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Parenting Without Losing Your Damn Mind in a Pandemic

Parenting Without Losing Your Damn Mind in a Pandemic

COVID-19 has left parents trying to find the time, energy, and skills to teach their children amid working in essential jobs or trying to develop new work-from home habits. Scroll through your social media account and see a variety of often conflicting advice on how to achieve this balance. Parents are urged to continue with structure and make distance learning a priority. But keep scrolling and you’re reminded that your child’s mental health comes first and if distance learning doesn’t mesh with their developmental needs, you can abandon it. Similar recommendations abound for your child’s consumption of media, sugar, and fresh air.  Coupled with a push to make this time “productive” (whatever that means) parents are left paralyzed.

My intent here isn’t to provide more advice. Because the truth is, you know how to be the parent you want to be. A global pandemic, social distancing, and the breakdown of the societal structures that we have become habituated to has just clouded the picture. So many things have changed, but your commitment to your family has not.  I would like to help calm the storm of emotions swirling in your head each morning as you face another day trying to keep it all together. I would like to help stop your parental compass from spinning wildly.

I think parents feel better about parenting when they see that they aren’t alone. The shelter-in-place order in the region is crippling your ability to see parenting live. There are no more interactions with other parents at daycare, extracurriculars, or playdates. You cannot hear from coworkers. Parents have lost the time and ability to connect with friends or family members to validate and normalize their parental stress. What is available is social media; a space focused on self-selected content. Other parents are killing it when it comes to keeping it all together, or so your Facebook feed would have you believe.  And almost no one is putting their parenting challenges online right now.  The potential for shame feels too high and no one is willing to risk it at a moment when it feels like everyone’s parental identity is up for review. You try to curate the shiniest moments, failing to see that this furthers the echo chamber of GREAT PARENTING. I want parents to remember that what they are seeing on social media is often the best moment of the day. The rest of it could have been utter garbage but you are not cognizant to that because you cannot see it. There is no ability to see the real-time hard parenting moments: cajoling a child to get on the school bus, a power struggle temper tantrum in the cereal aisle, or an argument with a teenager.

It is reasonable to consider that parenting during a crisis requires some abandonment of the structures we were used to; we’re also being told that this will be a new way of life for a few months. At this point, the directions are consistent: stay home and wash your hands.  Continuing to parent as if in a crisis only amplifies the perception of crisis, contributes to family dysregulation, and denies the opportunity for fostering resiliency. Children (and adults) like having some kinds of consistency in times of stress and change. Reflect on how structure and routine happened for your family prior to the crisis. If you were a family that had dinner every night at 6, continue that. But if you were a family that was more flexible, attempting to insert precise scheduling may only increase stress and frustration among all who live with you.  Give yourself permission to decide what works for your family. Your well-being and mental health are worth the energy of parenting well and taking good care of yourself. Now is the time to talk with a spouse about how to parent well together; you are both entitled to daily time to nourish yourselves so that you have energy in the tank for others. This isn’t selfishness; this is deciding that the tools you bring to parenthood (your energy, patience, and nurturance) are worth protecting by taking good care of yourself.

Let’s start with reflecting on where you were six months ago (before the holidays that also makes parenting crazy stressful). It may feel like effort you don’t have energy for now, but it may well be the best thing to do for your long-term mental health.  What your parenting was like prior to the crisis is important to help you start to define how parenting will work now. Think about what makes you happiest as a parent. Consider times when others have complimented your parenting. Consider the parts of parenting that are hard. What are words you’d like to avoid associating with your parenting right now? It’s important to have an idea of both where you’d like to go and where you’d like to avoid. Settle on three words that describe what’s important to you. These will become your priorities to reflect on when parenting gets tough.


Note on the refrigerator
Note on the fridge

So how do you recalibrate that parental compass? First, write down your parenting goals and put it on the fridge and the bathroom mirror. Keep this in  the front of your brain so that as you make daily decisions, you are aware of your big picture goals. Acknowledge that stress, irritation, and anger often cause impulsive parenting. In these moments, reflect on your three words and decide if another course of action helps you get back into alignment with your priorities. Having three qualities to focus on is much easier for an overwhelmed brain. Three things allow you to be consistent in your parenting practice which is key to reducing stress. If both parents and children know generally what to expect, everyone can make room for times when things must change.

