For the past few months, I’ve read countless articles giving advice about how to parent while confined with a family at home. All over social media, the standard advice is to keep a routine schedule, take outdoor breaks, make time for playing family games. Very few of these messages mention the reality of managing the real stress at home the pandemic has created. At most, you hear about the need to “take time for yourself,” “let the little things go,” and “communicate your needs to your partner.”
These well-intentioned recommendations may be helpful for some people, but for me, not only do they fall flat, they invalidate my reality as a therapist and a mom. Many parents have anxiety and depression, trauma and marital strife lurking in the background of daily existence. Being sequestered at home, often with no support from family and friends, responsible for managing their children’s online schoolwork while getting their own job done, all while coping with the fear of illness and loss, will inevitably bring these issues to the foreground, regardless of how mindful and aware we may be of the myriad methods to care for our emotional well-being.
Let me paint you a hypothetical picture.
I’m sitting on the kitchen floor, trying to hold and soothe my middle son, who’s biting his younger brother’s shirt as he tears and growls like a wild wolf. I’d been told by the school social worker that my middle son is only acting this way out of his own hurt and fear. She advised me to comfort him, rather than punish him, when he acts out like this, which my husband thinks is bullshit. And, of course, he walks into the kitchen right as this scene is unfolding, takes one look, and says in a reprimanding voice, “Get him off the little one! I can’t believe you!” He walks away, mumbling, “Your judgment is so off.”
A wave of shame and rage washes over me. I feel paralyzed. My preteen daughter, Clare, is also witness to this drama, and I see her face contorting in anger. She’s told me before how much it bothers her that I can’t manage her brothers. I don’t need her critical look today. I already feel like a failure. “Mind your own business, Clare. I’ve got it under control!” I snap at her.
“No you don’t, Mom! You don’t have it at all under control!” she hurls back at me. Our dog, Simmy, has been peering from underneath the table with her tail between his legs. Clare grabs the dog and runs with him to her room, slamming the door behind her. I can hear Clare’s muffled sobbing into Simmy’s furry back. Thank God for the dog, the only soul in our home who seems to have a shred of empathy or compassion these days.
Some version of this is how my corona days have been; some version of this is how my clients’ days have been. A vacillation between paralysis and rage. A constant feeling of being out of control. That danger lurks around the corner of every family interaction. How am I supposed to keep a routine when just the mention of not having a snack before dinner sets off a cataclysm of traumatic events?
Here’s my experience: I want to run and hide in my room and not come out. I sometimes don’t care if the kids break things, eat three packages of cookies or spill ketchup on the rug. I just can’t go out there and deal with them. Because if I do, I’m afraid I’ll hurt them with my rage. I’m afraid I’m a bad parent.
Here’s what I say to myself: You’re not a bad parent. You’re not a bad person. You’re a person living in a tough situation with little to no help. You feel trapped. Wanting to respond by checking out or raging at your kids is normal: It’s not a good thing, and it’s dangerous, but that’s what humans do when they feel they’re in danger.
So what can you do instead? First, take a deep breath and forgive yourself. You’re a person who deserves compassion. One of things that helps me is to imagine that I am myself a child. I imagine holding my own self as a child, rocking the child, stroking the child’s hair while saying, “You’re doing the best you can. I believe you, this is so hard. You’re going to be okay.”
Then what? Lower your expectations. Do anything and everything you can to maintain physical and emotional safety. If that means letting the kids watch screens all day, so be it. If it means eating potato chips in bed, so be it. If it means not attending to a shred of online school one day, so be it. I know, I know, the voice in your head is saying how irresponsible that is. Maybe you’re questioning me as a therapist and a mother. Well, my view right now is that those things can all be remedied in the future far more easily the family trauma that might result from not maintaining your own emotional safety as you’re trying to cope.
When struggling to cope or struggling to talk to a partner about how we’re coping, we need to be seeking help. As we all know, it’s never been easier to find someone who will work with you from home. In the meantime, just keep repeating to yourself that you are doing the very best you can.
Dafna Lender, LCSW, is the program director for the Theraplay Institute and a certified trainer in Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy.
Photo © Canva/iBrave
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