The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated things for all of us, but it has made life particularly challenging for parents. School is often online, and many of us have become our children’s teachers. We’re trying to keep our kids off screens, but it’s the only way they can see their friends. Balancing physical safety and mental and social health seems like an impossible task.

So how do we help our kids, and ourselves, cope with the stress and uncertainty of our current situation?

Reach out to your school

If you are struggling with distance learning – and you are not alone! – don’t suffer in silence. Reach out to your child’s teachers or the school director. Let them know what isn’t working for you. They may be able to offer you accommodations, brainstorm together to figure out solutions, or refer you to helpful resources in your community. Asking for support does not guarantee that you will receive it, but it greatly increases your odds.

Model resilience and a growth mindset

Another thing we can do to help ourselves and our kids is practice moving from statements to questions. We might be having thoughts like:

I hate this. It shouldn’t be this way. I can’t do this. I don’t know how.

It’s OK to have those thoughts, but if we don’t go any further than that, we can get stuck in those limiting beliefs, and every time it gets hard, those thoughts will be right there. So we can move beyond them into questions. Get curious:

How can I make this work? What are my priorities, my values? How can I learn? Who/what are my resources? What are my emotions telling me? What do I need?

Revisit self-care

Many of the ways we used to take care of ourselves are off the table. We can’t go to a concert and dance our cares away. Depending on the level of lockdown where we live, we can’t get a massage or a haircut, and we may not even be able to have someone else watch our kids. So we have to get creative. What does self care look like now? How can we get our fundamental needs met?

Self-care is a very individual thing. There are basic commonalities like getting enough sleep, eating well, etc., but other things work for some people and not for others. If a daily journaling practice works for you, great! If it feels like a chore, skip it, and find something else. Whatever your self-care looks like, make it non-negotiable and integrated. We often tend to think that self-care means bubble baths or trips to Hawaii, and we overlook the fact that it can be small and ordinary, like drinking water or texting a friend, or it can be a really big life change, like pursuing a new career, or completely changing our living situation. We tend to think of it as an extra thing that’s not really integrated into our life.

Self-care isn’t just another thing on our plate, it is the plate. Without a strong foundation, everything we try to pile on top of it just falls apart. One of the best ways to enhance self-care is to really savor what you choose to do by using as many of your five senses as possible. So that daily shower can become time to pause and feel the hot water, smell the soap, massage the scalp. It can be another opportunity to practice mindfulness in daily living. Then this savoring opportunity blossoms into self-compassion in daily living.

Nurture instead of numbing

As much as we might feel we want to escape, let’s get brutally honest with ourselves about whether our self-care practices are actually avoidance techniques. Alcohol sales in the US have risen substantially since the start of sheltering in place. For parents, binge drinking was already on the rise before the pandemic. And how much time are we spending on our phones these days? Did you know children actually experience sibling rivalry with their parents’ phones? And what are we eating?

Consider whether any of these coping techniques are actually making us more capable of navigating this challenging situation, and what are we teaching our kids about coping with adversity. Remember they may not always do what we ask, but they always watch what we do. So give yourself an honest assessment: Are your self-care practices numbing, or nurturing?

Accept without giving up

There is a lot going on right now that we may feel we don’t want to accept, because to accept it would mean that it’s OK with us.

Acceptance doesn’t have to mean either approval, that we’re totally on board with all of this chaos, or resignation, like throwing in the towel. It’s simply recognizing what is; acknowledging reality as our baseline, so that we don’t have to spend our precious energy fighting against reality. When we can accept life as it unfolds, only then can we feel empowered to create intentions and take steps towards them.

Stay positive and be real at the same time

How do we stay positive and be real at the same time? “Both-and” thinking.

Both-and thinking is holding two seemingly contrasting ideas at the same time. So, “This whole situation is awful, and I’m grateful for being able to spend more time with my kids.” Or, “I am completely capable of handling all of this, and I could really use a break.” Your thoughts and feelings can all co-exist; they don’t have to cancel each other out. It doesn’t even have to make sense. It can be both-and. Just because you see a silver lining, doesn’t mean the cloud no longer affects you.

I encourage you to be real, and to model emotional honesty for your kids. That doesn’t mean we fall apart all over them or rely on them to support us emotionally. But share with them your both-and thinking. Kids need us to be strong and real. They need us to be anchored, solid and dependable, but they can tell when we’re not OK. And if we’re not OK and we don’t explain it, children, especially very young children, are egocentric, so they tend to believe that the way other people feel around them is about them. So it’s really important to express your emotions in a mature way, to let them know you’re having a hard time, and it’s not because of them and you are there for them. And of course that also gives them space to be emotionally honest as well.

So, yes, this is hard. And, what can we do? What can we control? What can we decide?

Feel your feelings and give yourself grace

You are allowed to feel unsettled, or off course, or angry, or whatever it is you’re feeling about all of this. It’s an entirely reasonable, expected, appropriate response. Let’s not hold ourselves to such high expectations. We are all doing the best we can in the absence of adequate support systems, in the absence of coping strategies that we’re accustomed to, in the midst of collective trauma. So please, be kind to yourself. Give yourself grace and space to go through this process. And also please recognize that, as the meme says, we are all in same storm, but not all in the same boat. This is affecting families in many different ways. Find your self-compassion. Find the common humanity in our experiences and let that connect you to others. Focus on relationships.

One final tip for helping yourself and your kids find connection in the chaos: When kids feel connected and have relational safety, they can learn and grow. When kids are stressed, they naturally tend to seek connection. When adults feel stressed, we tend to withdraw. I want to encourage you to reach out instead of withdrawing. It might feel forced and awkward at first. But you might find you really needed the connection too.

Photo by Julia M Cameron