It’s that time of year again for parents (whether your children are having virtual or in-person experiences)! This year, of course, poses more questions and uncertainties than previous years due to the ongoing effect of COVID-19 on our personal lives, families, and surrounding communities. Suffice to say, we are all experiencing different levels of anxiety due to the uncertain nature of our lives at the moment. As a parent to young children, I have been reflecting on my own stress levels due to the current circumstances, and have been more intentional in tracking the shifts from “good” stress to “bad” stress and how these shifts impact my parenting.
Good stress is motivating and provides just enough arousal to move us towards our goals. Bad stress exceeds our window of tolerance, a term typically used to describe the zone of arousal in which a person is able to function most effectively. This can happen either because the stress is too overwhelming and going on for too long or our window of tolerance is too narrow or both issues may be at play simultaneously!
This pandemic has been such a destabilizing force for individuals, families, and communities for a myriad of social, political, and economic reasons. We humans like certainty and end-points at the end of the tunnel to help us make meaning out of situations and find solutions to move us forward. Whether your kids are learning from home or back at school, the ongoing uncertainty and ambiguous end point to everything COVID-19 related remains front and center in our minds.
When stress is front and center and begins to overstay its welcome, it has the capacity to wreak havoc on our bodies and minds. When we parent from a place of stress and/or fear, we become rigid, inflexible, and controlling to install some sense of safety into our systems for calming, most of which is happening out of our awareness. And this is where the work begins. It is too easy to direct our frustration towards our children who, let’s face it, are easy targets. They will rebel, test boundaries, make poor judgement calls, spill the milk we just bought, you get the idea! They have the ability to set up a minefield of triggers for us to step into setting off a pattern of reactivity that tends to be contagious. This generates a cycle of more impulsive reactivity in relation to each other which will inevitably spill out into their school lives and friend relationships. What to do?
Step 1: Respond rather than react
First, notice the initial tendency to look outwards for the reason for your stress. This is a reactive response to a trigger. This typically looks like blaming behaviors or having a level 10 reaction to an issue that maybe warranted a level 3 reaction? The act of looking for external reasons for our stress or anger or turmoil is actually a very natural reaction (it hurts to notice our own inadequacies), so try and offer yourself some reassurance during this process instead of judgement. It is through this process of slowing down enough to notice your reactivity that you will develop a more effective response to your trigger.
Step 2: The Mindful Pause
The awareness of responding vs. reacting leads us to step two, (which I think is the hardest part). Step two involves the “pause” we hear so much about in mindfulness training and actually is difficult to put into practice if you’re chronically stressed, or as some of my clients like to say, “revved up.” I like to insert some body awareness into this step which can look like following your breath during this pause or allowing yourself to feel the ground beneath your feet as you count your breaths. If you need more sensory input, this can look like running cold water over your hands or face or utilizing your favorite smell or music to shift your attention. The good news is that urges really do pass quickly when we open up the space to actually feel them and allow them to pass.
Step 3: Choose your Choice
Lastly, make a different choice, do something different, say something different, go somewhere different, you get the point! Victor Frankl famously said, “Between the stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” Give yourself the space to choose the most effective response in that moment and in that day with your child and your child’s response will mirror your own. It might (and probably will) take several tries (or more) to undo an ongoing pattern of unhealthy reactivity, but as I tell my kids, just keep trying. Each time you will learn something new. And this is how we will get through this unprecedented time, together.
We are here to get through this together and it is important to know that you do not have to cope through this alone. Click Here to find out more about the services we offer and request an appointment with one of our highly skilled therapists