parents can introduce body-based techniques that help everyone move through difficult emotions and bring calm, focus, comfort, and connection into the day.
I tell Harper that when both of my kids flipped out when their computers froze in the middle of their school assessments, I’d taught them to breathe deeply by mimicking a cup of cocoa with my hands and blowing over the imaginary top. They’d done it in the moment—I was so proud!—but I’d never seen them do it since. Not only that, but whenever I jumped in and suggested that they try it in subsequent freak-outs, they just got more upset.
I’d been rescuing them from their strong feelings, Harper told me. Although my intent to help them experience a physical sensation of calm was right, I hadn’t helped them make it theirs during a quieter time, when they weren’t flooding with feeling. It was an extra step that would now be important to take. She says parents can teach this sort of preventive self-care by letting our kids “catch us in the act of closing our eyes and taking some full belly breaths in anticipation of a busy day,” or, after a draining work call, reupping our sense of power with a few yoga lunges. Via such modeling, our kids learn that body-based self-care can be just as targeted and as routine as brushing their hair or teeth.
For those ultra-full days when all family members are stressed, Harper suggests trying a practice called Layers of Sound, which can help kids and parents quiet their minds and come into a gentle focus. Here’s the technique. Close your eyes, all together, take some slow breaths, and then ask your kids to listen for the sounds that are farthest away from them. Can they stretch their ears beyond the room they’re in now and into others in the house, or even all the way outside? They don’t need to name the sounds they hear, just hear them.
Next, ask your kids to bring their hearing in even closer, within the walls of the room. Finally, ask them to pull their hearing out of the room and into their own bodies. When they listen inside themselves, what do their bodies have to say? “This can be a nice way to settle into whatever task is at hand, and it shows them that the gift of focus really is within them,” Harper says. Once kids have enough experience with these practices, the hope is that they’ll “seed” them in their bodies. At that point, when they need to calm down, they’ll start the practice without being conscious that they’re making a self-care decision. “Like you might get a drink of water before you know you’re thirsty,” she says.
Worried about the snapping and sniping that was happening in my household, I asked Harper what practices might help families like mine come back together after a blow-up.
“I’m finding my most potent tools are the supercharged apology and thank you,” she said. “When we’re losing it, we need to turn to our kids and say, ‘Thank you for your patience with me. I’m having a bit of a hard time right now.’ It’s important to contextualize our behavior for them. Otherwise they’re going to make it about them.”
The body, no surprise, is a potent tool for family healing. Harper suggested a technique that particularly appealed to me: Back-to-Back Breathing. Here, you sit on the floor with your backs pressed together and see if you can sync your breath without talking. She says this is a good way to reconnect with family members who don’t want to talk—or look—at you.
I tried it on a Thursday night with my older son, after a missed homework deadline sent us both into tizzies. He agreed to try it to calm down, but it was clearly too soon. As our shoulders made contact, I felt him recoil. Then he stood up and wordlessly walked away.
Later, I enlisted his brother in another Harper technique—standing up from a sitting position with our backs together. My height made me seem like a giant backpack attached to his skinny frame, which cracked us both up. My older son, who was looking on, broke into a smile, and then silently sat down with me to try it next. As we rose up, he pushed so hard against me I lost my footing and squealed, which made him giggle.
“These are ways to have a light spirit together,” Harper says. “It’s not about doing something perfectly. It’s about using our bodies to get to laughing with our kids that can help cement the repair.”
The Dance of Parts
Way back in March, my older child was thrilled that we’d all be staying home. He’s an outgoing kid, but the respite from the social pressures of in-person school was soothing to him.
Within weeks, his father’s and my newly short tempers crushed that for him, and the tensions remain. Yes, we’re learning more about the clever and kind and generous parts of one another in lockdown. At the same time, the speed at which we’re cycling through explosions, shame-filled apologies, and reparative family talks has been breathtaking.
Part of the unshakable shame that comes with parenting them right now is that we haven’t broken this cycle of fighting in our household, even though we both know that rates of clinical depression and anxiety have risen dramatically in kids during the pandemic. My partner and I are terrified by the sobering report from the CDC that one in four teens and young adults has considered suicide during the pandemic. But at the end of a rough day with the kids, we’ll often retire, stricken, to the bedroom, rather than muster the energy to check in on their emotional needs. Why do we continue to lose our tempers, and what is it going to take for us to stop?
