As parents face almost a year imprisoned with their families, things at home are getting ugly, and that’s entirely normal.
We can’t prevent emotional storms at home, but we can learn to relate more skillfully to these challenging moments when they arise. Being a parent is difficult, imperfect and messy: Families are going to fight at the best of times. It’s especially difficult to be an effective parent during COVID-19.
As a psychiatrist who teaches courses for parents about how to raise resilient kids, the most valuable skill I suggest is what child psychiatrist Daniel Siegel calls the “power of showing up” — learning to be emotionally and mentally present with our kids during the storms of life.
Siegel’s review of the research shows that having at least one person show up in a predictable and emotionally present way predicts not only children’s happiness, but their social and emotional development, leadership skills, meaningful relationships, and even academic and career success.
The pandemic and distress
And now, more than ever, our kids need this protection. The pandemic has not only exposed families to the risk of illness and death, but also the consequent distress of widespread inequality, uncertainty and fear, financial hardship and mandated social isolation, including school closings.
“What we know from the science is that having a supportive, healthy relationship with at least one caregiving adult is the best protection any child has against later emotional difficulties,” says Vancouver child psychiatrist Ashley Miller.
Since the pandemic began, 50 per cent of Canadians have reported worsening mental health, more than 60 per cent of youth have reported feeling distressed about school closings and social restrictions and 59 per cent of parents say they’ve noticed behaviour changes in their kids, from outbursts and irritability to major changes in mood, conduct and personality.
Yet even without a pandemic, distress in the family is a normal part of development. Kids don’t mature in a straight line; they make leaps that abruptly disorganize their behaviour and emotions, such as acting out or temper tantrums.
As I said, this is normal.
Then this messiness in children’s behaviour causes their caregiver to be a mess too.
This is also normal.
Strengthening the relationship
Miller says that’s why she wrote her new book, What to Say to Kids When Nothing Seems to Work.
“If we can help strengthen the parent-child relationship, that’s really protective for mental health,” she says. “What lets you feel like you can stay in it is knowing that you can resolve it.”
These skills are especially relevant now. “When we’re under stress, we’re more prone to conflict. When we feel threatened, we see the other person’s intentions as negative,” says Miller.
And a lot of people often cope with family stress by avoiding it, she says. “But with the restrictions, everyone is having to look around the living room or kitchen table and be like, ‘Oh, now we’re stuck together.’ And we don’t necessarily have the skills for conflict resolution.”
Miller, who is also a clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, had vowed never to write a parenting book: “The fundamental thing for parents is really to have some confidence in themselves, and the idea of a book can give the misperception that there’s an expert out there who knows how to do parenting better than you do,” she says. “I was really hesitant to join my voice to that chorus that could inadvertently increase parenting anxiety.”
But then she discovered Emotion-Focused Family Therapy (EFFT). Developed by her co-author, Denver psychologist Adele Lafrance, EFFT both empowers parents to have more confidence and teaches them to see the good in their child and themselves — even when things are getting very ugly at home.
“We are giving tools, but we never want anyone to go against their better judgment because it says so in a parenting book,” says Miller.
Communicating with children
Miller and Lafrance provide a road map to manage the difficult moments.
The first step is to build a bridge between “upset child island” and “frustrated parent island” by imagining what your child may be thinking and feeling.
In many cases, kids haven’t yet learned to understand and name their feelings and needs, or they are too distressed to communicate them effectively: This is also true for adults. Kids may not be comfortable talking about feelings or are too angry to talk — also true for adults. So we can view difficult behaviours as how kids try to communicate their underlying emotions and get their needs met.
It doesn’t matter if you’re accurate: You’re simply trying to brainstorm possible guesses of why the child may be feeling or acting this way. This communicates that the child is important — not bad — and you’re willing to try to understand.
The next step is to validate, or to put these guesses about the child’s inner experience into words.
“Sometimes people think validation means just praising or saying everything is good and actually that’s not helpful,” says Miller. “Real validation is being able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, seeing where they’re coming from makes sense and then putting that into words to share that you get the issue.”
Validation — and feeling understood — calms our nervous system and gets us out of fight-or-flight mode, Miller says. It’s most effective when done over and over — Miller recommends offering three different guesses — as it takes time before we feel that someone is there with us.
For example, if your child refuses to do his homework, you could offer three validations, such as: “I can see why you wouldn’t want to do it because it’s boring,” and “You’d rather be playing video games,” and “It doesn’t seem fair that your sister doesn’t have to do it.”
Many parents worry that this approach won’t toughen their kids up for the real, cruel world. But Miller disagrees. “Validation is saying, ‘I always have your back,’” says Miller. “When kids feel and grow up with that sense of my caregiver has my back, they can handle the tougher world better.”
We can also acknowledge when we make mistakes. “One of the greatest gifts we can give our kids is to show that we don’t do everything perfectly,” says Miller. “It’s actually modelling and teaching that healthy relationships involve missing the mark, messing up and then repairing it.
"It’s the ultimate show of strength that we can say, ‘I messed up here,’” says Miller.
Validation helps children regulate their emotions and get into a zone where they can take in the next step of helping with problem-solving and other practical supports, Miller says.
While we often focus on problems, it’s also important to share joy, says Miller.
Right now, we need to look for small moments to celebrate.
“If your kid comes in and says, ‘I just made it to the next level of my video game,’ pay attention to them. And really joining in their enthusiasm is going to help promote their overall positive attitude, their mental health and strengthen your relationship. Those are just as important as being there in the times that your child is down,” says Miller.