Parents – RU really OK?

Amanda Abel – Paediatric Psychologist & Founding Director

Earlier this week I received a late-night email from Madeline Sibbing – one of our Principal Psychologists. It was something along the lines of “I can’t (insert expletive!) believe I forgot to write a blog post about RU OK Day – it is this week”. She mentioned how angry she was with herself.

After reminding her not to beat herself up, it got me thinking about the situation we find ourselves in right now and that Madeline’s 2020 RUOK Day blog post would unfortunately still apply this year as we still find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic, juggling remote learning and working from home. But this time it is different. This year we are all exhausted. We’ve been playing this juggling game intermittently here in Melbourne for 18 months now – with little teasers of ‘freedom’ in between the 6 lockdowns we’ve had so far. And as for the rest of Australia and the world – everyone is struggling in some way or another as a result of COVID.

There’s no doubt that COVID and lockdowns have significantly impacted parents. In fact, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in June 2021 that 23% of women experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress due to the pandemic, compared with 17% of men. The same survey also found that more Victorians experienced psychological distress than the rest of Australia. And here we are again – locked down, working from home and remote learning. But this time, we are seeing the impact that 2020 – and the continuation of the pandemic, has had on our children. Hospitals are seeing a significant increase in child and youth mental health admissions, and our mental health system is overloaded with demand for services. Many of the parents I’ve spoken to clinically are experiencing stress about work, guilt about their children’s education and are mentally and physically exhausted.

I share this story with you because Madeline’s feelings of anger at herself might ring true to you. We need to accept that this is NOT a normal situation to be in. We can’t expect ourselves to perform to our usual high standard, remember everything, be the teacher to our kids, support our family and come out of the other side of this pandemic in one piece.

So please, have a read of last year’s RU OK Day blog post, where in 2020 Madeline reminded us to check in with our friends who are struggling. This is still applicable today unfortunately.

And if you need some ideas to keep going through the remainder of this lockdown take some simple steps to help your body’s natural response to stress kick in:

  • Slow your breathing down – inhale for a count of about 5, hold, then exhale for a count of 10. Ensure your ribcage and abdomen expand.
  • End your shower with cold water or immerse your face in cold water
  • Laugh
  • Engage in non-screen-based activities that you really enjoy

Some general ideas that can help parents who are working from home with little remote learners by their sides are:

  • Set aside time to play and connect meaningfully with your kids (make a list if you find it hard to think on the spot)
  • Get physical daily – even if it is dancing with the kids or playing chasey
  • Spend time in nature – which is known to reduce stress
  • Give yourself permission to say ‘no’ to extra work demands
  • Allow yourself dedicated ‘worry time’ – try not to think about work stress until your designated ‘worry time’ each day. This allows you to be more present with your kids and contain your stress so that your reactions to the kids can be focussed on their emotional needs rather than a response to your own stress.
  • Try mediating apps (Headspace is great, or even try YouTube for some freebies) – there are some super short 3-minute mediations that you’ll be able to fit in. You can even try embedding meditation into the daily routine with the kids so they can reap the benefits too.
  • Be flexible in your working habits, with later or earlier starts or day swaps if needed and if possible.
  • Increase structure into your workday by forming some WFH routines (coffee breaks, lunch with the kids etc.).
  • You can also increase structure into your kids’ lives which reduces anxiety and difficult behaviours – things like visual schedules, reward charts and house rules can work a treat if used consistently.
  • Try to embed fun into your lockdown life. Have a picnic in front of the TV for dinner or camp in the back garden. As important as structure is, we also need some variation to keep a sense of novelty in our lives!

Remember, this won’t be forever so it can help to find solutions that simply work for now. If you need to let things slip a bit with the kids, then that is absolutely what you should be doing. At the end of the day, the most important thing your family needs is to know that you’re all loved – and for your kids to understand that they are a priority in your life. If choosing not to argue over your child’s schoolwork means that you’ll all still be talking to each other by the end of the day, then that’s the option to take. Help is available at Parentline Victoria on 13 22 89, Kids Helpline 1800 551 800 or Lifeline 13 11 14. You can also speak to your GP about a referral to see a psychologist for ongoing support.

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist, mum, and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development (NCCD) and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development (HCCD). She consults monthly in Beechworth in North-East Victoria. Amanda frequently presents at both academic and parenting events, most recently at the 7th Learning Differences Convention in Melbourne and Sydney in 2019 as well as many other events hosted by PR companies in Melbourne. Amanda is media trained, appearing on Channel 7 and 9 News and regularly features in print media. As a contributor to Finch Publishing’s “Working Mums” book, Amanda shared her insights about juggling a business and parenting.

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