Frank Anderson is a therapist and a dad who tackles both roles from an Internal Family Systems framework, in which human beings are composed of numerous inner parts, each with a specific role to play—much like members of a family. Anderson believes that our angry parts are trying to protect other, younger parts of us that have been deeply wounded. The part that drinks, the part that dismisses, the part that loses it and yells at our kids—all have the positive intention of protecting parts of us that feel hurt and helpless.
Anderson explains that when kids act out, their behavior “mimics extreme protective parts.” In most cases, their outbursts are a normal part of child development. But many parents have a hard time seeing that bigger picture because their own, immature, protective parts react—often with lightning speed—to the child’s immature parts. In a heartbeat, we lash out at our beloved children in a misguided attempt to try to quash our own painful feelings.
I get it, viscerally. When I’m in a store and my kid raises his voice in dismay after I refuse his demand for some cheap toy, I feel a wave of shame, and my impulse is to do whatever it takes to stop his escalating whine. But since everyone knows that kids act out—it’s natural, especially these days—where does this shame come from? Anderson looks to family-of-origin injunctions about “proper” child behavior. With parents now raising kids in more egalitarian ways, kids feel freer to express negative feelings toward them—which can then evoke a deep sense that we’re parenting “wrong.”
It can go even deeper than that, Anderson says. “You hear it a lot these days, out of exasperation: ‘If I’d talked back to my father that way, I’d have gotten beaten!’” But underneath the anger, he says, a young part of the parent may be terrified that their own, early experience of abuse will get reactivated. So, in a self-protective flash, they castigate their own kid. Says Anderson: “There’s so much transgenerational trauma that gets perpetuated because of parent triggering.”
One of the capitulations my partner and I have made to the virus is to let the kids play video games for hours on the weekends. This way, they can interact with their friends online. This is exquisitely painful for me. I’m aware of the potential that gaming poses for addiction, and I think my young kids ought to be spending their free time reading, drawing, making music, or exploring the woods behind our place. As I see them space out on their school laptops during the week, I worry that more screen time is just decreasing their buy-in at school.
In my childhood home, my parents emphasized learning in all forms, and there was quiet to ensure that happened. Our house is loud and the kids are rambunctious, and though the noise level drops blissfully when they play video games, the more time they spend doing it, the more they seem to fall out of love with the more inward-turning, creative activities I think will enrich their lives. Every time they ask for more time to play video games, or express frustration when it’s time to stop, I’ll say ridiculous things, like, “Your brains are rotting!” During every one of these conflicts, I threaten to give them less and less time on their devices, and the tears reliably flow.
But instead of castigating ourselves for our childrearing failures, Anderson suggests that we parents become curious about our inner parts. What part of me just got triggered? What part of me is feeling as if my sons are ruining their shot at a good life by playing video games? What part of me wants to yell like hell instead of responding with compassion toward myself and my kids? Anderson’s hope is that when we parents start using this “parts of me” language freely in their households, children will begin to naturally adopt it for themselves. In the midst of family turbulence, they’ll know that while a parent might be mad at them, another, bigger part of that parent loves them.
Walking the Walk
Shortly after the new school year began in the fall, we had a particularly harrowing week. My kids had been issued their own laptops for learning from home. My older son was savvy enough with his machine, smartly encased in indestructible rubber, that we left him on his own in the quiet of our upstairs loft. This was a huge relief, as his brother was more often lost with the technology and the new semester’s trickier reading and math. As the days crept on, with my partner and me tagging in and out to help him, our older son assured us that he was fine.
At week’s end, we threw ourselves on the couch in giddy relief that the new semester was looking to be only half as hard on us as the last: the two of us would be teaching only one kid! We’d been bathing in this reverie for a few minutes when my phone started buzzing with automated emails from the school. Ping! The ping was a notice of a “zero” for my older son’s social studies questions on Monday. Ping! Ping! Ping! Ping! “0” ”0” ”0” “0” for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday’s questions too. Then came the three math quizzes: Ping! Ping! Ping! And the four days of writing assignments: Ping! Ping! Ping! Ping!
It had to be a mistake. Our son had told us his work was done. Something must be wrong with the technology. Ping! Ping! Ping! Maybe he’d neglected to take an extra step after pressing send? A bad connection? Did we need to call our provider? We checked our email to see whether his brother’s teachers were sending alerts, but there was nothing from them.
When we showed our son the emails, he was incredulous. He’d turned everything in! There must be a glitch in the system! We wrote his homeroom teacher, who immediately scheduled an early Monday meeting to help us get to the bottom of this. Our poor kid! All that good work, potentially lost forever!
