Clinician's Quandary

Helping Parents in Stressful Times

Clinicians Weigh in on Pandemic Parenting

Psychotherapy Networker
Helping Parents in Stressful Times

Quandary: A therapist had been working with a parent on implementing a kinder, gentler style of interaction with her boisterous kids for over a year. But the pandemic is creating so much stress and so little breathing room in her family that she’s reverted to yelling and doling out harsh punishments. She’s heartbroken but also convinced she can’t do better right now. What are some practical tips and guidance to offer?


1) Take Your Foot Off the Gas

I can certainly relate to this Quandary. As the mother of a talkative, energetic, third grader with both mild autism and ADHD, his high-energy days are my low-energy ones. Since my husband works outside the home, it’s hard to find time where I can work uninterrupted. Sometimes, I feel like I’m losing control. A feeling of helplessness washes over me whenever I can’t get my own work done. Meanwhile, it’s been tough to help my son get all his work done, and his assignments are often late. A feeling of not being able to get enough done in every part of my life prevails.

Still, I do my best. And there’s an upside: I now often find myself better able to relate to clients who are working mothers. They share their stories with me about struggling with their kids’ online schooling. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear my son say “Mom. Mom. Mom!” over and over again, so I can empathize with all those moms who are thinking right now, If I hear “mom” one more time, I’m going to lose it.

So how do we help parents manage this stress without screaming and harsh parenting? There are a few helpful strategies I’m trying to master myself that I think could help this mom as well.

First, I’d recommend she let go of deadlines for homework. Personally, I’ve let my child’s teachers know that while we’re doing the best we can, not all deadlines are going to be realistic. I encourage other moms to do set similar boundaries. After all, being a de facto teacher’s aide isn’t a job we signed up for, nor is this is our homework. If your child needs homework help, do the best you can when you can. And it if can’t all get done within a certain timeframe because you’re busy with your own work, let it go. It’s more important to get through the day without yelling at your child than it is to make sure he or she gets homework turned in on time.

Second, I’d recommend to this mom that she try to spend some quality time with her children each day. If our kids don’t get tender loving care from us, they’re more likely to have behavior problems—and those take more time to deal with (and are a lot less fun) than dancing in the living room or playing a game of Trouble or Uno, even if it’s for the 15th time this week. I let my child have 20 to 30 minutes each day where he gets to choose an activity for us to do together, whether it’s a game, going for a walk, or baking something together.

Since children react more when a parent seems out of control, learning to not yell and lecture is key. When parents are calm and in control, children tend to follow rules and directives better. In my own work, I teach parents to practice the ABC method from play therapy to set limits: Acknowledge the child’s feelings, set Boundaries by saying “If you choose to do this, then you’re choosing this consequence,” and describe the Consequence and follow through if misbehavior continues.

Still, it’s important to cut our children some slack. Right now, it’s easy for kids to get behind in school. It’s understandable that they might sometimes run around the house like the Energizer bunny. Right now, nothing is normal and your child knows it. They likely miss school and friends and going to the store without a mask on. Sometimes, we just need to take a deep breath and allow our children to be silly without correction.

Last, I’d advise that if this mom continues to have trouble with the kids, she gets some help. It could be from a psychologist who works with parents and children, or even a close friend who watches the kids for an hour so she can run an errand by herself or fit in some exercise. Moms need a little time without hearing “Mom! Mom! Mom!” constantly.

These strange times are but one season of our life, a season where we can practice love, patience, and new ways of dealing with our anger and helplessness. Parenting during the pandemic hasn’t been easy. But now’s the time for us to learn to let go of some of the deadlines, burdens, and expectations we set for ourselves.

Stephanie Weiland Knarr, PhD, LCMFT
Fulton, MD


2) Expect the Unexpected

Pandemic stress can bring parents to their wits’ end, frazzling even the calmest and most centered among us. Experiencing grief about lost opportunities, financial problems, and social isolation is the norm, as is feeling fear and uncertainty about the future. Parenting and child development—messy in the best of times—are made even messier by pandemic stressors, especially remote learning, working, and cabin fever.

