Psychologists offer advice to parents during this chaotic time

By Catherine Robertson Souter
December 7th, 2020
Diana L. Prescott, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and has a practice in Hamden, Maine.
Diana L. Prescott, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and has a practice in Hamden, Maine.

To say this has been a trying year for humans is to put it mildly. Everything has been thrown up into the air. From fears of a loved one getting sick to the stress of financial or housing instabilities, to the overarching political and social turmoil, 2020 will go down as a year that showed us all what we are made of.

For parents, add keeping kids of all ages on task with school work, arguing with teens about what constitutes safe behavior, and becoming a de facto entertainment director for the cruise ships we call home, and it’s no wonder they come in to the therapist’s virtual office feeling overwhelmed and pandemic-fatigued.

And we are not at the end of the tunnel yet.

As one mom of young children put it, “We are all going crazy. It is stressful and we are ready for it to be done. And the politics are causing tension in the extended family. Get the word out we need help.”

Her therapist, Diana L. Prescott, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with a practice in Hamden, Maine, explained that she is hearing a lot of this type of stress. Her practice has seen an increase in both new clients and demand from current patients.

In addition, she explained, therapists are dealing with their own families, stress over social issues, and insecurity about running a practice that had to switch practically overnight to telehealth.

Her advice for therapists working with parents? She starts with self-care, both for herself, but also in every conversation with the client.

“A lot of what people had in place, their coping mechanisms, were pulled out from under them,” she said. “So, we work on trying to figure out new coping mechanisms. As therapists we have to be creative in figuring out how to help. It will require a lot of thought and careful listening.”

Some suggestions for ways to de-stress may be nature walks or meditation or yoga. Or it can be a scheduled social call with a friend.

“Be sensitive to what is working and what makes you feel better and what makes you feel more like looking forward to your day,” she tells clients, asking them: “What else can you do besides open a bottle of wine; what can you do instead that won’t make you feel like crap the next day?”

She also talks to parents about being aware what the kids are experiencing. While younger kids may demand more attention and day-to-day guidance, the teens and college-aged kids may be feeling more stress than they let on.

“The Generation Z kids are super stressed out because they have no clear picture of their future,” she said. “In some cases, they are losing out on important experiences. Before this I had heard a social psychologist talk about teen girls having a 125% increase in anxiety because of social media. Then put the pandemic on top of it and it has to be affecting them.”

Letting parents off the hook is also key, said Alan Kazdin, Ph. D, ABPP, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry and director of the Yale Parenting Center. The center has created a free online course for developing better parenting techniques that has reached 115,000 people around the world.

“And you can imagine that when the confinement started there was a huge surge in interest all over the world,” Kazdin said.,

The thing he has come to realize, he said, is that the best tools for parents trying to cope during the pandemic are the same ones experts have been recommending all along, from modeling behavior to de-emphasizing punishments to simple modifications on phrasing and tone of voice.

“The tools that are available are solid and so helpful and proven that we need to make sure parents are using those,” he said. Use the hammer when trying to drive in a nail, he explained, “because we know it works.”

Perhaps the most important message to send out to parents, he said, is to let go a little. The stress being built up around being a perfect parent, entertainment director and teacher can be more detrimental than not reaching the bar we set for ourselves.

“Stress is so high in homes right now,” he said, “and when a parent is stressed it comes across in their voice and even if a child doesn’t recognize it implicitly, what happens is that commands are less likely to be complied with and then the parent becomes more stressed.”

Don’t be alarmed, he added, about reports in the media about children losing out on learning and how it will affect them for the rest of their lives. Instead, explain to parents that they should focus on psychological health.

“Let a year go by,” he said. “Your child will be fine. Now it is important to keep the family intact and to keep relationships solid. Now is not the time to teach if that is getting in the way.”

“It’s important to let the home be a little bit more mellow, more fun, with rituals or a day off just to make pizza in the kitchen,” he said. “That is nothing new. It is just is one of the hammers we have always used.”

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