I want to be as real as possible in this article, so let’s not pretend here. Parenting can feel tough at the best of times, but in these past couple of years, it hasn’t exactly been “the best of times.” And parenting… well, it’s gone from tough to “expert-level tough” for many.
Have you noticed that the more challenges you face, the harder it is to parent?
Perhaps it’s a reflection of life and what it throws our way? In just the first three or four months of 2022, we’ve seen:
- Natural disasters (flooding up and down Australia’s East Coast),
- A full scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia (replete with daily crimes against humanity), and
- The cost of living has skyrocketed in conjunction with these broader-scale events.
And that’s not giving any consideration to the ongoing challenges of living with COVID outbreaks continuing into their third year, affecting us all in irreducibly challenging ways.
In short: it’s a lot to have to deal with as an adult. Add to this the fact we have kids to care for, pay for, and answer questions for, and it can all feel a bit much. Make no mistake, it’s hard for many of our children too, as they navigate the challenging world in which we live.
In this article, we’ll look at how we can keep it together when times are tough - for ourselves. Then we’ll consider how we can help our children hold it together when times are tough - for them.
How are you “feeling”?
But first, can I ask a question? How are you feeling?
If you’re like the overwhelming majority of parents I speak to, you’re probably feeling a combination of tired - no, scratch that… exhausted - burned out, and a whole lot of meh. There’s actually a psychological word for this feeling, and it was spelled out by Wharton Business School Professor, Adam Grant, in an article he wrote for the New York Times during the peak of COVID lockdowns:
Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of [parents].
Adam didn’t actually say parents. He suggested it was the dominant emotion of 2021. But let me ask you, does that ring true? Muddling through? Stagnating? Foggy windshield? Sure we have good days and bad, but overall, it’s a taxing role to play, particularly since it’s not the only thing most of us are doing.
Grant added the following, and I think it’s vitally important:
Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and… in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.
When times are tough, we often feel that sense of being “stuck”. We don’t know where or how to focus. Our motivation ebbs. Life feels hard - and we often see our children as one more task on our list, rather than as real people with real needs.
If that’s not you, great! You’re thriving. Flourishing. On fire! No need to keep reading. But… if this describes where you are, read on. There is a way forward: one that feels good.
Antidotes to languishing
In Grant’s NYT article, he suggests three things to overcome languishing:
- Finding flow in joyful activity,
- Giving ourselves uninterrupted time, and
- Making progress on things that are important to us.
These are excellent ways to lift ourselves from languishing. Many parents might roll their eyes at these suggestions. It’s hard to find uninterrupted time for you in these circumstances. Joyful activities are something we did a lot more of before children. And finding creative ways to make this stuff happens can feel like too much! And progress? Progress on what?
Toolbox for Tough Times
Plus, it’s often not just about you. There’s a child who’s struggling, making noise, and needing the support of an adult to get through a tough time too.
This isn’t to say they’re not good ideas. They really are, and I commend them to you if you can make it happen.
But I recommend some alternative ideas for parents who are really struggling. Below are ten ideas that can help you through tough, exhausting, and stressful times. And then I’ll explore ten ideas that can help you help your child through tough, exhausting, and stressful times.
Ideas for Parents
Tool #1: Accept Emotions
Just like waves on the shore, our emotions come in and go out, ebb and flow. Most emotions don’t last more than a few moments. Occasionally they’ll last a few days, but that’s unusual. When you feel a big emotion, remind yourself that “this is what I’m feeling right now”, and be accepting of it. You’ll see it disappear faster than if you try to wrestle it, fight it, and subdue it. Emotions don’t vanish by being banished.
Tool #2: Create Psychological Distance
Notice that when you’re in the thick of things, it’s hard to see a way out? It’s at those moments that you call a friend and ask for their perspective. They have distance while you’re stuck in the middle of it all.
You can “self distance” from the things that are stressing you out. There are countless strategies, but here are my favourite four:
- When you start to feel an emotion, whether it’s “meh” or “Gahhhh!”, name it to tame it. Say to yourself, “I’m noticing that I’m starting to feel [insert emotion]”. Simply saying you’re noticing the feeling helps you to stand outside of the emotion and create distance.
- Pretend to be someone else, like Batman. I know that sounds weird, but science says it works. It helps us think more clearly, be more balanced, and get better outcomes. Channel your “inner mental mentor” and be like that person who has it together. Watch how it changes your mental state.
- Pretend you have an audience. We tend to respond to children’s challenges differently in the middle of the shopping centre than we might if we were in our living room. Picture a neighbour, a friend, or even a parenting expert watching you kindly and supportively, and you’ll find a compassionate way of responding to your child or your stress.