A mantra for acceptance and change that I like to recommend to parents I work with goes like this: I am doing the best I can, given my circumstances, and I want to do little bit better. Yes, parents who yell and overpunish want to change their habits. But most importantly, they first need to practice self-acceptance.

I’ve learned that routines are a parent’s best friend. They reduce parent-child conflict because they take advantage of the “automatic pilot” function of the lower brain. Children who have predictable schedules with duties interspersed with fun activities cooperate far more than when expectations are negotiable and random.

That said, parents like this particular client need to be ready for routines to be scuttled by meltdowns and derails. A basic tenet from the family system field is that optimal family functioning involves both stability and flexibility. Instead of expecting family bliss and perfect compliance with a well-designed routine, I’d help this mother learn to expect havoc—whether it’s the kids fighting with one another, cheating on screen limits, or throwing screaming fits about having to do remote learning—and be ready to deal with it.

Children, like adults, are emotional human beings, and outbursts are inevitable. Since emotions are contagious, child distress begets parental distress, and vice versa. I’d let this mother know that her yelling and other angry reactions are natural responses to her children’s misbehavior. But I’d add that when parents are triggered by this misbehavior, their neural circuits are hijacked by their fight-or-flight center, and common misbehavior can be misperceived as an emergency.

Firefighters and medical workers have protocols for handling emergencies, and so can parents! We can’t make good decisions under the influence of extreme emotions. When our bodies are flooded with cortisol during stressful situations, the thinking part of our brains go offline. No wonder we can act so beastly.

Therefore, my primary goal with this mother would be to help her learn to calm herself in stressful situations. In my own work with parents, I use the C.A.L.M. acronym/protocol. Cool down, breathe deeply, and reduce your heart rate; Access your thinking brain by deliberating options for problem-solving; Listen and validate your child’s feelings; and Map and execute an effective plan.

Children learn best from modeling, praise, and healthy routines in the context of a positive and secure parent-child attachment. Discipline is about learning, so most of the time children benefit from a parent’s wise problem-solving, warm hugs, and encouragement. But parents can only pull this off with copious amounts of self-care, so that they’re capable of the thoughtful approaches required by the challenges of pandemic parenting.

Laura Kastner, PhD
Seattle, WA



3) Cultivate (and Articulate) Self-Care

Working on becoming a more gentle, positive parent isn’t easy in the best of circumstances, let alone during a pandemic! My heart goes out to this mother, who’s working so hard to be the best parent she can be.

In working with her, I’d first address the importance of showing herself grace and compassion during this difficult time. Living through so many unknowns and such uncertainty is stressful for all parents, and it’s important that this mom knows she’s not alone. We all make mistakes! Helping her acknowledge her feelings as real and valid, and determining what needs are going unmet, is often a good place to begin. We can become so focused on caring for everyone else and doing whatever’s needed to just get through the day that sometimes our own needs fall by the wayside. Helping this mom come up with a plan for self-care, including one that can be used in the heat of the moment, could be very empowering.

It’s also useful for parents to share this plan with their children, while taking responsibility for any negative behavior on their part. This might sound something like, “I know I’ve been yelling a lot lately, and I want to apologize. It doesn’t feel good to me, and I know it doesn’t feel good to you either. It’s not respectful. From now on, I’m going to work on managing my anger. When I notice I’m getting upset, I’m going to practice taking deep breaths, like this. Or, I’ll try walking away or stepping outside for some air. When I do that, I want you to know that I love you very much and care about our relationship.”

Once we’re able to recognize and acknowledge our own needs, it becomes easier to get curious about our children’s feelings and needs. In family therapist Jane Nelson’s Positive Discipline, it’s said that all behavior is communication. When young children act out, it’s typically their way of letting us know they need our help, in the only way they know how to show it. When we can slow down, pause, and empathize with our child’s experience, we help them feel seen and heard. This builds trust and connection. When children feel seen, heard, and connected, they have much less of a need to misbehave.