Next, think back over the last few weeks and examine the highs and lows. The last few weeks were survival mode as we adjusted to dramatically different information, sometimes on an hourly basis. Consider what worked and what did not. Perhaps family dinner helps connect family members, while forcing everyone to break from their activities for lunch created distraction and irritability. Accept that you may not eat every meal together but asking for one meal a day is a fair balance. The impromptu dance party that developed in the backyard one evening was joyful and is something you should include. Keep the patterns that children are used to involving cleaning up shared space, hygiene, or sleeping routines. Consider your family life like a balloon. Leave it untied so that you can inflate or deflate as necessary to accommodate the new normal we’re living in. But don’t put so much air in the balloon to warp it or manipulate it into a shape that you don’t recognize.

To close, I don’t have any recommendations regarding “self-care”. I think lots of articles are telling parents to make time for self-care and articles are written in response laughing at the idea of self-care. I think these articles reflect crisis parenting. While we needed to jettison our self-care in lieu of adjusting to the new normal in those first few weeks, it’s now time to try and fit those things back in in ways that make sense for you. Hold space for the ways that things won’t fit quite the same way because you aren’t in the same world. Give yourself permission to have new expectations because we are in a new world.  But 10 minutes a day of reading, a phone call with a friend, prayer, yoga, or sex were meaningful to your mental health and well-being before COVID-19 and should be included now. Now is the time to consider what doesn’t fit with your priorities and may need to be softened or let go of for the time being. Consider delegating some chores to older children. Do things that bring you joy and that are in alignment with your parenting goals.   Adjust expectations and hold space for the grief that we all feel as we adjust to a new normal. Be present to what is foundational: your commitment to parenting and to yourselves and your children. This isn’t changed by COVID-19.

Congratulations: Baltimore Businesswomen!

Congratulations: Baltimore Businesswomen!

Congratulations for Baltimore for being voted #1 in the Top 20 cities in America for Businesswomen! Our very own Heather M. Garner, LCSW-C was quoted in the article talking about how awesome Baltimore is for female business owners: “…[with] so many unique communities and groups here in Baltimore, networking is super easy, and word-of-mouth referrals are often the bread and butter of small businesses.”

Baltimore: Top 20 cities in America for Businesswomen!

Reconnect in the Chaos

Reconnect in the Chaos

I was catching up with one of my professional colleagues the other day after not having seen her in several weeks.  She recently started a new position and we were discussing work life balance when she remarked, “I often feel like my husband and I are two ships passing each other in the night.”  Between the demands of their careers, social obligations, and raising a child, she voiced feeling disconnected from her husband.  There was a sadness in her tone and a longing for connection and intimacy with the man with whom she has chosen to raise a child and share a life.  


I’ve seen this time and time again in my practice: life seems to get in the way of couples connecting with one another.  When I talk about this with couples in session, both parties often talk about how lonely and disengaged they feel from  the other.  In a world where technology has made it easier to connect with people across great distance, I have found that we have forgotten how to connect with those closest to us, namely, our spouses/partners.  Most of the couples I work with have no idea how to reestablish that connection and are often overwhelmed at the prospect; at a loss as to where to begin.  


Begin with something small, something easy, and something reasonable that you can do daily.  Like all other living, breathing things, that invisible-but-ever-present thing between you and your spouse/partner (your relationship), requires nurturing and routine, daily care. While it might feel awkward or uncomfortable at first, you will likely find that, with daily practice, your efforts to reconnect with your partner will feel more natural.


Here are my top-three quick suggestions for connecting with your spouse/partner within the chaos of everyday life.


The Six-Second Kiss

Think back to the last time you greeted your partner hello or goodbye.  Are you in the habit of giving him or her a quick peck on the cheek or lips as you rush out of the door to get to work or to get to the kitchen to start dinner?  This small behavior sends a very powerful message that something else in your life is more important than your relationship and your partner.  A six-second kiss promotes intimacy and attunement with your partner; as John Gottman likes to say, “a six-second kiss is a kiss with potential.”  While science has been unable to identify exactly why we kiss, we do know that kissing can lower our cortisol levels (the stress hormone); release oxytocin (the hormone associated with bonding and connection); and release dopamine (a ‘feel-good’ chemical in the brain).  A quick peck on the lips or cheek isn’t going to produce those positive effects!