- Try mental time-travel. Imagine a future day where you’re looking back on the here and now, reflecting on this moment. How would you like to see yourself handle it? What would you like to be talking about? Your stress-response? Or your patient forbearance?
When our emotions are high, our intelligence is low. These strategies help to level out emotion and keep our thinking clear.
Tool #3: Choose Growth and Contribution, not Happiness
When we chase the butterfly of happiness, it will float out of reach. But when we plant ourselves in the ground and seek growth, like a tree, we’ll find the butterflies of happiness alight on our branches over and over again - not because we chased them, but because we grew into something that drew them to us.
If that’s too metaphorical and “woo-woo”, let me speak more plainly. Reframing the tough times from problems and pain to opportunities for us to develop character and make a difference helps us see those tough times through a new lens. Those times stop crushing us, and instead give us raised vision, aspiration, and desire to be better people - for us and for our kids. And that makes us happier than the ease of a night off with Netflix (which is ok now and then too).
Tool #4: Focus on Progress
When you’re ready to crack, or perhaps when you’re ready to shrug your shoulders and walk away, pause and ask the question, “What are my actions moving me closer to?” Are you progressing towards your goal/dream of having a family who loves being together, and who thrives and supports one another when times are tough? Or are you moving closer to an alternative (and less appealing reality)? As you see progress, you’ll feel motivated to keep going. Progress feels good.
Tool #5: Reframe your Expectations
Knowing there is always too much to do can be a burden or a blessing. Instead of being weighed down by the thought, be intentional about what you choose to do. That can be freeing.
Here’s a concrete example: now that our kids are older we have decided it’s too much for us to cook a meal every. single. night. We want time together as adults. So we have a “yo-yo night”. Yo-yo stands for “you’re on your own”, and the kids make their own meals and arrange their own evening, even babysitting our youngest. Some families don’t iron clothes. Others choose not to put kids into expensive after-school activities. Choose with intention. You can’t do it all.
Tool #6: Control the Controllables
And since you can’t do it all, control what you can control. You can’t answer all of your child’s questions. You can’t pay cash for their education, the car, the house, the holiday, and the dental work! You can’t stop the war, slow the cost of living, prevent the rain (or the drought), change the government, or heal the planet. This might sound depressing. But it’s not (when you remember tool #5). Instead, look at what you can do. You can hug your child. You can listen with mindful focus. You can organise tonight’s meal. You can read a story or wrestle with your child tonight. You can… get the picture? Control what you can control. Put your attention there and your energy will follow.
Tool #7: Avoid Screen Burnout
Screens are often non-productive, passivity that add to our stress by working as a procrastination tool. Follow Jocelyn Brewer’s 3 M’s of screen use:
- Be Mindful,
- Use them Meaningfully, and
- Be Moderate in your screen use.
That might mean playing Super Mario Kart or Fortnite with the kids, responding to emails when everyone is binge watching the latest series on Netflix (my kids love Is it Cake?), or catching up with friends on Instagram. Those things aren’t necessarily unhealthy, so long as you’re mindful, they’re meaningful, and you’re moderate.
Tool #8: Lighten up
Don’t take this as an insult. Please.
But can we acknowledge that sometimes we parents take everything very seriously? It’s good to joke, be light, and let go of things now and then. Humour helps us navigate stress and challenge in healthy ways.
Tool #9: Build Relationships
The heart of wellbeing, happiness, and love all come back to one thing: relationships. Build connection by being present. When our relationships are deeply connected, they are alive - and so are we.
Tool #10: Take a Break
Believe it or not, you’re not meant to be with your kids 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s just too much. Breathe. Let it go. Take a break. And the best breaks? A nap… or exercise. Do what you can to have 15 minutes of bliss.
Ideas for Children
You’ll recognise that a lot of the ideas I’ve mentioned above are great for your kids too. The lists are sometimes interchangeable. Nevertheless it’s worth highlighting that our children still have their “learner” plates on. They don’t know what you know, and they can’t navigate life like you can. They need you as a stable guide for them..
Let’s look at a handful of helpful ways to guide your kids through their “meh” moments, their terribly tough times, and their confusion and challenges.
Tool #1: Minimise Triggers
It’s almost a given that your child will struggle when they’re HALTS: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, or Stressed. Be aware that these triggers exist, and reduce their exposure to them.
Tool #2: Encourage Healthy Breaks
Your kids are designed to be happiest when they are active and playing. Facilitate lots of play for them, and when they’re on screens or doing schoolwork, make sure play opportunities are a regular feature of their schedule. Open-ended activities, particularly those with a little bit of age-appropriate risk, are ideal.
Tool #3: Give Voice to Feelings
Knowing that somebody “gets it” does surprisingly far in helping make stressful or challenging situations bearable. Feel with your kids - and give voice to their feelings. You might say, “This is awful. I hate it. You must be struggling so much. You must see how stressed I am and that’s no fun for you. I can’t make it alright… but I get that it’s awfully hard for you.” When you do this, they don’t feel alone.