Debbie Zeichner, LCSW
San Diego, CA



4) Practice Altruism and Gratitude

Quarantining with active and boisterous children of all ages can tax the patience of even the most caring and skillful parent. We’ve all had those moments when we realize with horror that the-out of-control and screaming family member is us. Here are some tips I’d recommend to this mother for navigating the challenges of quarantine and being a kinder, gentler parent.

First, I’d let her know that predictability and sameness create security and emotional safety. I’d advise that she maintain a predictable flow to her day that closely aligns with her schedule during more normal times. The temptation is to let the kids sleep in and stay up late. Before you know it, everyone is out of sync and out of sorts.

Second, I’d recommend that this mother take regular, rhythmic breaks throughout the day. Rhythm calms the central nervous system. Some options could be for her to go for a walk, ride a bike, jump rope, dance, sing, or play an instrument. Both kids and parents need to do this. The key is that it must be an activity you enjoy.

Third, I’d be sure to tell her not to waste this opportunity to strengthen connections with her children. This could mean eating dinner together, playing board games or doing a jigsaw puzzle, or learning a new craft. The goal is to emerge on the other side of this challenge more strongly connected as a family. I’d ask this mother to constantly ask herself: Are my actions and words connecting or disconnecting?

I’d also advise that she look for opportunities for her family to engage in altruistic endeavors. They could help pass out groceries at a food pantry, check up on elderly neighbors, or run errands for those at high risk. There’s nothing more cathartic in tough times than focusing on the needs of others.

For some children, making the shift to learning at home and seeing mom and dad in the role of teacher can be very challenging. I’d want to make sure this mother doesn’t put too much pressure on herself to be a replacement teacher, or on her children to be model students. Skills can always be recovered later. We don’t want to let homeschooling destroy the relationship we have with our children. Relationships first. The rest will come.

Last, I’d advise that this mom focus on gratitude. I’d recommend she teach her children to be thankful for what they have at this moment, rather than focus on what’s been taken away or missed. Maybe they can make a regular habit of expressing gratitude around the dinner table, or make it a part of their bedtime ritual.

Barbara Sorrels, EdD
Tulsa, OK



5) Look for the Silver Lining

In this therapist’s position, I’d view the circumstance this mother is in as an opportunity. First, I’d remind her of the progress she made over the past year, letting her know that although she’s reverted to old habits, she hasn’t lost her new skills. I’d try to normalize her experience by explaining that when we encounter new, uncertain, or chaotic situations, the hippocampus sends us a signal warning of potential danger, which involuntarily brings back old, familiar ways of coping.

Next, we’d work on some self-regulating exercises to lower her irritation and stress levels, like simply inhaling deeply into the diaphragm through the nose, and then exhaling through the mouth. This lowers our body’s cortisol levels and increases oxytocin production. Then, I’d suggest she include her children in our next virtual session, giving them an opportunity to see how their mother is making an effort to improve how she deals with them. It would also give the kids an outlet to air their grievances with mom, and a space where they can come up with creative solutions together.

At the same time, I’d help this mother set boundaries while fostering connection. For instance, mom can tell the kids that she’ll mostly be doing her therapy session without them but brainstorm a fun family activity for later, like painting or cooking. Ideally, I’d like to play a role in one of these activities—virtually, of course—in order to guide this mother and be a witness to her process. This communicates to the kids and mom alike that this activity is important. Since it sounds like this household can be chaotic, the therapist becomes a regulating, companionate figure.

In times of uncertainty, it’s more important than ever to create a schedule. It gives us structure, helps us stay calm, and gives things to look forward to. I sometimes tell my clients: when life gives you lemons, don’t just make lemonade. Grab some extra ingredients and make limoncello!

Hannah Sherebrin, art therapist