Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Stress Management, Parenting and Staying Safe

You all know I work in child protection. I don't mean to be a Debbie Downer, but those of us in this industry are significantly concerned about how children quarantined at home will fare, so much so that we are having webinars, meetings, have published guidance documents and other various detritus of our trade. I mean, we even have a technical note that's been written! A technical note!

Kidding aside, we are really worried kids are going to get hurt by their caregivers, who are under significant stress. Stress stemming from lost jobs, limited movement, changes in routine, uncertainty, fear, health risks, etc., place children at a higher risk for abuse, neglect and even exploitation. Now remember, I work globally, so those of you reading may be going "exploitation, what?" I promise you, you don't want to know the details if you don't have to.


But its important that you understand that kids are at risk.

Possibly your own kids.

The reality is that you have the potential to hurt your child or someone else. I know that is absolutely terrible to contemplate and at least some of you are pissed that I could even think that you might hurt your kids.

But we have to contemplate the possibility. And you can be pissed at me, but when you can fathom the fact that people under stress react in ways that they might not normally, and reconcile that with the fact that we are ALL under a $#*t-ton of stress right now, you can understand that while case numbers are dropping like a stone right now (because schools - mandatory reporters- are closed right now), cases that are being reported are reporting a 75% increase in severity. And that's just in the US, where we are relatively better resourced than much of the rest of the world.

So we all have to reconcile that we all have the potential to do something awful.

And then let's explore ways not to do awful things.

Keeping yourself under control, and therefore not hurting kids or anyone else in your household, is a series of choices you continue to make. You make these choices every time you choose to take a minute and manage your stress, rather than taking that stress out on your kids later, which at some point, you will want to do, because they are also under stress, and freaking out over seemingly unrelated crap and losing their tiny little minds over a beheaded Barbie, or an untied shoe or any of sixteen thousand things that could go wrong in the course of an hour. Turns out, kids are impacted by this quarantine thing too.

Let's talk about how to manage stress. Managing your stress puts you in a better position to manage your kids' stress, and make sure that no one ends up in the hospital.

Would you believe me if I told you that stress management starts with breathing?

I know that sounds totally cliche, but its actually science. There is a bio-feedback mechanism involved that helps to dilate blood vessels when you breathe deeply, which slowly lowers your blood pressure. And then other biological stuff that I am not qualified to discuss, except to say "trust the process."

However, you need to recognize when you need to breathe.

Here are some hints. When you:
  • feel tense
  • feel your shoulders hunch
  • are angry
  • get disappointed about something at work
  • hear something that makes you mad
  • feel frustrated that someone hasn't done what you wanted them to do, or in the way you wanted them to do it
  • wonder if this is ever going to end  
  • realize that you are grinding your teeth
  • want to fly off the handle if you have to take one. more. Zoom.
  • find yourself more upset over "whatever" than you would be in normal times
Try some breathing exercises. Try these from the University of Michigan (my grad school alma mater):

Or, try some progressive muscle relaxation:
  • Start at the top of your head.
  • Scrunch your muscles, hold them for ten seconds, then intentionally relax them.
  • Go through from top to bottom, taking it muscle group by muscle group, purposely tensing them and then relaxing them.
Don't do this if you have chronic musculo-skeletal issues, as unfortunately I learned when teaching progressive muscle relaxation to patients when I worked at the hospital. Try something else instead.

