Being a parent is always hard and challenging, but rarely has this been more obvious than 2020. The coronavirus has taken a firm grip on the world and has fundamentally changed everyday life for both children and parents.
Whole families may have to stay indoors indefinitely; children are educated online; some parents even lose their jobs. It’s more likely that we see people with masks than without. And hugging friends or relatives still poses a health risk. Today, more than ever before, the concern for our children’s health and well-being is at the forefront of every parent’s interest.
In short, there is a long list of reasons to feel stressed this year. But as we look at the stress of COVID, we must not forget how it affects children.
Of course, they share many of the same fears and worries as we do. But as a parent, you have a unique role to play, that of a role model. And whatever way you decide how to respond to the stress of Corona (and in general to any stress factor in your life), your response affects not only yourself but also your children.
Why some parents can handle this crisis better than others
Recent surveys have investigated, a) how parents deal with the corona pandemic, and b) how their ways of coping with it affect the situation at home.
The fact that higher stress due to COVID-19 leads to more family disputes, more rigid parenting styles and more needy children was not surprising. However, these surveys have also made it clear that there is a common denominator in well-functioning families. At the center of these families is something called psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility is the ability to regulate one’s emotions and to behave in a way that serves one’s own goals and values – even under stressful circumstances.
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The more psychologically flexible the parents were, the more constructive their parenting style was, the closer the family was together, the better they could handle the stress of the current crisis. Conversely, the more psychologically inflexible the parents were, the more destructive their parenting style was, and the more the family suffered from the stress.
What is a psychological flexible parenting style?
A psychologically flexible parent does not cling to stress, anger, or despair. This doesn’t mean that he or she doesn’t have all these emotions. Such feelings are present in very different forms in all of us. However, instead of reacting in an uncontrolled and aggressive way or being discouraged, these parents pause and accept their challenging inner experiences to then focus on what’s essential.
As a result, they remain constructive and effective while becoming more resistant to the stresses of life. They stay in touch with the kind of parents they want to be – and most importantly, their children notice this constructive approach.
The good news is that we’re all psychologically flexible, but in the maelstrom of everyday life, we easily forget this. That’s why I’ve put together the following three principles to show you how you can strengthen your psychological flexibility and improve your relationship with your partner, child, or other family members and friends.
Principle #1 Allow yourself to be imperfect
Being a parent is hard work. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise has never had to endure the crying fits of a newborn baby, the endless interrogations of a four-year-old, or the emotional turmoil of a pubescent adolescent. It’s a full-time job with (almost) no free time. Even if you aren’t well yourself, as a parent it requires you to be available and attentive because your children need you.
Although there is a broad consensus that parenthood is a difficult task, it’s often the parents themselves who deny this reality. They fall into the trap of self-criticism and feelings of guilt when they feel that they cannot measure up to the type of parent our society sets as an ideal. They compare themselves to these other seemingly perfect parents, where everything seems to fit together, and struggle with themselves that they cannot be like them.
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The fact is that perfect parenthood doesn’t exist – and it’s not even necessary! You do not have to be perfect to be a good parent. This is not to say that you shouldn’t make an effort or give up your improvement quest. But especially when things get complicated and life goes sideways, it’s normal to be imperfect. The more you allow yourself to be imperfect, the easier it will be for your child to accept imperfections in his or her life.
Principle #2: Have many difficult conversations
Families that often have difficult conversations may seem dysfunctional at first glance. More so, having difficult family discussions seem to be almost a taboo; in the media, we see only pictures with smiling, seemingly happy families as if there were no such thing as a tough conversation within a family.
However, the truth is that such conversations are the nurturing ground for a good, healthy family life – provided they are approached properly. Unfortunately, many parents approach difficult conversations in such a way that both parties get into an accusation game (with a lot of shouting and swearing). Or they avoid difficult conversations altogether because it seems more comfortable to pretend that a conflict doesn’t exist than to look for a solution.
Having painful emotions while continuing the conversation
Having difficult conversations means that we pause to get clarity about our unfulfilled needs and wishes. And what’s even more important is communicating these needs appropriately to our spouse and children. Anger, hurt, fear, shame, guilt, and confusion can suddenly come up. It’s then up to you to actively feel these painful emotions and not repress them while continuing the conversation and working towards a solution.
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For some of us, the challenge may be to listen to the other person. For others, the challenge is to respect or enforce boundaries. Whatever your sore spot, keep in mind that conflicts are not harmful, but help you to uncover the very areas that are most important for you. Conflicts are, therefore, always a great opportunity for you to grow in your relationships.
If we are attentive and approach conflicts patiently and respectfully, we can learn their lesson, strengthen the bond with our spouse and children, and build a happier family life.
Principle No. 3: Put your smartphone aside
Newsfeeds and social media all make their profit by attracting our attention. The better they can keep your attention, the more money they make. Of course, these tech giants have the brightest minds at work who know precisely how to turn platforms into technical addictive pills using sophisticated algorithms.
Unfortunately, these algorithms don’t take your mental health or well-being into account but interfere with your ability to focus on one thing for long. They train you to be distracted – especially when unpleasant feelings arise. Instead of dealing with stress, fear, or boredom, we avoid these feelings by distracting ourselves with our phones.
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We also lose the ability to stay present with our spouse and our children. Instead of talking at the kitchen table, we escape into the digital world. Of course, it’s not about giving up your smartphone altogether, but it’s about using it more sensibly. Use it to your advantage instead of letting it using you to increase the profit margin of large companies.
When it comes to preparing your children for the future and promoting their mental health, try to be a psychological flexibility role model. Instead of letting yourself be bossed around by the stresses that come naturally in these uncertain times, try to be more open and compassionate about your thoughts and feelings, especially the unpleasant ones.
If you can pause and accept what’s going on inside you, you can still feel the stress, but you then also can choose to act in accordance with your long-term goals and values.
Psychological flexibility allows you to retake control of your life instead of leaving it to external factors that are out of your control. If you can exemplify this to your children, you create the best conditions for them to master difficult situations and lead a fulfilled and happy life.