I’ve had several conversations over the past couple of weeks with parents who are struggling with home schooling during lock down. This is not at all surprising considering we are in an extraordinary situation with schools being closed for such an extended period of time. Yesterday I ran a poll to gain a bit more of an idea on how parents are coping.
Even with a relatively small number of votes, there are some interesting points here. The majority feel they are coping, but getting annoyed and there are also several who are really struggling. Of all of the options the least voted for was the stress free one. So why are we finding it stressful? I’ll be touching on different emotions such as anxiety, depression, anger, guilt and shame, and will talk about them from different angles using techniques from different therapies. Some emotions won’t apply to everyone. All of the emotions will apply to some.
Now there’s a phrase that has been used a lot over the last month. As parents, we are used to children being at home. We have the kids at home at weekends and school holidays. At the end of the 6 week holidays, social media is full of memes and jokes about getting the kids back to school, but we still cope because we know exactly when the start and end date is. The dates are predetermined so we can plan and we can count down to day 1 of the September term.
Where we are now in the lock down period of undetermined length is indeed very much unprecedented. We simply don’t know what to do. We are asking ourselves anxiety provoking questions. “What if …. schools don’t go back until …?, what if my child falls behind at school? What if I have no one to look after my child?”
We have been thrown into uncertainty, put out of our comfort zones. Often anxiety is caused by a lack of control, or rather a perceived need for control. For the person who believes they need control or they need structure, anxiety will be heightened when control and structure is taken away.
Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT)
With REBT we look at changing beliefs from irrational to rational. By doing that we can get rid of unhealthy negative emotions once we have determined what the unhealthy belief is. It will include absolutist words like SHOULD, NEED or MUST, e.g.
“You MUST listen to me!”
“I NEED five minutes peace!”
“You SHOULD sit still!”
These are known as rigid demands. When a demand is broken we are left with unhealthy emotions. Ideally we will lose the rigid demands and replace them with flexible preferences. e.g. “I would prefer it if you listened to me, but I accept you don’t have to. There’s so much going on in your brain at the moment, it is understandable you are distracted”
“I would really like 5 minutes peace, but I accept that you have a question, or that you want to be near me”
“I’d prefer it if you sit still but understand you are full of energy and you’re not able to run around like you would at school.”
We are very good at lying to ourselves, holding these rigid demands which are simply not true. So when you find yourself getting angry or stressed over something imagine someone is there asking you why? Listen to your answer, recognise the demand and then ask yourself is it actually true. I can tell you already that it isn’t.
Follow on emotions
Sometimes you might get angry at yourself or someone else, then behave in a way that breaks yet another demand. The initial anger has subsided, but in the heat of the moment you flew off the handle and shouted at the kids sending them to their rooms and making them cry. A demand such as “I MUST always do the best by my children” or “I SHOULD never upset my kids” once broken can lead to unhealthy guilt. Follow on thoughts then occur such as “I am such a bad parent”, “I’m not worthy”.
What do we do next? Go on Facebook, Instagram and see all our friends ‘perfect’ lives. Photos of smiling kids being perfectly home schooled with their perfectly placed fresh orange juice on their perfect table. That carefully choreographed split second of someone else’s life becomes our benchmark, but our life doesn’t live up to that 24/7. No ones does, not even the friend who posted it. We’re now left with thoughts such as “I SHOULD be better”, but by the time we even think this, the demand has already been broken. We now have shame. We then start focusing on next week. “How am I going to be able to cope?” That’s right, we’re now anxious. Then we focus on last week. “I was such a bad parent. There’s no point me trying to help. I just want to hide away for everyone’s sake. That should have been fun, but I just made everyone miserable”. That’s right, depression.
It’s easy to think that we can’t talk to our friends about this as they may judge us negatively, and we can’t talk to family about it as we’ll may have let them down. So we carry it alone, feeling like a fraud “I’m not the person they think I am.” “I’m not worthy of their love or friendship.”
