Category: Stress

Managing the Chronic Stress of Parenting during COVID

Managing the Chronic Stress of Parenting during COVID

Photo by Raychan on Unsplash. Parenting can be so isolating, especially right now. Hang in there, folks.

My friend Suzanne, juggling two kids at home and a full-time job, found relief recently when she heard pandemic parenting advice from psychiatrist Dr. Matthew Biel on a podcast (last six minutes or so). “We’re not trying to get it right, get it perfect,” he said. “We’re just trying to do something that feels reasonably responsible.

I’ve been thinking about that advice – to aim for reasonably responsible parenting – ever since Suzanne shared that quote with me. The advice stood out because it goes counter to the belief that many of my counseling clients have that they should be rocking parenting out of the park – even during this COVID catastrophe and the depression, anxiety, stress, and isolation that has come with it. So many parents right now are struggling with a gap between their expectations of themselves as parents and the reality. For instance: Many parents have the expectation that they should always be able to be calm and patient with their kiddos. Next to perfect, really. But the reality is that most parents are struggling to do an impossible juggling act right now, and even under ideal situations it’s impossible to always be our best selves with our children.

I want to say that last bit again: It’s impossible to always be our best selves with our children. It’s not realistic. It sets us up for failure and the belief that we’re “bad parents” the minute we scream or stomp our feet or create an irrational or extreme consequence.

And the truth is that good parents scream and stomp our feet and do things we regret. Especially right now. And for good reasons. For the most part, we have more responsibilities right now and fewer resources (such as childcare, money, community, etc.). More responsibilities+fewer resources=stress. Big stress.

Parents, we need to lower our expectations of ourselves right now. This is not the time to aim for excelling. This is the time to aim simply for being reasonably responsible – making sure our kiddos are alive, safe, eating, drinking and sleeping, and aware most of the time that we love them even when we’re not acting like it. Is it ideal for kids to exist mostly on cheese and bread and cereal? Nope. But these are not ideal times, and they’ll still grow. Good enough. Is it ideal that most kids are spending tons of time on screens right now? Nope. But these are not ideal times, and this screen-gorging will not last forever. Is it ideal that parents are stretched beyond belief? Nope. But these are not ideal times, and our kids will survive our divided attention. If we give ourselves a break and aim simply for “reasonably responsible” so will we.

Are the holidays tough? If so, you’re not the only one.

There’s no way around it: the season of Thanksgiving and the holidays that follow suck for so many of us. As I’ve written here before, grief can be extra lonely and difficult when everyone around you is wishing you a merry Christmas or Happy Hanukah or meaningful Kwanzaa. All of us with complicated families struggle as we perhaps spend more time with family members than usual – or notice their conspicuous absences. Sure, spontaneous gratitude and good cheer may arise. But also there’s the potential for surges of sadness, sorrow, disappointment, anxiety, and pain.

Here’s what I want you to know:

The cultural myth that you “should” be happy at this time of year is not based in reality. If difficult things are happening or have happened to you, especially in November or December, it would be weird if you were suddenly all cheery. Same too if you have seasonal depression. Your low mood likely makes sense given the situation. And, when you beat yourself up for feeling bad instead of good, you’re adding to your pain.

Also, I want you to know that you are not the only one struggling right now. I have the privilege of sitting with lovely, kind, intelligent people every day who are grappling with how to navigate the holiday season without feeling crazy or eating all the cookies you didn’t actually like in the first place. I wish there was a secret handshake or cool badge people could wear to say you’re part of the club of people who’d rather just skip to January, so you could all know and enjoy each other, but alas… I don’t know of anything like that yet.

So, take good care. I MEAN IT. The only way to get to January is to get through November and December. And as stupid as it sounds, drink water! Sleep regular-ish hours! Take walks! Pet animals! And know you’re not alone. Really.

If I got a dollar every time…

Say I got a dollar every time I heard the following words:

  • “But other people have it worse.”
  • “Yeah I’m depressed and anxious, but I have privilege so I shouldn’t feel this way.”
  • “I’m not sure I deserve to be in counseling.”
  • “I’m worried I’m taking your time away from people who need help more than me.”

