I can pinpoint the moment I hit the Pandemic Wall. It was Dr. Fauci’s late-January news conference that really did me in. It was full of hedging about the possibility of widespread vaccination by mid-summer leading (perhaps!) to a “degree of normality” by the fall. I was grateful for his honesty, but the careful qualifications quashed whatever hope I’d been cultivating. I was morose for days.
Friends and fellow parents have shared similar feelings of renewed despair. In some ways, nothing had really changed, but everything feels hard and dispiriting in a more visceral way. Maybe I had just finally accepted that this was not an interruption of normal life — the pandemic has become normal life and will stay that way for many more months. We thought we’d hit a wall in March 2020, then again in September, but then the holidays came and went, and it was January when it really crashed.
Under difficult and prolonged circumstances, we’re being asked to be our very best selves. For many of us, it’s not going well.
Experts on communication and problem-solving with kids have a different way of framing this. They point to the accumulation of chronic stress, which has made it harder for parents to cope with everything. “To state the obvious, the pandemic’s requiring, from all of us, much greater flexibility, frustration tolerance, and better problem-solving skills, so we're all a bit taxed by the demands on us,” said Stuart Ablon, who holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Ablon is an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and the founder and director of Think:Kids at Massachusetts General Hospital.
We thought we’d hit a wall in March of 2020, then again in September, but then the holidays came and went, and it was January when it really crashed.
Before we talk about what parents can do — and there are techniques that can give everyone emotional breathing room — it’s important to manage expectations around this time.
Ablon points out that because conditions during the pandemic are exceptionally challenging, kids — and parents — may not be able to access the coping strategies they so badly need. “The demands have risen greatly. And you have to bring your skills up to meet that, but sadly when demands get so high that it's chronically stressful, it's actually harder to access our skills,” he explains. “So the gap between skills and demands has grown, not just because demands have grown, but we're having a harder time accessing our skills because we're so chronically stressed.”
Step 1: Acknowledge the difficulty of the situation.
“The first thing that you can do is admit that the expectations are impossible, for parents and sometimes developmentally inappropriate for kids,” says Joanna Faber. She’s the author, with Julie King, of How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7.
The parents in King’s virtual parenting workshops have related the variety of the ways their kids are responding to the stress of the pandemic. There are potty-training regressions, extra whining, fights with siblings. Their attention spans are shorter, and they’re more easily frustrated. There’s also a lot of parental hand-wringing.
A lot of parents are feeling guilty, so it really helps them to know that this is in fact unreasonable and you can't do it all.
“A lot of parents are feeling guilty, so it really helps them to know that this is in fact unreasonable and you can't do it all,” King says. “I don't have a magic bullet that's going to make it all work, but, having said that, we have tools that can help kids who are having a hard time, that can help engage their cooperation.”
Step 2: Feel your feelings first, then work on a solution.
Faber and King’s advice, like Ablon’s, revolves around some common strategies. They all emphasize keeping your cool, setting boundaries with your kids, and validating their feelings while limiting their actions.
Ablon teaches “collaborative problem-solving” to parents, educators, and clinicians. It’s an approach to dealing with children’s challenging behavior that emphasizes avoiding power struggles, understanding kids’ perspectives, and engaging them to come up with mutually beneficial solutions to problems. He says that kids (and adults) need to practice handling frustration, being flexible, and solving problems.
But what does that look like in practice?
The process has three steps, Ablon says: Ask your child nonjudgmentally what their concern is. Raise your concern. Invite them to brainstorm solutions with you. “Believe it or not, typically developing 3-year-olds have all the skills to fully participate in that process of problem-solving with us parents,” says Ablon.
Step 3: Keep calm.
This problem-solving exercise needs to be done at a calm time — it won’t work in the middle of a meltdown. So why, if we know that responding empathetically and creatively to kids is so effective, is it still so hard to do? One reason, Ablon says, is that "dysregulation" is contagious: A frazzled kid makes their caregiver short-circuit as well. This is part of why this moment feels especially hard. Everyone is scraping the bottom of their barrels of patience and optimism, and then we feed on each other’s distress.
“When we get triggered, we lose our cool, we lose our ability to think straight,” says Ablon. “And we don't respond with the best skills.” Parents want to assert their power over a kid who’s been driving them crazy. If you think back to a child’s meltdown, you can usually piece together what happened, both to them and you.
I get flooded when my older child asks for something repeatedly, usually while I’m otherwise occupied. I can’t finish the first task or turn my attention to her question. Eventually, sometimes hours later, I’ll snap with the force of the 30 previous interruptions, instead of just dealing with the one in front of me.
To support their capacity for creative problem-solving with their children, Ablon says parents need to do their best to take care of themselves as well, recognizing that will look different during the pandemic.
“You’ve got to do whatever you can to manage stress levels and stay what we like to call ‘regulated,’” says Ablon. “It’s why you hear just about every expert during the pandemic talking about the need to take care of yourself whether it’s exercise, whether it’s getting outside, connecting still with family. Whatever it is that’s going to be calming and regulating for you so that you put yourself in a position to be able to handle these challenges as best you can.”
Step 4: Be creative.
It’s easier to not yell when you have two or three other strategies to fall back on. That’s where King and Faber’s repository of communication styles comes in, many of which involve a pretend or fantasy element. You may instinctively recoil from a Mary-Poppins-style approach, but all three experts say that it has its merits: You avoid a power struggle with your child and accomplish the task collaboratively.
“I always say to people, ‘Look, what kind of work do you want to put in?’” Ablon says. “Do you want to put the work into cleaning up after an awful meltdown and feeling terrible about the relationship? Or you want to put the hard work into doing something that’s going to build the relationship, build skills and ultimately pay off?”
“You’re going to get more cooperation” with these approaches, says Faber. You’re also teaching them a valuable skill, one that’s more important in the long term than pure obedience.
Step 5: Be prepared to pivot.
Routines and accommodations that were tenable for three or six months may not work anymore. Annoyingly, you’ll likely come to a workable solution for one problem, only to be presented with something new to deal with shortly thereafter. It’s like the dishes: You will wash them every day until you die. Fighting this fact only leads to more pain. Kids grow and change and you’ll need to come up with new solutions. The good news is that, as Ablon says, it gets easier with practice.
It’s taken years, but I’ve seen it myself with my kindergartener: She’ll come up with a pretend strategy or parrot back to me a slogan I’ve used with her. It’s a satisfying moment, seeing your kids use a tool to calm themselves or be empathetic with a friend. These skills will stay with them through adversities big and small.
Right now, it’s harder than ever to be the parent you’re hoping to be. The untenable situation families are in is likely to continue, and the only thing many of us can control is ourselves — the precautions we take, the attitudes we cultivate, and yes, the parenting tools we employ. We can’t fix it, but sometimes just acknowledging the difficulty can help you get through the day.
“My hat’s off to anyone raising young kids right now,” says Faber.