You’ve probably heard of the oxygen mask procedure on airplanes. During the safety demonstration on a flight, the video or flight attendant shows how adults who have a child in their care MUST put on their oxygen mask on first, before putting on the oxygen mask for their child. Why? Because if you focused on the child first, you’d run out of oxygen, pass out, and now neither of you are able to get your masks on.
The same applies to your own mental health! The coronavirus pandemic we are all living through separately, yet together, has truly shifted the dynamics of most families. Many families are now spending lots of time together in the same space, and tensions can run high. There are a lot of great resources out there for how parents can create structure (like creating schedules for activities, meals, etc) and fun for their kids in the home, but if a parent is having a difficult time taking care of their own mental health, the responsibility to care for their children’s emotional needs can seem monumental, daunting, and perhaps even draining at times.
In an effort to address the very real needs that parents have, here are some tips and suggestions for how a parent can put their mental health oxygen mask on first:
Sounds simple, right? You’d be surprised how much depends on your breathing. If you feel like your thoughts or emotions are starting to become chaotic, take a moment to fully focus only on your breathing. Notice how it feels to breathe air in, breathe air out. Really let it be the center of your attention. Keep doing it until you feel your body relax and your heart rate slow down. To take it one step further, imagine all of the emotional gunk inside of your body coming out with each breath, and then imagine breathing in a feeling of peace and rest with each breath.
2. Take a time out.
Someone is screaming, or not listening to you, or having a meltdown because you shut off the TV, and you’re pretty sure you’re about to have a meltdown yourself. It’s okay to say, “Mom/Dad needs a time out to cool down in another room.” Go to a space in your house where there will be no or few distractions, where you feel safe, close the door, breathe. If needed, remind yourself of 3 reasons why you love your kid, and then go back out there.
3. Acknowledge your feelings.
If part of the solution to helping kids with their feelings is to acknowledge them, the same can be said for you! If you have no one to speak to, just say it out loud, “I’m scared that/when _.” “I’m angry that/when_.” If you have a spouse or another adult in the house, make a rule that you are allowed to come up to them, tell them how you’re feeling, and the other person’s job is to just listen (no judging, no solutions!).
4. Tell your children how you feel, by saying “I feel” and then your observation.
You do not have to be the world’s most patient and unemotional robot with your kids. You can totally tell your children what emotional state you are in. But be careful to phrase it the right way – your children should not feel like your emotional state is their responsibility. There is a subtle difference between “You’re making me scared when you jump off the couch“ and “I see you jumping off the couch. I am scared that you will hurt yourself.“ Focus on “I feel” statements versus “you make me feel.”
5. Have conversations with friends/family who know how to support you.
Schedule a time, daily, that you can talk with a family member or a friend just to catch up, express your thoughts/emotions, and feel connected with another adult. You can mutually support each other with compassion and understanding.
6. Limit your screen time.
Be honest with yourself. How often are you checking your phone or computer just to check out emotionally or mentally? Or to check on the coronavirus updates? Or to read another article? Do you find yourself more emotionally reactive, less patient, after you have done so? Keeping updated is definitely important, so avoiding it altogether is not the solution. Schedule times of your day that you will allow yourself to check those updates or read another article. Make a plan for how you will emotionally “reset” afterwards.
7. Choose restful activities for the evenings, after kids are in bed.
Movies, TV, the internet, social media can all be ways to slow down for sure. But when we fall into patterns where we have done a lot of those things, and we don’t feel rested emotionally, then other ways to relax need to be incorporated into your evening. You want to go to bed at night feeling like you are filled with a feeling of peace and rest, ready to sleep and face the new day. Examples of activities that many find restful are reading books, taking baths, listening to an audiobook/radio drama/music with a spouse, looking through old family photos, praying, or playing a board game.
8. Be purposeful about your attitude at the start of your day.
Right after you wake up, it’s normal to groggily realize that you are waking up to your current reality and you have to accept it all over again. If your child comes in bursting with energy, ready to play, or whining and crying, check your thoughts. Are you thinking, “I can’t take this anymore,” or “I can’t believe he’s already like this!” Instead, take a moment to acknowledge what you’re feeling, and then find 1-3 things you can be grateful for in that moment. “Thank goodness we have a house with lots of toys in it.” “I’m grateful that I got some sleep.” It doesn’t need to be huge, but finding even a few things to be grateful for in that moment can shift your attitude, and it will likely shift your child’s attitude, too.
9. Practice self-compassion – forgive yourself.
Did you just blow up at your kids? Are you feeling guilty for all the screen time they’ve been getting? Acknowledge what you did, how it makes you feel, say, “I forgive myself,” and pick yourself back up. Children are often quick to forgive, too. Make amends with them (it models self-compassion, making apologies, and forgiveness!), with yourself, and move on. Each moment, each day, is another opportunity to try again. Don’t let one bad moment define the rest of the hour, the day, the week.
I hope these few tips and suggestions will be helpful to parents who are juggling so much in their homes right now. You are not alone in this struggle! Stay tuned for more posts with tips on how families can cope – and perhaps even thrive! – during this time.