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
The ACT (pronounced like the word act not the initials) approach looks at accepting situations for what they are, and taking committed action towards improvement. As a part of ACT therapy we look at what our life values are and how we are living up to those values, and what changes we can make to ensure we are living more in line with them. Think of a value as a direction. We can travel East, but we never arrive at East. So as a parent, if one of your values is to be nurturing towards your children, then travel that route, but accept the possibility of taking a wrong turn and veering off course. That’s OK, just get back on track.
Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT)
CFT as you might have guessed focuses on compassion. Compassion for ourselves and compassion for others. Perfection doesn’t exist, and therefore falling short of perfect doesn’t have to be punished. It looks deeply into human evolution and the evolution of our brains. In short, our brains are largely designed for primitive functions. What Paul Gibert, the founder of CFT refers to as the four F’s. Fight, flight, food and … reproduction. Our brains aren’t geared up to shopping in supermarkets, sending our kids off to school, being surrounded by modern technology etc. To put this into context, primates evolved around 8 million years ago, human beings developed approximately 2 million years ago. The light bulb was invented in 1885 and smart phones around 20 years ago. Our ‘tricky brains’ haven’t caught up with modern life.
We didn’t chose to be born at this time, we have found ourselves here and we have to deal with what we have. We didn’t choose to be human, or to have the brain we have. So how can it be our fault? Let yourself off the hook. Yes we have choice and responsibility over how we act, but a lot of our reactions are largely automatic. If you don’t like the way you react, that can be a good thing as you recognise you have scope for improvement. If you can’t control it, seek some therapy.
CFT advocates taking time for self-soothing. Read a book you want to read. Take a bath, sit and relax, connect with other people, nature and your own desires. Look after yourself, treat yourself with compassion and respect. But also recognise other people are in the same situation. Others may react in automatic ways. It may be the only way they know how to react. A combination of our ‘tricky brain’ that we are born with, and what we have since picked up from our parents, carers, teachers, peers, media and society.
Have you ever seen that scene in Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams’ psychologist character repeatedly tells Matt Damon’s delinquent character “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault”? That is CFT.
Both ACT and CFT advocate the practice of mindfulness. No doubt you will have heard of mindfulness, but it’s concept is largely misunderstood. Many people believe that mindfulness is meditation and that meditation is not for them. Many try it and give up because of the misguided belief they can’t do it. “My mind is too busy”, “I can’t focus on nothing, something always comes into my head”. Well that is where the power of mindfulness comes in to its own.
I won’t go too far into mindfulness here, except to reiterate, you cannot do it wrong. When you notice your mind wandering, that is the moment you are doing it right, not wrong. Mindfulness is about living in the present moment, not the past or the future and recognising thoughts as just that. Thoughts. When our minds wander chances are it will be to the past or the future. Yes we’re in lock down, you’re bored, the kids are ever present, but what is actually wrong with this moment? We will only be disturbed by our thoughts. By using mindfulness we focus on what is happening now. Watching the kids draw, write, listening to them read, watching them as we read to them. Sitting with a cup of coffee, feeling the warmth of the mug, the smell of the coffee, the sound of the birds outside, the occasional vehicle passing.
Recognise your demands
Recognise your demands and let them go. Frustration or annoyance at your child ignoring your repeated requests to tidy up while not ideal, is ok, but reacting with anger (emotion) and verbal or physical violence (behaviour) is not.
Throw out the timetable
They’re not at school and you are not their teacher. It’s very strange for them too. At school they may have a fixed structure of a time table, dinner times, play times etc. By all means try to keep to a schedule, but if at 10.30 they are resisting maths, it’s not going to be a problem if they do some drawing instead.
Use what is at your disposal
Put the fun into lessons. Depending on the age of your child, consider some alternative lessons. I bet school teachers would love to be outside in the garden all day counting butterflies and ants. But with 30 kids it is not viable. Your garden, or the path on your daily trip out can be an ideal textbook. My 4-year-old went round the garden counting bugs. His 2-year-old sidekick followed. Both were learning. How many legs have those 3 ants got? (3 times table, six times table, biology). For the younger ones, find 5 different colour flowers. (Counting, colour recognition, speech) etc.
