1. Allow Your Inner Experience
Most of us have lost count of how many different feelings we experience in a day, how many disappointments we have had over canceled events, and how much grief we have felt for all the rapid losses and changes. Can you give yourself space and permission to feel the ever-changing waves of emotion? We know from experience and research that “What we resist persists,” so when you stop resisting your emotions and allow yourself to feel how you feel, you may move through challenges more quickly and with greater ease. When you fight what you are feeling, it builds up and often gets expressed in unhealthy ways. You can’t escape yourself—so why not try embracing yourself instead?
2. Practice Acceptance
Isn’t this one just the hardest to do?! There are so many things happening that we and our kids do not like, but no matter how much we wish things were different, they simply are not. Life is actually a lot like the weather: We have no control over whether it’s raining or the sun is shining. How we feel about each of those weather patterns depends on the meaning we give to it. The weather itself isn’t “good” or “bad.” For example, inches of snowfall may be either welcomed if you are on a ski trip and looking for fresh powder to sail down the mountain side, or it may be lamented over if you need to drive on the roads and your car is now stuck in the snow.
There is no doubt that the repercussions from this pandemic are causing us pain, but our resistance to accepting things as they are adds another layer of discomfort, causing us to suffer. When we can meet our reality as it is, that is the moment options become available to us.
3. Be Flexible
If you are anything like me you probably like to have some semblance of control of your life. Don’t we all? One thing is for sure right now: Just when we settle into a routine, something changes. Allowing yourself more flexibility in your own self and within the family will invite a greater sense of ease right now. I know that many of us worry about the lasting effects this time will have on our kids and honestly, we don’t know yet. But as a psychologist who has worked with children, teens, and families for the last 20-plus years, I can tell you this. Your kids will be okay.
Just when we settle into a routine, something changes. Allowing yourself more flexibility in your own self and within the family will invite a greater sense of ease right now.
They will remember the special moments like staying up too late to watch a family movie, an extra ice cream scoop, long bike rides, and even binge-watching shows or getting to play video games for endless hours. They will also remember the energy of the house and how it felt because, like anything else, our emotions are contagious. This doesn’t mean you throw all rules out the window—structure and containment are also important, but this is a time when we all need a little extra connection, comfort, and flexibility.
4. Be Compassionate
I have always found it helpful to hold in my mind (and heart) the idea that when someone is being a “difficult person” it means that they are hurting in some way. While this doesn’t excuse their challenging or upsetting behavior, it does help us to come from a place of compassion when trying to make sense of it, and maybe even relate to them.
In our attempt to juggle it all, we too can sometimes become the “difficult person.” There is no greater gift or healing balm than self-compassion in those painful moments.
What has become clear to me is that we are all hurting in some way right now, so we are not always our “best selves.” This includes our kids. I have found that they can quickly vacillate between being sweet and playing together, to sudden angry outbursts and relentless fighting. While this can cause whiplash sometimes, when I see that their behavior is coming from a place of hurting, it helps me to approach them from a place of connection and healing rather than reactivity and punishing.
This idea also applies to ourselves! In our attempt to juggle it all, we too can sometimes become the “difficult person.” There is no greater gift or healing balm than self-compassion in those painful moments.
5. Find Space to Forgive
Forgiveness is such a complex, dynamic experience to unpack and move through. As adults, many of us are still holding on to and struggling to forgive others (or even ourselves) for past mistakes. So how do we practice forgiveness when dealing with both big and small hurtful (though often unintentional) acts every day while we are all “home together”?
My kids have been incredible teachers for me in this arena. Just like I mentioned how they’ll shift from happy to furious with each other in the blink of an eye, it’s equally astounding how quickly they can go from fighting back to laughing and playing. While my nervous system seems to take longer to recover than theirs, I have come to really appreciate the ease with which they can shift and let it go. It’s not often wrapped up in a pretty bow of hugs and apologies, but they release the angry, hurt energy and allow connection to be restored.
See where you are holding on to past hurts, and invite your grip to soften, even if just a little. Your heart will thank you.
