Parenting in the time of COVID-19

By Jaya Ramesh LMHCA.  Also published in Medium.

Parenting is hard enough by itself. Parenting during a pandemic can understandably bring about some concerns and challenges. As a mother of two boys and a mental health therapist I am concerned about the impacts of this time for all of us. If there is anything this pandemic should teach us, is that we are interconnected. As such, so are our nervous systems — we resonate and vibe with each other. It is important that as parents we take care of our nervous systems, so we are protecting those of our kids.

Anywhere we turn it seems we can’t escape the talk of COVID-19. Many of my sessions have begun by addressing the anxiety of living in this uncertainty. One of the questions that keeps coming up is:

As a parent, how can I manage my kid’s anxiety?

As a therapist who works with trauma, I work to heal our nervous systems that have been damaged and overwhelmed. Parenting is also about helping our little ones regulate their nervous systems. When we are secure, we can help them feel secure.

So to back up a little, here is a little 411 on how our nervous system works. When we are feeling good and safe, we are able to be social, curious, calm and connected. Our breathing is regulated and our heart rate is steady. When we feel danger and uncertainties, the amygdala (the mammalian part of our brain) kicks in, we shift into different modes; fight, flight, freeze or fawn. We might start to feel more irritated and argumentative. We might feel more obsessive and overly worried. Or we might mentally check out and become withdrawn. When all of this gets too much too soon, we might fall into collapse.

Turning to parenting, imagine yourself on your best day, when you have had restful sleep, eaten well, maybe even exercised. Now imagine your little one is now throwing a tantrum or your teenager is being unreasonable. Imagine your ability to respond from a place of resource and resiliency — at some point your child notices your calm and compassion, and they start to mirror you. You are able to lend your child your nervous system and your prefrontal cortex to help them soothe — what a gift!

Now, imagine this same scenario when you are running on empty. You have been cut off in traffic, you had a spat with your partner and your job is on the line. Of course, your nervous system is activated, you are in fight or flight mode and responding to your child to soothe them takes more effort. Your child will start to mirror you, but this time they are mirroring tension and stress.

During this time here are practical things all of us can do that honors the interconnected nature of this virus and honors what we all need to protect our nervous systems so that we may continue to parent gracefully under fire.

  1. Practice a media diet. Yes, information is always ever-present. It does not mean it needs to be consumed. If you as the parent are constantly consuming information about COVID, your nervous system is activated, thereby passing on activation to your children. Encourage your teens to also limit consumption. Maybe go back to the days when we only got news at certain times.

  2. Explore the great outdoors. This is a great time to explore your neighborhood. As long as you are practicing physical distancing being outside can be very soothing to the nervous system. Get your kids out for a hike, or to sit outside by a lake and look out at the ducks.

  3. Connect, connect, connect. We can’t meet in person but this is the time to dust off the old dialing skills and encourage connection with family and friends through phone and video chat.

  4. Create. Making anything, whether rock art, cookies or haikus is all supportive of moving us from an activated state to a more regulated state.

  5. Hug our kids! One of the best ways to soothe our nervous system is to through touch. Whether this is through hugs, gentle rubs on the back, massages or foot rubs, all of these when done with consent can be super supportive of healing

  6. Make a plan together. Talk to your kids in an age-appropriate way about what is happening and how you as a family are responding. This is a great time to talk about your values as a family, and help them see that even though this is a huge adjustment, they can be part of their family team to get through it together.

  7. Reach out. When it gets really overwhelming and you are not able to cope, it is okay to talk to a trusted professional. Many therapists have moved online, and most insurances cover video therapy. It can help to find someone to process everything. And modeling this for our children is healthy.

  8. Move. Another important way to let our nervous systems know we are ok is to discharge nervous energy like deer do after being chased by a lion. So have a dance party, shake it out or go for a run.

The most important thing we can model for our kids is how we handle this crisis. We can model anxiety and panic, disregard for the vulnerable, and frustration at kids constantly under foot. Or, we can model healthy caution and respect for the power of this virus, and we can model the responsibility of those who are able-bodied and privileged to those who are not. We can model that we might not be in control of everything, but we as a family can choose to respond with intentionality and teamwork. As parents, the choice and responsibility is ours.

Jaya Ramesh, LMHCA CCTP is a mental health therapist at Catalyst Counseling, in Woodinville, WA.

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