How much $$$ would I have at the end of a year if I faithfully put a dollar in a jar each time I heard a variation of these words?

Enough to go out to a great dinner. A really great dinner.

We often wish we could decrease stress and depression and anxiety by reminding ourselves of the hard stuff that other people face. But that’s not how it works.

I’ve written on this blog before about what I call “privilege syndrome” — the belief that if we have privilege in some way, it can be easy to feel guilty or judgmental about the ways in which we struggle. And this is common.

I wish that privilege could buffer us from anxiety. I wish that knowing about climate change or homelessness would mean that people with secure housing and middle class incomes could be immune or invisible from stress or depression or trauma.

But the brain and body don’t work like that. While those of us with stable housing or relationships may be less likely to experience trauma or stress, our nervous systems aren’t designed to tease out nuances of privilege. The body just experiences a flood of stress hormones like cortisol or adrenaline. The body just knows we’re depressed or anxious. The body knows we don’t feel okay, even if we try to use our intellect to convince ourselves we should feel differently.

And the research shows that judging ourselves for our responses and reactions don’t actually do much help.

Instead, I try to help clients cultivate neutrality or even self-compassion for our experience. It’s only by accepting what’s here – the pain, the suffering, the fear, the sadness – that we can begin to move through these difficult feelings. It’s only by acknowledging what’s true for us – whether we like the truth or not – that we can begin to move forward.

I see you, perfectionists.

Perfectionists, I have a heart for you. I get it. You don’t think of yourself as a perfectionist, you just think I don’t like to make mistakes. You know intellectually that your spouse/friend/employer would probably not dump you if you made a mistake… but why risk it? After all, making a mistake feels beyond terrible to perfectionists, like our lives and relationships and careers are on the line and the whole world could implode or explode at any moment.

So no wonder you live with a constant tension, a constant pressure, a constant anxiety, checking and double-checking to make sure nobody can find fault with you (except for you of course). And then of course if you’re critical of yourself—if you let Self Doubt or The Inner Critic be in charge—then maybe it won’t hurt as much if someone finds a flaw in you.

It’s not easy to live as a perfectionist. You might look like you have everything together on the outside—you might be organized, you might show up everywhere on time, your clothes are rarely wrinkled—but the inner reality can be so, so different and so, so difficult. It’s hard to live in fear of mistakes, to believe that mistakes will define us and make us less lovable (if lovable at all). It’s hard living with the belief that we’re one mistake away from unworthiness or that our worth in general stems from our ability to be flawless rather than our humanness. It’s hard to constantly compare ourselves to a version of ourselves we can’t live up to. And of course it’s hard as a perfectionist to open up to others, to admit what’s true: life is hard. Things aren’t easy. (Blog post continues after photo.)

Perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Usually when perfectionists come to counseling, they’re coming to therapy for issues that they see as distinctly separate from perfectionism. But feeling out of control, experiencing anxiety about personal and the political, and feeling alienated and isolated, can all link back to difficulty allowing ourselves to be human and make mistakes.

There’s sometimes a mistaken belief that perfectionists have that anxiety and perfectionism is helpful, that without that pressure and tension and Inner Critic they may not be as effective. If I don’t beat myself up, how will I do my best?

But research shows that we learn and perform much better when we’re open and curious and allow our humanness to shine (including the messy parts). Shame and self-judgment, it turns out, bite us in the ass more than we think. It is possible to create a different relationship with ourselves, the Inner Critic, Self Doubt, and our lives.

Here’s a perfectionism test if you’re curious to learn more… and you’re always welcome to talk through concerns in our Kirkwood therapy office.

Family Therapy Works!

There’s a lot that I’m not intimidated by. While I’m naturally a bit introverted, I’ve worked hard to talk in front of groups fairly comfortably. I’m not scared of Atlanta’s parking garages, elevators, or boats (unlike certain family members). I don’t enjoy shopping, but I can hit up an Ikea and come out alive and well. In my therapy practice, I can comfortably help clients tackle sticky issues like challenging relationships, infertility, abortion, depression, grief, and trauma. But what puts fear in my heart?

The idea of being in counseling with my parents.