On Monday, the three of us logged into our scheduled meeting with the teacher, only to be told that there had been no glitches. Our kid, it seemed, had indeed been logging hours on the computer during the school day, but not only for the purpose of getting his work done. Instead, his teacher had reason to suspect, he and a group of other kids who hadn’t turned in their work had been streaming video games together.
We were livid and humiliated. As soon as we hung up, we turned toward him sharply. “Is this true? How could you do this?”
He shot up from his chair and started storming up the stairs. “I didn’t do anything! They’re wrong! Why do you hate me?” he screamed.
“Hey, don’t you walk away from us, mister!” my partner yelled. “You march yourself back down here right now!” For a minute, nobody moved. The anger welling up in me was so vast it felt like that part of me was all of me. Then my partner glanced at me and pointed to our bedroom. Behind the closed door, we looked at each other in a state of parental shock. Our kid? Did this?
Then came a gentle knock. Our younger son, we thought, who was undoubtedly worried about everyone. A look passed between us: What would we say to him about what his brother had done? But it was our older son at the door, with his hands shoved in his pockets and his face a mottled red. In a quavering voice, he said, “She’s right, I did it. There’s a part of me that can’t resist playing with those dudes. If it’d be all right, I’d like to call a family meeting.”
As all four of us gingerly took a seat, I found myself putting a hand softly on my older son’s shoulder. A part of me ached to absolve him and spare him more pain. But as we settled in and he rattled off some reasons for why he’d done it—including that “some part of me misses these guys so much and wants to have fun with them way more than do another lame math quiz online by myself”—I noticed my blooming compassion take a sharp turn into fear and humiliation.
His behavior felt like an indictment of me. Where was his reverence for learning? Why doesn’t he feel compelled to do what’s right? I could feel my parents’ consternation rising within me. But instead of turning my shame on him, I held my tongue for what felt like the first time since the start of this whole, messed-up, new existence.
My partner shook his head. “Look, buddy, I get that your friends are important, but you can’t blow off school like this. It’s too important.”
“I know. But when I get stuck on something that’s too hard and makes me feel stupid, now there’s the internet and these games, and you know, they’re right there in my hands. A part of me can’t resist.” He looked down at the rug.
My partner laughed out loud. “I mean, he’s got a point,” he said. “We all do it. We all do it, buddy. We’ve all got that part. The trick is to listen to the part of you that’s telling you to tell your game-loving part to take a hike, so you can get back to work.” I saw our son’s shoulders drop a couple of notches. He looked at us and nodded.
A sense of relief descended on the room. Could it be that simple? No protracted arguing? No lectures? I looked around at everyone to be sure. Were we really okay? Three smiling faces looked back at me.
The other night, my boys got in the car with their dad and drove over an hour to a farm for a friend’s birthday party. The place was enormous and featured one of the biggest corn mazes on the eastern seaboard. There were goats to pet, a socially distanced bonfire pit where s’mores were on offer, and a huge field for smashing pumpkins. They got home near midnight, exhausted, stinking of goat, and blissful.
As I peeled their clothes off, clouds of dirt sailed over our heads, and we laughed at the stench and how much goats sound like whiny humans. They crowded me for hugs, hysterical at the thought that they could make me smell as bad as they did. I pulled their blankets over them and stayed in their room long enough to sing them the Irish lullaby my mom used to hum in our kitchen. They told me they loved me, and I said it back. It was the first time in months that we’d gotten to this place together, so content to be with one another and delighted by the world.
It was everything we needed, I told my partner once they were softly snoring. “It’s out there,” he said. He meant the old world, the one we used to know and take for granted, waiting for us to inhabit it again.
I know it won’t be that easy.
This time has changed us, and them, irrevocably. Maybe it’s shown our kids that they’ll be able to survive great disruptions in their lives, and that we’ll forever have their backs. But I fear we’ve also revealed harsh sides of ourselves that may give them pause about keeping us as confidantes in the coming decades.
Either way, something about this unnatural time together has strengthened our desire to get better at putting our little unit back together after a rift. And we’ll keep working to move toward laughter and song in the face of terrible stressors, to find solace and expression in our bodies, and to come to grips with the idea that we’re indeed complex creatures, made of shifting, redeemable parts.
I tell myself, as giggling bedtimes and early-morning snuggles keep bearing out, that our family remains connected—that, despite all the sniping, squabbling, and screaming at each other over these long months, we haven’t fallen entirely apart. Not yet, at least. And maybe, since we’ve come this far already, we won’t ever.
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PHOTO © ISTOCK FIZKES
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