Parenting is mental warfare, but in the middle of a pandemic it’s borderline impossible.
An article in the New York Times Wednesday got my attention because it hit on some topics many parents are working through these days.
The article, headlined “How to Handle Anxiety Over Back-to-School Decisions,” is written by Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, a perinatal psychiatrist.
My wife and I believe our kids need to be in school under safe conditions, but we also understand other parents feel differently. We believe the social and mental health consequences are legitimate and outweigh the fears for getting the virus so long as precautions are taken inside the school.
Excerpts from her article are below:
A combination of dread, panic and sheer exhaustion. This is what I see on the faces of patients (and friends and colleagues) when the conversation turns to the most pressing topic on every parent’s mind: what to do about school in the fall.
… As I see it, school stress for parents boils down to two main points: Deciding what to do, and then what to do with the uncomfortable feelings that could arise after that decision. As a psychiatrist, I’m admittedly not so helpful when it comes to the decision of whether or not to send your kids to in-classroom learning this fall. Where I can help is how to deal with the uncertainty and difficult feelings that accompany this process.
… Part of healthy emotional coping during a pandemic is to accept that you will feel conflicted about the decisions that are in front of you. The truth is that even your pediatrician can’t make guarantees or promises.
… Spending time considering how you will navigate the logistics of blended learning come fall is productive if you are engaged in problem solving and making concrete decisions. Ruminating about the social distancing precautions each family in your kid’s school is taking is less productive, for you don’t have any control there. Especially in times of uncertainty, it’s seductive to believe that if you worry about something for long enough, you can affect the outcome, but this is a fallacy.
Many of my patients are coming to me asking how they can get rid of that nagging feeling that they aren’t make the right choice for their kids. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but that’s not how feelings work. You can’t just turn them off.
To be a parent during a pandemic is to be worried and uncomfortable. But the good news is that it’s not the worry itself that’s the problem, it’s what you do with it. When those unproductive worries or overwhelming feelings arise, do you let them drag you down into doomscrolling or reassurance seeking? If you fall into these habits, practice getting space by doing daily exercises to create psychological distance.
One strategy for distancing is called defusion. The goal is to avoid being “hooked” by any one thought or feeling, and instead to view yourself as an observer of your mind. You can imagine that your thoughts are like leaves, floating down a stream, or like plates of sushi, moving along a conveyor belt. When your mind starts moving into the slippery slope of unproductive worries, try naming them: “There goes my mind again.” This highlights the difference between “having a thought” and “buying a thought.” When unproductive worries strike, you don’t have to go down that rabbit hole of trying to disprove them or reassure yourself, you can just let them be. It’s not bad feelings or thoughts that are the problem. It’s what we do with them that causes more suffering.
Instead of spending time chasing certainty and second-guessing your decisions, work on being self-compassionate; nurture a sense of good will toward yourself for facing this hard decision. Monitoring your self-talk is a key component of self-compassion. Are you holding yourself to an impossible standard by trying to predict the future? Are you blaming yourself for a situation that is completely out of your control? Let go of self-judgment and try developing some positive self-talk, such as: “I’m making the best choice for my family with the information I have” or “this decision works for us and our level of risk tolerance.”
… Psychological flexibility is a skill that is worth honing for parents in particular, experts say. One way to nurture flexibility is to reflect on other situations in your life when you’ve been faced with uncertainty and unexpected change. What helped you get through those times? What did you learn about yourself?
… Five years from now, … how do you want your children to remember this time? Put your energy into what’s working and what’s meaningful to you.
… When it comes to parenting, every risk feels too big. The global pandemic has only intensified what parents everywhere have long known: Parenting is an exercise in surrender. Developing these coping skills will not only help you to buoy yourself during these uncertain times, they’ll also serve you well into the future.