Jill Sylvester, LMHC

This whole thing’s got me thinking about the little ones, and the parents of little ones. Kids who are under the age of 5, and parents who might be struggling to care for children at these ages are a concern, due to the primary reason of parents who may not be getting any type of break, due to the current pandemic. 

As a therapist, I have been talking with parents who aren’t used to being cooped up day in and day out, without some kind of a break, from day care of helpful grandparents, or outside activities that normally help their kids interact with others socially and emotionally. If you are a parent of older kids, like I am, I’m sure you remember these days when it can be a lot. We can laugh now at those days when you needed your partner to get home and take over, or have someone come over and help out so you could take a nap, a shower, a night out with friends or your significant other, but these parents are now in it, and they need our help. 

Not only are these parents of young kids not getting the physical break or emotional assistance they might need, but they’re also dealing with a time of uncertainty in the world, which can weigh on the brain, on the body, which in turn affects the young children who are living in their space, who don’t possess the emotional capacity to understand what their parents are experiencing.

This has me concerned for both parent and child.

If you are a parent who can switch shifts with your partner after they come home from work, or after they finish up a shift working from home, in order to get a break and take a breath and regroup after being all things to all people during the course of your day, that is fantastic. More of that please. I would simply encourage you to add conscious intention to what you are doing, so you go back with gusto and show up mindfully in the space you are parenting in order to create a win win for you both.

If you are not fortunate enough to take breaks and shift roles with your significant other, we need to get creative here, so that you can both get the respite you need while understanding that the energy you might be emitting (stressed, uncertain, nervous, anxious, depleted, depressed) is being absorbed by your child. You don’t mean to do this, but it can happen.

Here’s an example that was brought to my attention this past week.

A young couple is home, riding out this crisis, while the father works nights to provide for his family, the mother used to daily interaction with supportive family and friends. The newborn sleeps in a bassinet and requires no more than feeding and emotional love and presence from his parents, but the nearly two-year old is off and running, used to seeing people every day in her busy world, and now confined to a limited area on one floor of their home. Her behavior, the parents said had been unhappy, and more aggressive than usual. Then, her grandparents showed up for a visit outside one afternoon, with o physical interaction, adhering to the six-feet rule, yet sang silly songs to her, and played “chase” to the point of laughter and drool. 

The following day, the parents noted the lift in her mood, in her energy.

The comparison is noteworthy, bringing to light what was lacking in her current, new-normal world.

This is not the parents’ fault. These are the consequences of what can happen at the moment to our young children, confined to spaces that might be heavy with stress, with strife, with anxiety, with monotony.

If you are a parent and this speaks to you, or you know of someone who might be struggling in this way, the following are five ways for parents to practice self- care in order to create a space they want their children to inhabit. 

Share your feelings. Find a way to do this daily. Grab a journal and write at night, or first thing in the morning when the kids are eating breakfast. List all the feelings you might be feeling at the moment: your concerns, your worries, your fears about the world, and what your life might look like five years from now, down to what your concerns are for today. Releasing your emotions is healthy, and essential, both for you in the vein of good self-care, and also for your child. We can be smiling on the outside and yet feeling distressed on the inside, and guess what? Our kids feel it. They are naturally intuitive beings. Know this and move forward. 

Talk to someone. Your spouse, your sister, your aunt, a friend. Create a space to get on the phone or do Face Time and express how much you miss seeing them in person, how much you value their presence and assistance in your life. Connect. Connection is crucial to being a good parent, both in terms of social interaction but also in terms of validation. Validation is the most important feeling we can experience, in my opinion, outside of feeling safe.

Get Outside. Even taking just three deep breaths at the door if it’s raining.Getting out in nature is the single best way to change up the way you are feeling. Nature heals all and clears the blues, the worry, the irritability, the pent-up stress almost instantly. When my kids were small, and were acting disagreeable, I’d sweep everyone outside for a walk, and shortly after, all would be well. During these times, I’d recommend twice a day walking the dog, playing in the yard, opening the window to breathe fresh air when it’s raining, smiling together at how good that feels, or simply sitting out on your steps to talk to your child and tell them all about what is going on in the world, in a way that they can relate. They hear you, they listen, they trust what you tell them about nature, about the world. More on this in a moment..

Get creative. This goes beyond the zillion puzzle and craft activities that parents are engaged in with their children during this time. I’m talking about getting down time that you absolutely need for your own mental health. Introduce quiet time where everyone watches a movie and you nap together. Introduce cleaning time when your kids grab a sponge and “help” you while you are tidying your home. Read between the lines. Stop trying to be the perfect parent and do every task imaginable while they are napping and resting. You need a break too- physically, emotionally, mentally. Rest while they are resting. Enlist their help while you are cleaning. I used to keep my son in the BabyBjorn carrier while I vacuumed so that when he napped, so did I. Get creative and give yourself a break. 

Talk to your kids. As little as they might be, speak to them. They trust you. They want to hear your voice. They want to feel connected to you, even when you might be feeling overwhelmed. I am a big believer in communicating with your kids about the positive and the negative. Your job as a parent is not to provide for your child the most perfect, intensely incredible childhood experience ever. If you hyper focus on that, you will set your child up for disappointment. Share with them as to what is going on. Yes, even if they are not speaking yet. 

Want a script? Here’s a guide: 

Whisper to your son or daughter while they are sleeping, or while you are watching TV, or coloring, or simply sharing space looking out the window. Be near to them, and in a gentle, yet strong and stable voice, tell them that you know it’s hard right now that they aren’t seeing all the familiar faces they normally do: family, friends, neighbors, grocery store clerks, day care providers, babysitters, the mail delivery person, or whoever is a regular part of your daily routine. Let them know, while you hug and hold them, that the world is different right now, and challenging because of it, and that you feel frustrated, too. Share with them that sometimes you feel sad and at other times you feel okay. That this is normal. That you will see all these people soon, who make them laugh and sing silly songs and take the time to share their world with your child. Then, end with telling your son or daughter that they are loved and they are safe in your care which is the most important thing. 

If you found today’s post helpful, please forward to those in your life who you feel would benefit.

Jill Sylvester is a licensed mental health counselor and author of the self-help book, “Trust Your Intuition: 100 Ways to Transform Anxiety and Depression for Stronger Mental Health.” Her work has been featured in Well+Good, Bustle, SheKnows, WorkingMother, Parenthood, TeenMentor, and OprahMag.com. To receive her free weekly blog containing tips to better your life, subscribe atwww.jillsylvester.com.