As two working parents with a five-year-old and a ten-year-old, these past several months have sometimes felt like treading water. In the midst of preparation for an adjusted (and, in our case, all virtual) back-to-school season, several sources of conflict have weighed heavily on my mind.
As a mental health professional who espouses Recovery-Oriented Cognitive Therapy (CT-R) in both work and life, this is the point where I ask myself: What is going on from a CT-R perspective? Fired up tensions and beliefs about lack of control, inadequacy as a parent, and ineffectiveness as a colleague enhance feelings of anxiety and disappointment. Frustration tolerance is down, impacting reactions – slips of a sharp tongue happen more quickly, sleep falls by the wayside. Where do my aspirations and values lie in terms of my family, career, and self? Can we still realize those as we make the choice not to enroll the kids in in-person activities or socialize with friends and relatives in the way we typically like? How about when the lines are totally blurred between work and home?
Though I work in the mental health field, I don’t have all the answers. Even still, I believe we are all trying the best we can. I also believe that open dialogue about both our struggles and how we’re navigating this situation can, if nothing else, help us strengthen our solidarity.
Case in point, a few weeks back, our five-year-old daughter and I participated in her kindergarten assessment. She had been very excited to meet everyone and get started. To her dismay, we were met with masked strangers and blockades. We knew this would be so, but it was still immobilizing for her. My daughter’s negative reaction stirred up a profound conflict in me – I wish we could have prepared her better.
Then, during a recent family picnic, our ten-year-old son shared his uneasiness about the start of school. The uncertainty of how interactions with peers will be in the virtual environment and about how we, as a household, will handle the adjustment, essentially made him worry about being worried: the effect of mixed expectations about what’s soon to come and the inability to predict how it will actually be. We reassured him that we will figure out what works, and that undoubtedly something won’t work for us. When that happens, we can always regroup and try again, together.
This is an example of what we actually can control. We can give ourselves permission to change course and remind ourselves that the best laid plans may not last long.
Here are some of the other ways we’re trying to navigate the adjustment and internal conflict in our house. Maybe these will work for you, too.
For the family
Creating routine and structure is commonplace wisdom for how to deal with stress and childcare during the pandemic. However, many parents may feel, as I do, that structure and routine can seem impossible when you’re balancing multiple roles and shifting between them throughout the day. Some ways we’re trying to bring this about without putting too much pressure on ourselves include:
- Prioritizing special moments: We will be trying our best to make our new routine fun. This includes continuing traditions like taking “first day of school” photos at the front door, even though the kids will be turning around and heading back to the dining room table. Similarly, they each picked out one special school supply. The aim here is to feel more certain and to have something positive to anticipate, countering negative expectations for the future.
- Providing roles and choices: When everyone has an opportunity to contribute and be involved in deciding what course to take, it increases some sense of control and, again, predictability. Choices can include rotating who picks a show or movie to watch as a family at the end of the day, what midday snack everyone can have, or picking their first day of school outfit or accessory. The latter idea has already helped my daughter rebound and feel excited to show her dress to her classmates over the computer. My kids were given the choice of whether or not I could share their experiences with you all, too. We also started putting together a calendar with all four of our schedules – all I can say about that is, yikes! But, still, it’s visual, helps us see and begin to understand each other’s needs, and will hopefully give us the opportunity to support the roles we have. This boosts empathy and connection.
- Creating space: If your household is anything like ours, it’s pretty tight quarters. We got trifold poster boards from the dollar store to create personal “cubicles” that we let them decorate. Control, agency, something to feel proud of. All counter beliefs about inadequacy or inability to separate home, school, and work.
- Taking stock: We make it a point, toward the end of each day, to take stock of the day and to especially focus on what went well. We anticipate that with the stressors that are sure to come, we will need this more than ever. We ask: What was the best part of the day? Did anything go better than expected? What were those things like and how can we try to do them again? More positive predictability. We can then problem solve what got thrown off course and how we can try to get back on track. We can also take stock of how we’re living our values and meeting our family’s bigger aspirations. Did we do something together that brought purpose and valued meaning into our day? If not, what can we do?
- Communicate with colleagues: I have been open with my colleagues that I may need some more support in completing tasks, asking for patience and understanding. They hear me and respect me. Concerns about ineffectiveness diminish. Let people know where you’re at and what you need. If you’re in independent practice, I encourage you to seek out groups on social media for people going through this experience. I’ve found them both locally and globally. Reach out to colleagues you went to school with. Connection is key.
- Genuinely empathize with clients who are navigating conflict, too: If you are reading this as a fellow mental health professional, you may have been trained to leave your own experiences at the door. This can sometimes be limiting. Sharing doesn’t need to be exceedingly divulging – perhaps it’s as basic as saying: “I get it. I’ve experienced that off and on through the pandemic, too.” I’ve done this with clients recently and observed a relaxed breath of unity and better ability to collaborate on action steps. We are all in uncharted territory, and there is a lot of power in acknowledging our own experiences and forging connection amidst the uncertainty.
- Communicate and connect: I am taking care of myself by writing this. I’m controlling what I can by sharing my experience. It helps with accepting things as they are but shifting my energy and focus onto something meaningful to me: connecting and partnering with others.
Just as there’s no handbook for parenting during more typical circumstances, there is certainly no handbook for how to handle all this during a pandemic. We are all learning and figuring out what’s best for us and for our families, using each experience to inform the next day’s pursuit of happiness and purpose. For more ideas on finding connection and dealing with uncertainty amid COVID-19, see here.
If you're interested in learning more about Recovery-Oriented Cognitive Therapy (CT-R), join Dr. Inverso, along with fellow Co-Director Dr. Paul Grant, as they lead the CT-R for Schizophrenia and Serious Mental Health Conditions virtual workshop on October 21, October 28, and November 4. This workshop is a good fit for staff of all disciplines across all levels of education and experience working with individuals with serious mental health conditions.