A Professional's Perspective: Parenting through COVID-19
Emily Pagone is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC), National Certified Counselor (NCC), and is currently completing advanced training and certification in Perinatal Mental Health (PMH-C, pending). She practices in the Chicago area.
This year has brought so much turmoil, stress, grief, overwhelm, isolation, frustration, confusion, and just about every other negative emotion and experience possible. Every human being has been affected by the impact of COVID-19. Parents have had to figure out how to care for their children while simultaneously educating them and often working full-time jobs, with no breaks, pauses, or exhales in sight.
How does anyone survive through this extreme, chronic level of burn-out? Barely surviving; feeling like drowning, and everyone is struggling. We are all in this together. As a parent and mental health professional that provides support to parents and families, I have seen and experienced the struggle on all ends. I want to offer you a life raft to keep you from drowning. Throw out the copious lists of parental “dos and don’ts;” there is one key strategy to focus on, and the answer lies within yourself.
With this chronic level of burn-out prevalent across the nation and world, it is seemingly impossible to find a way to take a break from it; because, it is truly inescapable. We are constantly surrounded by the continuous barrage of media, stress of limited trips outside the home, disappointment from cancelled plans, pressures of work and childcare responsibilities, and much more. Some recent articles have discussed how all of the pressures and responsibilities have been the equivalent of 2-3 full time jobs, depending on one’s unique circumstances. A recent New York Times article was entitled, “In the Covid-19 Economy, You Can Have a Kid or a Job. You Can’t Have Both.”
Parents must find a way to help themselves cope individually, so they are best able to help guide, model, and support their children and family as a whole. Parental self-regulation is a key factor to creating calm through chaos, and allowing for positive parenting practices, which has been found to be the case anecdotally and empirically (Geeraerts, et. al., 2020).
A recent study that was published a few days ago discusses the importance of parental self-regulation, (Geeraerts, et. al., 2020). The researchers studied 62 toddler-parent duos (the parents were mostly mothers - 83%), and they found that negative parenting practices (reactive parenting) occurred when parental self-regulation was low and household chaos was elevated. Put more simply, the researchers found that low parental self-regulation predicated more reactive negative parenting practices in moderately chaotic households. And even more powerfully, the researchers also explained that their findings suggested that parents with low self-regulation abilities would benefit from a home that is tidy, calm, and inclusive of routines to help maintain order in chaotic household moments, especially when the toddler is noncompliant.
It is not my goal to elicit parental guilt by mentioning this study (we are all imperfectly human), but to highlight what we can do to best help ourselves, our children, and the family as a whole during this continued chaotic time in our lives. Parent self-regulation is the number one parenting skill to remember, no matter the age of the child.
What is self-regulation? It is the ability to automatically or deliberately modulate affect, behavior, and cognition, (Geeraerts, et. al., 2020), or the ability to manage emotions and behaviors in accordance with the demands of the situation. According to The Child Mind Institute, self-regulation includes being able to “resist overly-emotional reactions to upsetting stimuli, to calm yourself down when you get upset, to adjust to a change in expectations, and to handle frustration without an outburst”. In order to attain self-regulation, one must learn how to engage in effortful control and executive functioning skills. Overall, parents must create inner calm and peace for themselves which in turn becomes a positive energy that is dispersed among family members and loved ones around them. The next question is: how in the world do we create inner peace and calm for ourselves during a pandemic?
The above study reminds us parents that we have to find a way to dig in deep and figure out effective strategies to help us decompress, and ultimately self-regulate individually and co-regulate together with our child(ren) and families. There are some recommended strategies to help achieve self-regulation when encountered with a triggering moment: deep breathing (various techniques), counting, visualization, pausing, reciting affirmations verbally or mentally, change of scenery/fresh air.
When a parent is able to engage in a self-soothing strategy, children are able to vicariously learn by observing and absorbing those self-regulation skills; this is a powerful, teachable moment and opportunity for families to deepen their bond and learn how to co-regulate. Knowing how to utilize self-soothing strategies enables one to self-regulate and decrease feelings of overwhelm; this is ultimately is a “hack” to minimize the intense feelings of chaos in one’s mind and reaction to stimuli in the environment.
Remember, when the children are having screaming tantrums, the unfolded laundry is glaring at you in the eye, and you are needing to log-in to virtual meetings for work and for e-learning, the best thing you can do in that moment is to self-soothe towards the goal of self-regulation. I empower you, and everyone (not just parents), to identify what your self-soothing skills are ahead of time so you can practice them whenever that rising feeling of tension or overwhelm begins. Furthermore, I also empower you to take a moment to practice those skills with your littles around you. Teaching yourself how to self-regulate is the best gift you can give yourself, your littles, and family; not only during this chaotic year, but it is a gift that will serve everyone well throughout one’s lifetime.
Emily Pagone is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC), National Certified Counselor (NCC), and is currently completing advanced training and certification in Perinatal Mental Health (PMH-C, pending). She obtained her Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from Benedictine University and undergraduate Psychology degree at the University of Kansas. She has been providing counseling to individuals, couples, families, parents, and children/adolescents/teens for nearly 8 years. She also serves as an adjunct psychology instructor at Benedictine University, and staff counselor at The Well Resource Center, a non-for-profit, in Chicago. She recently began her private practice. You can find her at https://www.emilypagonelcpc.com or on Instagram by clicking here.
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