I hear people are commenting on their parenting skills: how unprepared for virtual schooling they feel, the stress of being together 24/7, coping with the realities of systemic inequality, and feeling generally unprepared for the big emotions that every one of every age is experiencing. These feelings can lead to parents feeling like they are somehow failing their children, though they are doing the best they can in the moment.
Psychological research and theory indicate that the only way to be a "perfect" parent is to make mistakes and fail sometime. If you are not sometimes out of sync with you child your parenting does not reflect the world, and this can make it harder for kids to know how to respond to their strong emotions when the world does not give them what they want or need. There is a whole theory in psychology devoted to this idea (Object Relations). While this theory is quite nuanced, the basic idea for when parent failure happens is:
For example, if you are mad because your child did something irritating or embarrassing and you lash out at them and tell them they can never, ever have candy again in their life, you get the opportunity to not only let the child know later that you made a mistake but also WHY you made the mistake.
To achieve those 2 ideas, there are 4 Steps to take when you got out of sync and made a mistake.
Step 1: Notice you made a mistake
Step 2: Admit your mistake and apologize
Step 3: Shift your reaction to a response
Step 4: Share your love
As a recap, here are the steps for perfectly imperfect parenting (to facilitate emotional growth and decreased reactivity in your child):
If the first time you try this approach and it doesn’t work the way you envisioned it in your mind, don’t worry; you have to find the way that works for both you and your child’s temperament. If you child throws your explanation back at you later, again, that is part of this adjustment and keeping calm is important for ongoing clear communication. You may want to have a trusted friend or partner to talk to as you make adjustments and your child tells you what they “really” think of you (this can be a reaction to change – which can hard for everyone). Keep in mind that your child loves you no matter what, even when they don’t like what you are doing.
Children’s minds are different than adult minds. While they sometimes know how to say the thing that can hurt the most, they don’t understand what it means to you. By teaching your child that their actions impact you and your actions impact them, you are building empathy in your child and helping them learn to navigate this world in a way that can promote life success.
If you feel like you need help with your child who is shutting you out, having major tantrums, or experimenting with dangerous things, therapy can help. Sometimes parents and children need help. Children (and parents) often need help during times of transition (new school, new city, divorce, marriage, new partner), times of loss (death, moving away, disaster), and times of high stress (COVID-19 SIP, lack of money/job, threat of loss of housing, applying to or participating in very competitive schools/activities, interpersonal violence/DV, substance dependence). Sometimes it can be difficult to ask for help, but it can be worth it. Therapy is a confidential and privileged relationship that can help provide you and your child with tools to navigate the difficulties you are facing to achieve growth, improved mental health, and success.
Sometimes we feel the need to share how we feel and even revel in our emotions. Other times, we keep them boxed up and put away as much as possible. Both experiences have positive and negative impacts on us and our relationships. Right now, people are experiencing a lot of emotions. Between the threat of COVID-19, being confined and away from people due to sheltering in place, loss of jobs and financial insecurity, and systemic inequality, emotions are up. We are in the middle of the equivalent of an emotional tropical storm and the currents are strong and sometimes can feel like riptides.
So, what do we do? Do we go into the water or not? Do we wade or swim or stay as far up the shore as possible? There is no right answer here. If we choose to go into the emotional waters, we may experience a “washing machine” moment or feel pulled out into deep and dangerous water. Being a strong emotional swimmer would be a must in such conditions or having someone nearby watching as a lifeguard. Yet, even strong swimmers tend to avoid swimming when a hurricane is raging. Like learning to swim, learning to swim in emotions is easier in calm water, or even a pool. Therapy can be a pool for practice so that one can get more ready for the open water of life.
Maybe it feels like now isn’t the time for lots of emotional processing. Maybe it is time to stay on shore. If this is true for you, recognizing that this does not remove emotional processing is important. Waves can be sneaky and still drench you and you can still find yourself in a surprise emotional moment. In fact, this is when we are most surprised by our emotions. For example, one moment you are fine, and the next you are crying or raging because your toothpaste has run out. These surprise emotional waves can be confusing, because they don’t seem in proportion to the experience and are often not really connected to what is going on in the moment. These are the “straw that broke the camel’s back” moments. The straw is small, the other items large.
When an emotional wave hits and it is a surprise, what can you do? Here are eight steps for making these surprise moments less damaging for you and those around you:
Emotions can become overwhelming. We are able to step away from them because sometimes that is the adaptive action to take. Sometimes it is not. Only you know what is best for you. If you decide to go swimming in the swift emotional currents, take a buddy or have a lifeguard nearby. This is a time of emotional hurricanes and we need to be kind to one another. If you experience someone else’s wave, try to assume the best of that person. Hopefully when you have your wave of emotions, that person will do the same in return.