6. Practice Gratitude
It is easy to get bogged down and even depressed by all the losses, fears, and sticky 24/7 news cycles. Yet, just as there have been many challenges during this time, there have also been many gifts. I have found that right now, the joy is really in the small things—a beautiful flower found on a walk, friendliness of a neighbor, stumbling upon inspiring sidewalk chalk, and all the mini moments of connection throughout the day.
Our experience shows us that energy flows where the mind goes, so just take a moment and reflect on the nature of your thoughts. Are you in a constant state of worry, reading every news update that pings your phone? Are you scrolling social media for endless hours a day comparing your less-than-stellar sourdough loaf to the “perfect” one your Insta-friend made? Are you finding it difficult to keep your irritable thoughts to yourself?
…Or are you focusing on what’s going right instead of what’s going wrong? If you shift your focus to some of the good aspects of this time, notice how it feels in your body and what happens to your mood. Researchers have long found that practicing gratitude increases our physical and psychological well-being. What are you grateful for right now? Take a few moments to really sense into it and feel the shifts in your whole being…
7. Remember it’s “For Now”
Given all the unknowns right now, it’s easy to slip into thinking our current situation is going to last forever. We sometimes need tricks to help us come back to the moment and stay connected to the fact that everything, and I mean everything, changes. One way I have found is to add these two simple words to the end of your forever-feeling statements: “for now” or even, “right now.”
For example, “I can’t believe summer camps are canceled!!” you can change to: “I can’t believe summer camps are canceled for now.” Or “I can’t handle my kids being home all the time!!!” to “Right now, I can’t handle my kids being home all the time.” These words have helped so many people and families I work with to shift from overwhelm to a greater sense of calm and ease. Our overwhelm comes from running too far off into the future and trying to figure out the unknowable.
When we return to the present moment, acknowledge the pain of this moment, understand that this moment will change, and offer ourselves and our kids compassion and understanding, we can open up to the profound knowing that right now, in this moment, we are all okay.
While parenting in a pandemic is something none of us ever dreamed we would be doing, we are actually more prepared than we think we are. Each of us can attest to the fact that parenting is a crash course in learning how to deal with ever-changing moods, moments, crises, and needs. We are everyday superheroes and superheroes doing everything we can to protect, support, and guide our families! Sometimes we just need little reminders that everything we need to traverse these challenging times lies already within us.
There’s an inner skill set called for in parenting—an awareness of what is, what’s changing, and what matters going forward. This awareness is elusive for many parents and may account for much of the pain behind the dismal sociological research suggesting high rates of anxiety, stress, and depression among parents.
There are universal parental pains, tremors that shake us from diligent skillfulness and dip us into far reaches of emotional upheaval. Common to all contemporary parents are pains such as:
- Fears for our children: Will they be hurt, unloved, or in some way miserably treated by fate and a friend who betrays?
- Frustration and angst: When things go awry, or our best-laid plans slip away, or things just aren’t turning out the way we had envisioned.
- Overwhelm: When the demands our children, young or much older, exceed the skills we’ve brought to bear in the past, or the resources we’ve marshaled in a particular moment.
- Loss: When we witness the moments of sweetness giving way to the inevitability of change, development, and a universe of needs other than our own, and when we are saddened by the setbacks, failures, and splintered expectations for our children.
- Guilt: Over the seemingly never-ending examples of bars set and our performance lacking, of our falling short in doing what we intend as parents, and perhaps doing things, consciously and otherwise, causing pain to our children.
- Confusion: When a situation stumps us and our usual parenting tools, guidebooks, and rule-of-thumb road maps leave us stranded and exposed.
- Fear for ourselves: When needs go unmet, careers are stunted or in some way threatened, relationships whither, addictions rage, and we become resigned to futures foreshortened by the unending press of the next generation.
These are the universal domains of parental struggle, the inner pressures we struggle with and against, the seismic challenge that children present to our psyches—our daily sanity. And some aspect of all of these is absolutely inevitable. These are the pains of parenthood creating my motivation for writing and working with parents.
Be Kind to Your Inner Parent
What parents need is help walking with, instead of struggling against, their pain, confusion, and doubt. Leave the rationales to sociological, political and even religious debates, because here we’re focusing on the nitty-gritty of making parenting not just a tolerable ordeal, but an opening, a doorway to the widest possible array of experience—the grandeur and the gore.
