Trapped at home during the coronavirus pandemic? Heres how parents can get through challenging moments – The Conversation CA

Posted: February 3, 2021 at 10:52 pm


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As parents face almost a year imprisoned with their families, things at home are getting ugly, and thats entirely normal.

We cant prevent emotional storms at home, but we can learn to relate more skillfully to these challenging moments when they arise. Being a parent is difficult, imperfect and messy: Families are going to fight at the best of times. Its especially difficult to be an effective parent during COVID-19.

As a psychiatrist who teaches courses for parents about how to raise resilient kids, the most valuable skill I suggest is what child psychiatrist Daniel Siegel calls the power of showing up learning to be emotionally and mentally present with our kids during the storms of life.

Siegels review of the research shows that having at least one person show up in a predictable and emotionally present way predicts not only childrens happiness, but their social and emotional development, leadership skills, meaningful relationships, and even academic and career success.

And now, more than ever, our kids need this protection. The pandemic has not only exposed families to the risk of illness and death, but also the consequent distress of widespread inequality, uncertainty and fear, financial hardship and mandated social isolation, including school closings.

What we know from the science is that having a supportive, healthy relationship with at least one caregiving adult is the best protection any child has against later emotional difficulties, says Vancouver child psychiatrist Ashley Miller.

Since the pandemic began, 50 per cent of Canadians have reported worsening mental health, more than 60 per cent of youth have reported feeling distressed about school closings and social restrictions and 59 per cent of parents say theyve noticed behaviour changes in their kids, from outbursts and irritability to major changes in mood, conduct and personality.

Yet even without a pandemic, distress in the family is a normal part of development. Kids dont mature in a straight line; they make leaps that abruptly disorganize their behaviour and emotions, such as acting out or temper tantrums.

As I said, this is normal.

Then this messiness in childrens behaviour causes their caregiver to be a mess too.

This is also normal.

Miller says thats why she wrote her new book, What to Say to Kids When Nothing Seems to Work.

If we can help strengthen the parent-child relationship, thats really protective for mental health, she says. What lets you feel like you can stay in it is knowing that you can resolve it.

These skills are especially relevant now. When were under stress, were more prone to conflict. When we feel threatened, we see the other persons intentions as negative, says Miller.

And a lot of people often cope with family stress by avoiding it, she says. But with the restrictions, everyone is having to look around the living room or kitchen table and be like, Oh, now were stuck together. And we dont necessarily have the skills for conflict resolution.

Miller, who is also a clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, had vowed never to write a parenting book: The fundamental thing for parents is really to have some confidence in themselves, and the idea of a book can give the misperception that theres an expert out there who knows how to do parenting better than you do, she says. I was really hesitant to join my voice to that chorus that could inadvertently increase parenting anxiety.

But then she discovered Emotion-Focused Family Therapy (EFFT). Developed by her co-author, Denver psychologist Adele Lafrance, EFFT both empowers parents to have more confidence and teaches them to see the good in their child and themselves even when things are getting very ugly at home.

We are giving tools, but we never want anyone to go against their better judgment because it says so in a parenting book, says Miller.

Miller and Lafrance provide a road map to manage the difficult moments.

The first step is to build a bridge between upset child island and frustrated parent island by imagining what your child may be thinking and feeling.

In many cases, kids havent yet learned to understand and name their feelings and needs, or they are too distressed to communicate them effectively: This is also true for adults. Kids may not be comfortable talking about feelings or are too angry to talk also true for adults. So we can view difficult behaviours as how kids try to communicate their underlying emotions and get their needs met.

It doesnt matter if youre accurate: Youre simply trying to brainstorm possible guesses of why the child may be feeling or acting this way. This communicates that the child is important not bad and youre willing to try to understand.

The next step is to validate, or to put these guesses about the childs inner experience into words.

Sometimes people think validation means just praising or saying everything is good and actually thats not helpful, says Miller. Real validation is being able to put yourself in the other persons shoes, seeing where theyre coming from makes sense and then putting that into words to share that you get the issue.

Validation and feeling understood calms our nervous system and gets us out of fight-or-flight mode, Miller says. Its most effective when done over and over Miller recommends offering three different guesses as it takes time before we feel that someone is there with us.

For example, if your child refuses to do his homework, you could offer three validations, such as: I can see why you wouldnt want to do it because its boring, and Youd rather be playing video games, and It doesnt seem fair that your sister doesnt have to do it.

Many parents worry that this approach wont toughen their kids up for the real, cruel world. But Miller disagrees. Validation is saying, I always have your back, says Miller. When kids feel and grow up with that sense of my caregiver has my back, they can handle the tougher world better.

We can also acknowledge when we make mistakes. One of the greatest gifts we can give our kids is to show that we dont do everything perfectly, says Miller. Its actually modelling and teaching that healthy relationships involve missing the mark, messing up and then repairing it.

"Its the ultimate show of strength that we can say, I messed up here, says Miller.

Validation helps children regulate their emotions and get into a zone where they can take in the next step of helping with problem-solving and other practical supports, Miller says.

While we often focus on problems, its also important to share joy, says Miller.

Right now, we need to look for small moments to celebrate.

If your kid comes in and says, I just made it to the next level of my video game, pay attention to them. And really joining in their enthusiasm is going to help promote their overall positive attitude, their mental health and strengthen your relationship. Those are just as important as being there in the times that your child is down, says Miller.

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Trapped at home during the coronavirus pandemic? Heres how parents can get through challenging moments - The Conversation CA

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