Feeling low can be hard on everyone, especially you. You may not feel like you have “Major Depression” (a diagnosable depression), but you feel bad – at least intermittently and maybe all of the time. Emotions, particularly ones like sadness, anger, fear, and worry, can come in waves. It can be like being on a beach where one moment you are fine and dry and the next you are soaked in an emotional wave. You may find yourself pulling away from people (withdrawing), getting angry more easily, not wanting to do anything because it just doesn’t feel good (anhedonia), eating less or more, and sleeping more or less or perhaps at times that are not convenient to your responsibilities (e.g. going to bed at 2 am when you have work or child demands in the morning). When really big waves hit, it might even feel like none of this is worth it and being gone wouldn’t be so bad (passive suicidal ideation) – or maybe it feels really bad and you want to die.
If you are considering suicide, please reach out to someone (Call 911 for immediate support or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255).
So, what do you DO? How can you get out of this often dark feeling place? Poems are written about this state and the straps on those boots are not pulling you up right now, so self-help is not as effective as it once was. You might feel like you are a burden to your friends or like you don’t have friends anymore and it can be hard to turn to people. Below are some steps that may help you climb back out of this place:
1. Recognize that your thoughts, feelings, and actions are colored by your mood. If you feel bad, then even good things may not seem as good to you as they would when you were in a good mood and you respond accordingly.
2. Knowing this, look at your thoughts, are they blaming or overly negative? There might be a mismatch with reality and what you are seeing as your reality. In the table below you can see how your thoughts can impact your response to an event.
3. If your thoughts tend towards negative, when you find yourself considering a response to a situation, look for alternative interpretations of the event and see if you could respond differently (an outside perspective, like a therapist can be helpful when this is difficult).
4. Aim to respond to the balanced thought rather than the negative thought. When that doesn’t happen, forgive yourself – remember practice leads to improvement.
5. Look at the being and doing options here. These steps can help with the next part, which are some actions aimed to reduce your minor depression symptoms.
6. Connect with your community, no matter the size.
Once you are armed with these strategies, when those waves of emotion come rolling in, you have a few new tools to help yourself dry off more quickly. It doesn’t mean that you won’t get wet or feel down. These strategies are a metaphorical towel for when those waves happen. If your towel feels like it is frequently overpowered by the waves, consider therapy.
If you are thinking about suicide, please reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a toll-free number that connects you to a certified crisis center near you. 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-273-8255
Maybe you don’t feel so great but are able to put on a “happy face” and get your jobs done. You perhaps are “OK” but you have a lot of unpleasant feelings (e.g., fear, worry, anger, embarrassment, sadness, depression, etc.). How can your change that experience to be better – at least better than OK. Really, it depends on what works best for you today. Sometimes people need to do (e.g. engage in an activity that has been proven to increase happiness) and other times people need to be (e.g. live in the moment with compassion and acceptance). Below are some different specific tasks and also some big picture ideas to support you.
If you are a person looking for something to do, some techniques from Positive Psychology may be helpful. There are many “happiness exercises” which are designed to increase your happiness and thus energy. Here are a few:
There are many more of these exercises on the Internet and there is even an app that has been created by the US Department of Veteran Affairs to help with coping with COVID-19 stress.
If you are a person into being, Buddhist Psychology provides other approaches to move towards improving your mood. Based off the work of Daya (2000), seven core Buddhist principles that you can apply to your life to move towards a more positive experience of the world are:
One does not need to commit to one path or the other. It is okay to switch between doing and being. As you notice more of the positives in your life and feel content with where you are, you may find you have more energy and a more positive experience of your world.
Daya, R. (2000). Buddhist psychology, a theory of change processes: Implications for counsellors. International Journal for the
Advancement of Counselling, 22(4), 257-271. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.library.nyu.edu/10.1023/A:1005648127301
During this time of “shelter in place” as an adult you may find that you are having a harder time keeping your emotions under control. You are not alone in this experience; stress often leads to emotional dysregulation taking the form of a tantrum because one’s coping strategies are being overwhelmed. Here’s why:
This is my favorite metaphor for how emotional regulation and coping happens, which I first heard from Stephen Finn, Ph.D.:
If you think of your emotional capacity as a teacup and your emotional support people as the saucer, you are born with a thimble sized teacup and (hopefully) have a really big saucer of caregivers to help you as your thimble will get full very fast and spill over into your saucer. As you grow and learn more coping strategies, your cup size grows, so it spills over into your saucer less often.
Many of us adults are facing stressors due to COVID-19 that are overwhelming our coping strategies leading to our cups spilling over. Our teacup is not yet big enough for what we are dealing with, so we are growing it. Recovering from tantrums grows your teacup.
If you are experiencing tantrums, you need to:
Your emotional capacity is growing during this time. Growth can be painful and does not happen quickly. You may be in a home with a lot of other people who are growing too. Keep being each other’s saucers!
Everyone is working through this pandemic experience in their own way. If you or your child are feeling isolated, sad, anxious, or depressed, you are not alone. Not being able to physically interact with people can bring up all of these feelings. Therapy can be helpful with this experience.
In addition to therapy, below are some ways to combat these feelings:
Children may need help to feel connected to their peers whom they typically see effortlessly on a daily basis. You can help children connect through routines: