Parents often tell me that they have no idea why their child or teen “melts down”, cries uncontrollably, and maybe even becomes aggressive or destructive. Some common statements I hear are “It came out of nowhere”, “She went from 0 to 60 in less than a minute”, or “He cries for no reason.” The reality is, however, that there usually is a reason (or reasons) and that often people appear to be at “0” when they are actually already in a heightened state. In fact, we are all affected, in some way or another, by the collective trauma of the Covid-19 pandemic as well as stressor of the socio-political upheavals, both of which are broadcast 24/7 throughout social media. It is likely that many of us have been experiencing more stress and distress than ever.
So what can parents do to help reduce the stress and distress for our children? We cannot make Covid go away so quickly, although hopefully things will continue to go in the right direction. We can do our part to help the vulnerable in our communities and work with school districts to help make it safe to return to schools. And those are great solutions in the long-term but how about right now? Several suggestions that work for children across all ages follow:
Mindful Awareness and Meditation: We often talk about mindfulness as a way to help us focus, relax, and be present in the moment. Parents can also use mindfulness to help us be aware of our thoughts and feelings so that we can be thoughtful about how we interact and react to our children. Once we are aware of these thoughts and feelings, we are more likely to be calm when we respond to our children. This is especially important when children are distressed.
Co-regulation: It is important to remember that our children do not live in a vacuum and that the way we react to our children can either exacerbate or ameliorate their stress levels and, in turn, their behaviors. We find that parents can ameliorate stress through co-regulation, meaning that when parents regulate their own emotions, they can then respond sensitively and calmly to their children. This leads to regulation of their children’s emotions. Simply put, when parents are calm, they can help their kids become calm.
Listening and talking with children: Just listening and talking with our kids can help them greatly. But it is hard for parents to talk to kids without problem-solving, correcting, or fixing. This takes practice and obviously depends on the situation. However, it can help to build trust and open communication no matter what the age of the child. This is especially helpful when we can listen to them non-judgmentally.
Catch them being good: Try hard to notice your kids’ positive behaviors such as helpfulness, calmness, independent problem solving, and any other areas that are the opposite of the negative behaviors we usually criticize. For example, if a child is often aggressive, catch them being gentle. If they have frequent meltdowns, notice when they are able to calm themselves and persevere. This can take a lot of practice but it will increase positive behaviors because you are paying attention to the positives.
Pick your battles: Manage your expectations of them (and yourselves). As much as you can, focus on changing/correcting only a couple of things at a time and prioritize the most important ones. I usually counsel parents to think of safety first, then go to behaviors that are most distressing, and so on. I talk to parents who say in the same breath “He is always hitting his sister and he doesn’t put his clothes away.” Both are important, but which one is the priority? Once he stops hitting his sister, then let’s focus on cleanliness.
Be compassionate to yourselves: This is a stressful time for us all, and it is important to remember that we all are doing our best. Managing your own expectations as parents is important generally but especially now. I have many discussions with parents about their kids’ academic performance. This can be part of the priority question above. Does your child have to get an A on that test at the expense of a 4-hour homework meltdown? Are we bad parents if our teenager is on Tik Tok all of Saturday connecting with friends? Every family has their own value system, and it is important to keep things in mind, and thinking about how we can keep our sanity while staying true to our values is the key.
Most of all, remember that we can get through this together, and you can work with your child’s therapist to think through these areas and help kids find ways to cope and have better mental health.
The suggestions above don’t replace treatment when needed, but are something that will help in any situation.