Health Team

How parental self-care helps kids weather pandemic stress

Parents are running on empty. As the pandemic drags on into month seven, many families are still struggling to patch together child care to help cover the basics, never mind slotting in time for parental self-care. Each new day seems to bring at least one family freak-out as tensions from too much togetherness butt up against the stresses of uncertainty.

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Jessica DuLong
CNN — Parents are running on empty. As the pandemic drags on into month seven, many families are still struggling to patch together child care to help cover the basics, never mind slotting in time for parental self-care. Each new day seems to bring at least one family freak-out as tensions from too much togetherness butt up against the stresses of uncertainty.

Parents worried about the long-term impact of the Covid-19 crisis on their children may be surprised to hear what psychotherapist and trauma reprocessing specialist Sara Waters recommends for protecting our kids.

It turns out that we parents play a bigger role in how things turn out than we might have thought. In most cases, parents "have more influence on the resilience, confidence and assuredness of our children's psychological wellness during this time than any other variable."

Because of mirror neurons — which fire off in response to emotions, facial expressions and body language — our children's experiences of the world will reflect our own.

"If a parent's thoughts are generally negative or scarcity-based, our children will feel that and develop similar negative, scarcity-based thinking patterns," Waters said. "If our limbic system is in a state of distress instead of calm, our children's own somatic experiences will be the same. If you struggle with staying positive in the face of challenges, then your children will also struggle."

So, what's a scarcity-minded parent to do? Waters shared some ideas.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CNN: We're stressed out. Two out of five Americans report feelings of depression or anxiety, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But parents caring for children under 18 report significantly more stress than non-parents. How are you seeing these struggles play out?

Sara Waters: Everybody in my family and every single one of my clients has been touched by this and adversely affected in some way. This is bringing up issues for people — everything from substance use and addiction struggles to surfacing issues in marriages. Those of us who are parents are struggling with our own human vulnerabilities, and that struggle impacts our kids.

CNN: One of the most painful parts for parents is our inability to protect our children. Our kids expect us to have all the answers. And yet there are so many variables we can't control or predict. What can we do?

Waters: The harsh reality, whether we like it or not, is that we won't have all the answers. We need to get more comfortable with feeling uncertain and being able to authentically say "I don't know." There's something magical that happens when we share our own vulnerabilities in a way that lets our kids know they're not alone.

CNN: How do adults' emotions impact how children view the world?

Waters: Parents' ability to manage our own discomfort is the No. 1 factor determining our children's 2020 experience. Because of mirror neurons, even children who haven't yet learned language will pick up on our distress. Our children hear us vent. They watch our facial expressions when we're on a call, responding to an email or posting on social media. They pick up on whether we're relaxed or stressed and — whether we like it or not — they will absorb and experience what we feel.

CNN: It's particularly distressing that overwhelmed parents can't get out of this mess just by saying the right things. Are you saying we need to feel OK so that our children can feel OK, too? How do we do that?

Waters: That begs the question: How do you know if you're OK? Pre-Covid we looked to certain external factors as a measuring stick to tell us whether or not we're OK — a job, a nice home, a busy schedule.

The pandemic is forcing us to change the measuring stick. Now, we need to notice different things: We have a roof over our heads; we must be OK. We have food to eat; we are OK. We are breathing; we are OK. That's not what we're used to doing, but it's so healthy to zoom in on what really matters.

CNN: And in your writing and speaking you make the point that, of course, many people in this country are struggling to cover even those basic needs. When it comes to parents with more resources who aren't riding that edge, how do we manage all the other struggles?

Waters: Part of it is about accepting discomfort. Our generation and those before us were taught that discomfort is bad. We were taught to try to get rid of negative feelings or numb them out.

Well, that's not actually healthy. Most adults were never taught that it's OK to be scared, confused or uncertain — that the human race has a vast spectrum of emotions, half of which are not what we would probably consider pleasant. Feelings are for feeling — that's what they're for. They're not bad; they're not good. They just are.

And we have a sacred opportunity right now to teach that to our children. When our children are sad, scared, bored or anxious we can, instead of trying to fix it for them, help them step into the emotion. We can say, "Me, too. I get it. This does feel sad." Just think of how it will help them long-term to learn to name and accept the full range of human emotions.

Maybe when they're adults they can avoid becoming workaholics or struggling with eating disorders, substance abuse and other addictions that we use to numb difficult feelings. All that is possible if we can just teach them it's OK to feel uncomfortable or uncertain — to just sit with it without having to do anything about it.

CNN: With many kids learning remotely while parents work from home, lots of families are struggling to cope. Parents' normal coping strategies have been disrupted right when their benefits are needed most. What suggestions do you have for getting through this?

Waters: I think the answer is twofold. First, we need to find creative, healthy ways to metabolize our emotions based on what we have available. What's crucial is that we move through our painful feelings instead of running away or numbing them out.

Second, we need to own and contend with our own brokenness. If you're discharging stress through chronically overeating, drinking, workaholism, having affairs or scrolling on social media, it's time to address your deeper issues. When you find healthier ways to process emotions, you also end up modeling that for your kids.

CNN: In terms of modeling, you're saying our kids will see how we manage our own emotions and follow suit, right?

Waters: Exactly. By letting our children see us reacting in healthy ways to our emotions — age-appropriately, of course — we give them a permission slip for their own humanness, letting them know it's OK to feel. The process of naming emotions is also important — and a critical skill to teach our kids.

CNN: There is so much talk right now about raising our kids to be resilient. When parents' own resource buckets feel so depleted, how can we possibly teach our kids to roll with the punches? Is there anything we can do other than being resilient ourselves? Because that sounds really hard.

Waters: Yes. It starts with redefining resilience. When a lot of us were little, resilience meant dust yourself off, stand back up, get over it, get back to work, you're fine. We now know that's not resilience; that's absurdity. There is a time for being strong and having tenacity. But resilience is about actually sustaining through adversity. We don't do that by ignoring our emotions and our body sensations and acting like the hard things aren't hard.

Rather, I think we need to redefine resilience as allowing yourself to experience all your feelings to prove to yourself that you can handle it — that you will still wake up the next day. Once we've taught ourselves that, we can teach it to our children. Then they'll know they can get through anything.

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