By this point, we’ve heard it over 100 times. “We are facing unprecedented times.” Even under the best of circumstances, stress and anxiety are rising in households across the globe. As adults, we’re still processing what’s happening and wrestling with our own emotions. Guess what? Kids are too. However, children lack the tools to effectively manage those feelings. It’s important that parents take time to focus on their children’s mental health during this time.
We chatted with Rebecca Branstetter, Ph.D., a school psychologist, speaker, and author about how best to manage stress and anxiety at home during this pandemic. Thankfully, she’s broken it into three easy buckets for parents to focus on to help with stress management for kids:
First and foremost, Branstetter says it’s crucial that we go easy on ourselves. “Relax your homeschooling and productivity standards to a level appropriate for a worldwide pandemic. Being a parent, a teacher, and whatever your job is are three completely different things that cannot all be done well at the same time.”
Mantras to Help
Acceptance, not dedicating energy to wishing things were different, is the best modeling behavior adults can showcase for little ones. Branstetter has a few mantras she recommends, and uses herself, to help parents frame their mental outlook each day:
- I am not homeschooling. I am doing my best to help my kids learn at home during a crisis.
- I am not “working from home.” I am doing my best to work at home during a crisis.
- I cannot be as productive as normal because these are not normal times. I will focus on what I can accomplish in just the next 24 hours and let go of what I cannot accomplish right now.
Setting a strong emotional foundation and realistic expectations for ourselves are deeply important to be a role model for our kids. They’re watching and processing how we respond to high-stress situations.
Routines and predictability are proven to be calming during times of stress. So that means, the best thing to do is to provide structure to the days as much as possible. That doesn’t mean outlining a strict schedule that perfectly mirrors a school day, but more of defining a new normal for the time being.
Branstetter says “Your family schedule may look more like what you would create over a summer break, including opportunities for fun, exercise, hands-on learning activities, and family connection. It is also important to build in “emotional checkpoints” during the day and involve your child in the schedule.”
Here’s a short video from Branstetter and her colleague showing ways parents can build structure and emotional checkpoints into their days, as well as some free downloadable schedules and a calming toolkit to try at home.
This may be the most important thing for parents to understand. When children feel big emotions and feelings, they showcase them through behaviors. There’s a reason why your children may be acting out in ways you haven’t seen in a long time. Those meltdowns over little things are emotions that kids don’t know what to do with pouring out.
“The important takeaway message here is that children (and, indeed, adults!) do not have access to their thinking and reasoning skills when they are flooded with emotions. If your child cannot focus on school tasks, or you are seeing them meltdown, tantrum, or withdraw, it’s likely because they are having a hard time meeting an expectation while under stress.”
As an example, if your child melts down screaming, “I don’t like [insert virtual learning platform]” there’s likely something deeper going on. “Kids resist when they feel overwhelmed. Resistance is the tip of the iceberg, grief, frustration, or other big emotions are likely under the surface.”
Try taking a moment like this to help kids hone their ability to understand their emotions. Instead of clamping down and forcing them to finish their work, try helping them dig a little deeper. Asking questions like “What is it about [virtual learning platform] that you don’t like?” Guide them in peeling back the emotional onion to understand what’s really fueling their behavior.
Mantras to Help
That won’t always be easy but Branstetter has a set of mantras parents can lean on to help us approach our kids and their emotions with empathy:
- My child is not giving me a hard time; they are having a hard time.
- Behavior is communication, and my child is “telling” me they need support.
- The teachable moment about behavioral expectations is never in the “hot” moment. I must calm my child through empathy first.
“The reality is, your job right now as a homeschooling parent is less about academics, and more about creating safety, belonging, and acceptance.”
Overall, go easy on yourself, tackle what you can, and focus energy on how you can create a safe space for children during this stressful time. “In stressful times, children will be protected if they are connected.” Branstetter says.
Rebecca Branstetter, Ph.D., is a school psychologist, speaker, and author on a mission to help children be the best they can be in school and in life by supporting school psychologists, educators, and families. She is the co-creator of the “Make It Stick Parenting” course, which provides parents tools to build their child’s social-emotional learning. She is also the founder of The Thriving School Psychologist Collective, an online community dedicated to improving mental health and learning supports in public schools. For more information visit https://makesociallearningstick.com.