Turn off your cellphone and be present

The Today Show recently did a segment on “Phubbing,” or “partner phone snubbing” which was based on a research study conducted by Baylor University. The researchers wanted to find out how often people are distracted by their cell phones when they are with their partners and whether this behavior had any effect on the their relationships.  Not surprisingly, almost half of the respondents reported feeling “phubbed” and almost a quarter said it negatively impacted the relationship with increased conflict and decreased relationship satisfaction.  Again, turning your attention away from your partner to your cellphone sends the message that something else is more important than your partner.  So, ditch the screen time and put in some face-to-face time with your partner      


Express Gratitude

Think about a typical day with your partner; how often do you say, “Thank you for _________?”  Everyone wants to feel appreciated and valued in their relationships.  I have yet to meet a couple where someone has said, “my partner appreciates me too much” or “I really wish my partner would notice fewer of the things I contribute to our relationship.” Renown couple’s therapists and researchers, Dr. John and Julie Gottman, have been researching marriages for decades.  They have found that relationships with the highest rates of satisfying, intact marriages have a high ratio of positive to negative interactions (5:1) and therefore, teach couples how to express and demonstrate gratitude.  Make a commitment to say to your partner, “thank you for _____” at least once a day.  


Make a commitment to yourself and to your relationship to implement my  three quick suggestions to re-connect with your partner for the next two weeks  and see what happens! While these suggestions won’t eliminate the chaos of  every day life, they may act as a lighthouse, so to speak, for your and your partner’s relationship as they continue to navigate toward a safe, more stable shore.


5 Ways to Support a Loved One Who’s In Therapy

5 Ways to Support a Loved One Who’s In Therapy

1. Be supportive

Whether it’s quitting smoking, eating healthier or exercising more often, anyone who has tried to make a lasting change knows that change can be difficult. It can be even more difficult when you don’t have people encouraging you or noticing your accomplishments. Isn’t it nice to hear “Wow! You look great!” after you’ve been trying to lose weight or have been hitting the gym regularly? Can you imagine how it would feel if no one noticed or seemed to care that your hard work was paying off? Your significant other will benefit from praise, encouragement and understanding as they make changes related to their mental health. Your loved one will also value empathy. Many of my clients have expressed frustration that their partners “don’t get it.” It’s okay, and even advantageous to acknowledge that you will never fully understand what your partner is going through…but that you can, however, fully appreciate it. Acknowledge your partner’s desire to improve him or herself, and to make some changes in his or her life. Clients have often told me that the first steps of seeking therapy –calling a therapist and attending the first appointment— are the hardest and most stressful parts of the process. Your significant other may need your encouragement to take those important first steps. Perhaps, offer to drive him or her to their first appointment and remain in the waiting room as moral support. Throughout your partner’s journey, ask your partner what you can do to support him or her on their journey of self-improvement.

2. Don’t expect things to change overnight

Often, people go to therapy expecting the therapist to have a magic wand and instantaneously “fix” him or her. Although I do have a magic princess wand a client once gifted me, sadly, it doesn’t work that kind of magic. Change must come from the person seeking therapy and real change takes time. It is likely that your partner’s unhealthy behaviors and/or thoughts began long ago and have been re-enforced over and over again, for years. Consequently, these engrained thoughts and behaviors are not going to be magically fixed with one or two visits to a therapist’s office. It is not uncommon for clients to be in therapy for six months to a year, if not longer. As your significant other makes changes, it is not unusual for him or her to have some setbacks. Try to practice patience as your loved one’s progress ebbs and flows and he or she tries to implement new skills learned from therapy sessions. Of particular importance, make time to celebrate the “small” changes and improvements that transpire throughout the process.

3. Educate yourself

An important part of therapy is learning about one’s mental health condition and about treatment options. Chances are, your loved one’s therapist will dedicate an entire session to providing this education. Offer to attend that session with your partner if he or she is agreeable. If you are unable attend, do your own research. There are many reputable websites (list of websites) available that provide education on mental health conditions. Some mental health agencies or community groups, such as NAMI (National Alliance of Mental Illness), provide family support groups to assist family members with understanding and coping with their loved one’s condition.

4. It’s not as simple as “mind over matter” or wanting something badly enough

Many of my clients say they would not wish the way they think or feel on their worst enemy. They report feeling out of control at times, and describe feeling tortured by their own minds; desperately trying to regain a sense of control. As unreasonable as it would be to suggest that a diabetic or cancer patient wish him or herself well, it is equally as illogical to propose for someone suffering from a mental health condition to do so. Current research indicates that mental health conditions possess a biological component, as well. Therefore, your loved one cannot simply wish him or herself healthy. Avoid statements like, “ Just do it;” “Everyone feels _______ sometimes;” “I know how you feel;” and “Stop thinking about it.” Instead, if your loved one appears to be struggling, encourage your loved one to use some of the skills he or she has learned in therapy or to call his or her therapist for support.

5. And most importantly,

Ask your partner what you can do to support him or her on the journey of empowerment, transformation and healing.