What parents need is help walking with, instead of struggling against, their pain, confusion, and doubt.
What I’m talking about here is less about the ins and outs of managing relationships with our children—many books, entire aisles at bookstores, are filled with this kind of advice. I’m speaking about standing in place and facing ourselves internally as parents. What I’m referencing is our relationship with ourselves, with the pain we so readily magnify through unskillful means into unnecessary suffering.
I’m not aware of any tool or strategy for ending the inevitable pain of parenting. I’m assuming there is none. The vivid momentum of sweet moments such as when our kids first learn to pump their legs on the swing will eventually go still. Young kids will walk out of our sight and we’ll surge with fear. Older kids will hurl dagger eyes and sledgehammer words at us across the years, and even when they’re only three feet tall, and there will never be a time when our emotional buttons out of their reach.
The whining will continue. Our sleep will indeed be interrupted, either through their crying in their childhoods or our worrying in their adulthoods. They may be disabled or in endless ways hampered from the easy happiness we wished for them. We will have no clue what to do in that crossroad moment as they hover in the doorway, their eyes expecting our parental reaction to save them. Every other life domain—our jobs, our relationships, our own extended families—will press at us just as they ask for one more thing. And they may lose more than their fair share in life.
In the face of all of this, I invite you to meet your parental Mind–not simply glance at yourself in a mirror, but really meet and greet your inner voice (in the harsher moments of parenting, it’s more often a judge, jury, and executioner) and take a long hard look at this inner relationship. “You aren’t good enough,” it often says. “You can’t handle these kids . . .” “. . . Bad things will happen . . .” “. . . They are ungrateful, and you’ll never have a life of your own.” That voice in your head never stops its yammering, and it makes parenting harder than it needs to be. This is why you need to carve out some time to kindly examine, and create some space around your internal parental critic.
With a dedicated mindfulness practice, you can learn to teach your angst-primed brain to stay sitting and smarting on the carpet of your mental and emotional experience and bide your time until the pain shifts and changes on its own. Because it will.
I’m not asking you to ignore that voice, I’m asking you to stay with your pain, and regard mind like a puppy being trained. With a dedicated mindfulness practice, you can learn to teach your angst-primed brain to stay sitting and smarting on the carpet of your mental and emotional experience and bide your time until the pain shifts and changes on its own. Because it will. Your thoughts come and go, like clouds in the sky. By practicing “letting your thoughts be just thoughts” and watching them move by, you can train your parental brain to let the pain be as it is, and not chide and mishandle it into the beast that most of us have known in our lesser moments as parents. Pain, yes—suffering, no.
A Mindfulness Practice for Stressed-Out Parents
When pain, whether physical or emotional, shows up, it’s helpful to have built the capacity to mindfully notice it, allow it to just be there, and watch as it changes and typically eases on its own. It’s when you push and poke at it, trying to force pain to leave, that it often hangs around and grows into mind’s best bad-tempered friend, suffering.
You can lean to “rest” in the experience of pain and not add to it with mind’s angst and agendas. The mindfulness term for this is “acceptance.” And by acceptance, I don’t mean resignation—the sense of giving up and being defeated by the pain of parenting. No, it’s an active, empowered choice to lie back and let pain move through you. What you need to do is to take a “N.A.P.” with the pain that shows up in your daily life as a parent. Here are the steps:
- Notice and observe the painful sensations in your body and any accompanying thoughts as they show up.
- Allow it all to be just as it is, without trying to change anything.
- Pass the pain on through, rest into the moment until your painful thoughts and feelings pass through and away from you.
The next time you find yourself having difficulty with your children, in whatever way that shows up for you, give this acceptance practice a try. I’d advise starting with more do-able situations – the “low hanging fruit” within easy reach of your skills for attention and spacious awareness.
With practice, you’ll be able to take a “nap” even amid that louder, more intense or historically angst-ridden episodes. Be patient with yourself. Again, these “pains” of parenting are universal. No one is immune, and we’re all walking together this path toward more mindfulness in relating to our kids. That’s why it’s called “practice,” not perfection.