And I’m not the only one. Quite often when I’m working with a kid or teen, I mention that a few family counseling sessions might help with improving communication or clarifying expectations or figuring out how to respectfully disagree with one another. And then I watch those teens as their faces go from open and interested and curious (because after all, teens are awesome if you’re not their parents) to shut-down, please-Dana-don’t-make-me-you-must-be-crazy-if-you-think-I’ll-do-that.

And I get it. Family therapy can be intimidating. Kids worry they’re going to get teamed up on or lectured. Often they hate their parents seeing them emotional and would really rather not cry in front of their parents. Teens already recognize there’s a lot they don’t control in their lives, and family counseling can appear—at first—to be another place where they won’t have control or a voice.

And yet. And yet. Family counseling can be powerful: healing, reinforcing and strengthening relationships, shifting communication patterns to be more healthy and constructive, and building trust and mutual respect. Kids and teens find they have a voice and relax as they see their parents listening to them; parents find that their kids can hear them differently through family therapy. Together, we make strides to strengthen the family. Because at the end of the day, none of us lives in a vacuum. We’re all connected. So let’s work on being connected in healthy, happy ways… even if it’s intimidating at first.

Let’s have more moments like these, okay?

Abortions: When the Political Is Personal

It’s hard to turn on the news in Atlanta right now without hearing about the new anti-abortion bill that’s been passed in Georgia or anti-abortion legislation in other states like Alabama. This legislation fires up people of all beliefs and backgrounds. But it can also be triggering—if not outright re-traumatizing—to women who have made the difficult choice to have an abortion.

And most of the women who find themselves stirred up by all the talk about abortion will likely stay silent. Talking about abortion is still taboo even though an estimated one in four women will have an abortion during their lifetime. For many women, a past abortion is a secret they don’t share out of fear of judgment or because of judgment they impose on themselves. As a result, there can be tremendous shame, guilt, and unresolved grief—often leading to isolation, depression, and increased anxiety.

Grief? Yes grief. It’s totally normal for women who have abortions to need to grieve. Unfortunately it’s also perfectly normal for women to believe they “shouldn’t” need to grieve. But abortion is complicated for many women, a difficult choice at a difficult moment in their lives. Grief is normal and natural.

We know that the antidote to shame and unresolved grief is speaking our truths—the messy, complicated truths—to safe people in safe places. As abortion continues to be a political issue, I sincerely hope that all who have actually experienced an abortion are surrounded by comfort, love, and support. You are not alone.

Surviving Grief During the Holidays

It’s that season. You know the one – the one where there’s upbeat Christmas music playing in stores, and it seems like everyone’s talking about The Holidays (Christmas, New Years – and, less often, Kwanzaa and Hanukah). It’s a special time of year! we’re told. A time for cheer! And parties! 

And the holidays sometimes really, really suck for people who are living with grief and loss. Those with grief don’t usually get a lot of attention at this time of year, or ask for it. (Who wants to say “oh, I’m decorating the tree thinking about my dear friend who died!” or “Hanukah feels different without my mom”). And yet, there’s a large group of us who are mourning someone who was important to us. And we’re more at risk for depression if we’re grieving and feeling isolated when we’re “supposed” to be feeling cheerful. 

I think it’s worth acknowledging that this particular time of year is chock-full of landmines for those of us grieving. Grieving is different for everyone, but a recipe you love might also be a recipe you associate with someone who’s died. The person you called first thing on New Year’s Day may no longer be around. Or, you might have had a terrible relationship with your cousin, but feel immensely guilty for not missing her. Did I already say this can really, really suck? It can be super stressful, even when we’re trying to be brave or have fun or appreciate what we do have.

Here are some great tips about surviving the holidays while living with grief.

And I want to plug the terrific book It’s OK That You’re Not OK. I don’t get paid to do so; I just sincerely loved this book and found it useful.

Take good care – especially now. Self-care is not a luxury when grieving; it’s a necessity.

