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Mental Wellness and Parenting in a Pandemic

May 5, 2020

Four ways to protect your and your family’s mental wellness during the global COVID-19 outbreak.

By Tammy Ullmer
Family Support Specialist
Women’s Recovery Journey

It’s 10 o’clock in the morning and so far I have built a perfectly symmetrical castle with blocks, baked three-dozen cookies, played two games of Trouble plus a tie-breaker game, had a lengthy discussion about sportsmanship, washed two loads of laundry, unloaded and reloaded the dishwasher and made it around the block with my 3rd grader, my preschooler, my baby in the stroller, and our dog who thinks he needs to water every single yard we pass. Sound familiar?

Parenting during a pandemic is not for the faint of heart. COVID-19 has thrown us all into a world of uncertainty. We are not only parents but also teachers, friends, entertainment, and referees to our children. In times like these, we must turn to the golden rule of air travel: Put your own oxygen mask on first, before helping those around you. Translation: We must take the time to care for ourselves (without feeling guilty) before we can effectively care for our children. Below are 4 tips to help guide your parenting to promote your own mental wellness as well as your children’s mental wellness.

You Don’t Have to Be Perfect. Without childcare or babysitters offering you a break, self-care might mean taking an extra minute for yourself hiding in the bathroom. Or, a bubble bath after the kids are in bed. It could be picking up a practice like meditation, deep breathing, a new hobby, journaling, or simply allowing yourself additional screen time. Give yourself room to not be a perfect parent, because there really is no such thing. Having 16 hours a day to fill to keep our children happy, occupied, schooled and well fed does not allow time for perfection. If you are doing your best, you are doing enough! It is more crucial to set a good example for your children by being calm, emotionally healthy, and reliable. Kids will model how their parents behave and react. If you raise your voice, appear stressed, exhibit erratic behavior or appear panicked, your children will do the same.

Let Them Be Bored. Not keeping your children busy 100% of the day will not cause them permanent harm. You are not a cruise director. You do not need to plan out every single second. Remember that quality is more important than quantity when it comes to time with your children. Scheduling every single minute of their day will just exhaust all those involved. Try to find a balance, exhibit calmness and let them know that uncertainty is a part of normal life and should be taken one moment at a time. This is how our children will learn resiliency, which is one of the most important skills they will use throughout their lives! When they look back on this time in their childhoods, they will not remember which games you played with them or how many cookies you baked. Instead, they will look back and remember whether you were present for them, whether you were calm and gentle with them, the ways you reassured them and squashed their anxieties, and all the ways you rooted them in reality and mindfulness.

Be Open About What is Happening. Please talk to your children about the virus and why all our lives are so different right now. Children know their lives are different. They have heard about the pandemic from the news, social media, and their friends or perhaps through overhearing your conversations with other adults. If the topic is not discussed with them directly, your child may begin to believe that the virus is unbelievable or scary. Without the facts their imaginations can run wild. Speaking to them about the virus will be an opportunity to dispel myths and teach them about the importance of gathering information from reputable, reliable sources. This will not be through social media outlets or other people’s personal opinions.

Accept the Lack of Control. We need to teach our children there are things in life that they (and you) cannot control. In times like these, it is important to encourage your children to focus on what they can control rather than what they can’t. In this case, they can control their home routines, schedules, and personal hygiene. This is a great opportunity to teach them to wash their hands regularly, sneeze or cough into their elbow, and to use at least 2 tissues at a time to blow or wipe their noses. Explain to them what social distancing means and how practicing it can help them stay safe. You can also help your children learn to identify their own feelings about what is happening. Play a game of “Emotions Charades” by having each player act out an emotion and guessing what that emotion is. Explain why it’s okay to feel those emotions and suggest healthy ways of dealing with them.

This should be a time of building memories…happy ones, not memories of excessive stress over how to fit 20 things into each day and which 20 different things you are going to do tomorrow. Remember to take care of yourself first and be sure to watch your children for changes in their sleep patterns, changes in appetite, mood fluctuations or expressions of self-harm. If you notice any of these changes please know that there are crisis workers, therapists and support specialists available by phone or virtual visits to help. We can’t always be everything to our children. Knowing when to ask for outside help is crucial to keeping our children happy, healthy, safe, and mentally well.

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