Other stress management techniques include:
  • Drink water. 8 glasses a day are no joke - they keep your system in regulation. Caffeine and alcohol dehydrate you, and while they might feel good and keep going for the moment, they aren't actually effective. Water flushes stress-produced chemicals out of your system.
  • Moderate exercise.We all know I run marathons, but  I don't expect you to be a convert. However, moderate exercise helps to process stress chemicals, and raises your endorphins (feel good chemicals). Take a walk if you are allowed, do some squats, go up and down a set of stairs 10 times, run in place, find a Jazzercise video on YouTube and mimic it. Host a dance party of one. Try yoga. 
  • Stretch your muscles,
  • Take time in your day to do something for you that is life giving. 
  • Write out what you are feeling and how things are going. Be brutally honest- only the paper will know. Getting out your feelings helps. If you don't want anyone to read it, rip it up after. 
  • Phone a friend. Tell them what's going on and listen back. Laugh and joke and swear if you have to - let that crap out. 
  • Draw, color, or tap into whatever gets your creative juices going. 
  • Take ten minutes, lock yourself away from others, and meditate, pray, deep breathe, stretch, and remember what feeling alone feels like.
  • Look at nature. Real nature is best, if you can go outside, but studies have shown that even looking at photos of nature helps. 
  • If you have access, eat healthy, low fat, low sugar, low carb foods. Fruits and vegetables help your system - fresh is great, canned or frozen are alternatives. Resist covering them in salt, sugar, cheese, or syrups. I'm not saying completely forego chocolate or a glass of wine... just maybe don't eat the whole bar or drink the whole bottle.
  • Practice gratefulness. For five minutes, list everything you can think of that you are happy to have in your life, brings you joy, or you appreciate. Take stock in those things. 
  • Find a spot of sunshine and sit in it. 
  • Engage in a hobby.
  • List things that have helped you manage stress in the past - what worked before is likely to work again, keeping safe and healthy as good ground rules. 
  • Seek out telehealth options. Many counseling agencies have gone online to see clients. Therapy doesn't mean you are crazy or out of control - it means you know enough to get some additional support. 
Just don't hit your kids. Or your partner, spouse, or whomever you live with. Even if you believe in spanking as a disciplinary technique (as a social worker for the last 20 years, I do not for all the reasons), this may be one time when this disciplinary technique should be shelved. Those who advocate for physical discipline (I've read the published works, and no, I'm not going to tell you what they are) will say that effective physical discipline should be carried out only when the disciplinarian is calm and totally in control. We are not living in "totally in control"times. You have other discipline techniques available to you - avail yourself of those. Not hitting or spanking your children does not mean you abdicate your role as authority figure in your home - it means you choose to discipline your child in other ways. You remain in control and in charge. Lots of parenting experts out there (and yes, I've also read them for professional if not personal reasons) provide different options, including:
  • restrictions: turn off the WiFi, take away electronics, toys, or phones
  • limitations: time-outs for younger children, having to sit somewhere with no activities, games, music or distractions (I had a friend who had the "naughty spot" which traveled with them, instead of having the "time out chair" which couldn't be accessed if they weren't home)
  • early bed times
  • extra chores
  • writing apology letters
  • in-person/over the phone apologies to the person they have mistreated
  • restrictions of candy or special snacks (do not refuse meals to kids - they need to eat, but not getting M&Ms isn't going to harm them)
  • planned ignoring (works well with young children having tantrums)
  • sitting and talking about the feelings that led to the misbehavior, and coming up with other ways to express and handle those feelings (this isn't a punishment, its a good plan!)
I like, and have taught from, a book by Dr. David Walsh called "No: Why Kids- of All Ages- Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It." I think its full of valuable and practical advice, and many parents have agreed with me. 

I also recently reviewed the following resources, and shared them with my coworkers. 

Ending Violence Against Children, Positive Parents in Covid-19 Isolation: This website includes a pack of downloadable resources to respond to school closures and isolation measures World Health Organization parenting experts have created a new set of evidence-based resources for parents and caregivers to support their children’s growth – and interact with them constructively – during this time of confinement. The downloadable resources include six single-page documents on specific parenting topics, including “One on One Time,” “Structuring Children’s Days,” “Keeping Positive,” “Managing Bad Behavior,” “Managing Stress,” and “Talking with Children about Covid-19.”  The PDFs have links to additional information.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network ( has published documents in English and Spanish on Helping Families Cope with Covid-19. These documents seem be to be written primarily for a US-based audience. However, I found the chart on pages 4-5 on “Helping Children Cope,” which lists recommendations by age group, potentially useful. Additionally, they linked to an (English only) document on cognitive distortions and how to get out of negative thinking patterns which may be helpful for adults.

From the US Center for Disease Control, here is a web page with tips on managing stress and coping during the outbreak. They include tips for caregivers, child protection professionals, health professionals, and warning signs of stress in children:

I love you all, and your kids. Stay safe out there (or in there).

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