 

 

 

 

The Hardest Things To Talk About Are Sometimes the Most Important

It’s easy to circle around the hard things: Death, shame, our heart’s disappointments. They can feel too intense to name directly: abuse histories, experiences with sexual assault and harassment, death and loss, abortions and miscarriages. They hover at the edge of our consciousness, where we try to push them away and distract ourselves: the ways we’ve messed up or been let down, our regrets and fears, our shame and sense of unworthiness. They hover at the edge of our consciousness, where we try to push them away and distract ourselves. They can be overwhelming. We worry that if we let ourselves feel the feelings, we may get too immersed in them to find our way through.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot with the #metoo movement and #whyIdidn’treport. I’ve been asking the question: How is that I haven’t known until now that some of my beloved friends and family members have been assaulted? How is it that even in intimate relationships, these things go unspoken – and unasked about?

Asking takes courage, though of course it takes more courage to name outloud, to ourselves and others, the hardest things we’ve experienced. That’s why I have so much respect for all who continue to share their stories of surviving trauma, including assault and abuse.

We need these stories to be out in the open. The hardest things to talk about are sometimes the most important. For healing, we need to be able to hold each other with compassion and support – and to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. For a more just society, we need to call out abuse and abuse of power. We need to address barriers to naming these difficult truths out loud – barriers that are significant to all people, and barriers that are often most profound for women of color.

I am continuing to work to make workspace a safe space, for all stories, for all aspects of self, for all experiences that have led us to this moment. I am working to ask and to listen to your stories, even the ones that are hardest to tell.

 

 

 

 

Where’s the manual for parenting adult children?

Summer is often a time that some kids and teenagers find relief from stress. Young people who find school challenging – either because of social stuff or academic work – often describe summer being a relief. Less is expected of them. They can give themselves permission to expect less of themselves.

But summer for the parents of recent grads and young adults is sometimes a different story. After all, the role of a parent of an adult child isn’t well defined. What does it look like to parent a 20-year-old during a summer spent at home? Once a young adult hits the magic age of 18 and is legally in charge of their own health and well-being, how should a parent proceed?

Lots of people are trying to navigate this terrain in a way that respects the autonomy of their adult child while staying connected. Here are a few tips to help you figure out how to proceed:

  1. Overall, what’s your parenting philosophy? Sometimes laying out your big picture principles about parenting can help us then decide how we want to proceed.
  2. Try to have check-in conversations with your kid about how they envision your relationship moving forward. Give them a heads up first that you want to have this conversation and find a mutually-agreeable time and place for it – no one likes being surprised by a serious conversation! You may want to ask questions like this: How can I be most helpful to you if you sound stressed/depressed/anxious? How would you like to spend time together?
  3. Catch yourself before you give unsolicited advice! Ask first: “Are you open to some thoughts here?” If they say no, keep your thoughts to yourself. Most of us need to learn from experience anyway.
  4. It never ever hurts to let your kid know how much you unconditionally love them.
  5. If you’re not asking them questions about their life in attempts to be respectful of their privacy, let them know that! “It’s not that I don’t care; I’m just trying to be respectful and follow your lead.”

It can also help for parents to figure out who they are and what they want to invest in, now that parenting is taking a different shape and perhaps less time. As your child launches, it’s an opportunity (for better or worse) to consider what you want now in your life. At the very least, such exploration can make it easier to tolerate worry about an adult child. At the very most, it can help you discover what’s next for you. 

 

 

We Need to Talk – and DO – More about Suicide

I’m not into fashion (obviously, my clients would say) but the suicide of designer Kate Spade was big enough news to enter my orbit last week. I was still reeling from

the news, as I do with any news of a suicide, wrestling with the same questions as everyone else – namely, how can someone look so successful and yet feel so terrible as to take their life? – when chef Anthony Bourdain killed himself.

It’s so easy to believe that loads of money or fame or professional recognition should or would inoculate any of us from isolation and despair. But these tragic deaths are reminders that depression and suicidal thoughts don’t just hit those of us down on our luck. Financial wealth is not a guarantee of happiness or ease. Fame is not a guarantee of happiness or ease. Depression is real, and needs real treatment. There are myths about depression that are widespread, but it’s important to know the facts. 

The writer Andrew Solomon’s book about depression, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, chronicles his experiences with depression and those of others – as well as looking at various treatments and interventions. For clients, the stories Solomon tells are a reminder that depression – as terrible as it can be – doesn’t have to stay a stagnant part of life. Things can get better.