And remember, an emotion is like a train going through a mountain tunnel. It will pass through to the other side if you let it. There’s no need to plunge your hand deep down through the mountain and rip that train out of the top. You’ll only make a big mess. Give it time.
Tool #4: Pre-arm your Child
If you know something challenging is coming, talk to your child about it. If you had a child around age 9 and the war was going to be in their awareness, you could say,
“There’s been something horrible on the news and I want to tell you about it. Russia has invaded a free country, Ukraine, and is doing horrible things to the people there. It’s a war. Over the next little while you’re going to hear stories about invasions, guns, and even some killing. War is a really awful thing. And I want you to know it’s happening, and to talk to me about any questions you have.”
Pre-arming your children, when done discerningly and with a focus on your child’s healthy and age-appropriate development, can make them resilient. When you tell them everything that’s going to happen, what they’ll see, where things will be, how things will work, and so on, they are less likely to be shaken when it occurs. And you’ve done it in an emotionally safe and supportive space.
Toolbox for Tough Times
Tool #5: Encourage Mindfulness
Mindfulness may be one of the most hyped interventions of the past two decades. The research around mindfulness is not as strong as some of its proponents would suggest. However, there is plenty of evidence that it can work for some people in the right context - and it should definitely be considered a tool in your toolbox. Here are two simple mindfulness exercises that work wonders with many kids:
- Deep Breaths: So simple, but concentrating on deep breaths really does centre and balance us. Breathe in for 5 seconds, hold for 3 seconds, and breathe out for 5 seconds. Repeat 3 times. Feel the difference.
- Countdown to Calm: One of my favourites, this activity involves all 5 senses. Your child sits with you and identifies 5 things she can see, 4 things she can feel/touch, 3 things she can hear, 2 things she can smell, and 1 thing she can taste. It doesn’t matter if she can’t get all the answers. It’s about being present. Identifying our senses does that.
Tool #6: Visualisation
Encourage your child to picture themselves on a grassy knoll beside a river, sitting beneath a big tree in the sunshine. A leaf falls from the tree and drops into the river. It slowly floats past your child, through the rocks, around the bend, and out of sight. The leaf is like our thoughts. They come and go. We simply accept them, and sit and watch them float by with mild detachment. In this way, our thoughts are no longer facts. They’re no longer frightening. They’re merely ideas that we have.
Tool #7: Be Present
There are times when nothing works. In those moments, your presence is sometimes all your child needs to get through a tough time. A “mummy hug” or a “daddy snuggle” can magically make everything feel better. No words required.
Tool #8: Offer Autonomy
My favourite line when one of the kids is upset: “Would you like me to be with you to talk, would you like me to be with you and not talk, or would you like some space?”
Tool #9: Give them the Fantasy
Sometimes a child needs to know they can’t have what they want, but in a deeply empathic and understanding way. It might be a visit to a beloved family member that is cancelled due to health issues and COVID restrictions. Perhaps it’s an end to war, global hunger, or poverty. Our kids have some generous desires. We obviously can’t give them that. And we can’t reassure them everything will be fine. That’s false and they know it.
In this instance, offer them the fantasy. “Wouldn’t it be great if…” “Don’t you just wish that…”
When you do this, you provide them with the knowledge that you really do understand. And that is the most reassuring thing of all.
Tool #10: Build Hope
As parents we are hope-builders. And during tough, terrible, tumultuous times our children can sometimes feel hope-less rather than hope-ful. Hopelessness can lead to helplessness, which is related to depression and anxiety. We don’t want that.
Build hope - be a hope-builder - first by working with your children on finding something to work towards - a goal. But they need more for hope. Second, help them identify a way to reach that goal - a pathway (or more than one if some paths turn out to be dead ends). Third, help them believe in themselves and their ability to walk that path to that goal.
Perhaps that is how we build hope best. We give our children the support they need to develop belief in themselves. And we reassure them that we believe in them, even when - no, particularly when - times are tough.
Terrible times come and go throughout our lives. What’s interesting is that often global catastrophes affect our children (and us) far less than we might have imagined. But the smaller, personal challenges are substantially more affecting.
Regardless of how tough times are, the ideas in the lists above will help you get through the “ahhhhhh” scares life throws our way, and the “meh” moments where we languish without motivation or drive. And they’ll help you - and your kids - to see that life really is worth living.
Lastly, if you or the kids are genuinely doing it tough - get help. See your GP. Visit a psychologist or counsellor. Make an appointment with the “healer” or “helper” of your choice if the medical or psychological thing doesn’t work for you. Call Lifeline. Just be sure you get help.
Toolbox for Tough Times