Give yourself a break – Part 1
Devote some time to yourself and when you have it, recognise it and be thankful for it. Read a book, watch a film, have a bath, wash the car, or whatever it may be. Accept as well that it could end in an instant, so cherish it while it is happening.
Give yourself a break – Part 2
Don’t be hard on yourself. Yes you’ve done something that you feel bad about but that doesn’t make you a bad person. It merely confirms your status as human. One event doesn’t define who you are.
You are not alone
Know that you are not alone in your thoughts. A third of respondents to the poll chose C or D and all but one of the rest gets annoyed.
Think about your values around your children and act in accordance with them. Ask your self – In 10 years time, what would I wish I had done differently during the coronavirus lock down of 2020? Think of someone you admire and what values they have that you wish you had. Be like that.
Stop comparing your life with other people’s. You don’t know enough about the other people, and you’re only comparing their best bits with your worst bits.
No one is perfect
Let go of perfection. By all means strive for an appropriately high standard. If that high standard goes out of the window today, try again tomorrow. It’s not a problem. No one is perfect, so don’t demand that you are.
Go to bed earlier. With kids, your wake up times are probably out of your control, but your bed time isn’t. It might feel like you’re cutting down on your ‘me time’ but more rested = more tolerant. There is so much science behind sleep, but in short aim for 8 hours a night, not 5 or 6. Aim for a consistent bed time (if possible) and aim for your sleep to take place in one session. The best parts of sleep come at the end, hours 7 and 8.
Practice mindfulness and encourage your kids to as well. This can form part of a game, especially for younger kids as well as being a valuable life skill. How many sounds can you hear? How many colours can you see? How many shades of green are there on the trees? This is one aspect of mindfulness known as informal mindfulness. The other, formal mindfulness is what many think of as meditation. Use apps like Headspace, Calm, breeth etc, All have a certain amount of free content, enough to get you started. Headspace is currently offering lot’s of content for free for NHS staff and School staff. The links are on my Facebook page.
Become a learner
Home learning isn’t limited to the kids. Think of a subject that interests you, buy a book and learn more about it. With that will come a sense of achievement especially if replaces mind numbing tv programs or mobile phone games.
Be grateful. We have so much to be grateful for, it’s so easy to forget it and concentrate on the bad stuff. The shops are still open and we can still buy food. Communities have really come together and rallied around. Maybe this will last long after the lock down lifts? Be grateful for the sounds and sights of spring, for those 5 minutes of peace, that morning cup of coffee/tea. Not to mention the NHS staff and other key workers.
Turn off the negativity
Limit the amount of bad news you hear. The media provide us with what they call The News, but actually it could be renamed The Bad News. We don’t need to hear of the morbid milestones around the world, the ages of the youngest victims etc etc etc. Turn off The Bad News. Catch up once a day if you want, but forget the 6 o’clock, 7 o’clock, 9 o’clock 10 o’clock, news after the hourly or half hourly radio bulletins.
Plan for the future
When your kids start playing up, or you feel yourself getting agitated, try this…. Make a list called ‘What I want to do, and where I want to go’. You can write the list on a piece of paper or use individual pieces of paper and get get everyone to write down what they want to do and where they want to go once the lock down has been lifted. We’re lucky in our house in that we’ve not had any big holidays cancelled unlike some, but we have had to cancel a trip to Legoland for my son and daughters birthdays. So our list includes a trip to Legoland. Although upset they can’t go, this reminds the kids it’s still on the cards and gives them something to look forward to. Writing it down serves as a tangible reminder rather than just forgotten words and is something that you can go over and add to. If your kids are missing school friends, add a play date, party or sleep-over to the list.
Hopefully there will be some good tips here to help ease the pressures of being locked down (or locked-up) with the kids. I’ve only just touched on many things here, so remember if you are struggling, please get in touch with me, or a therapist near you.