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How to handle tantrums, anxiety and other pandemic parenting challenges

There is little doubt that parenting during a pandemic has been challenging, and even with schools starting to reopen, the disruption to routines and structure has created new anxieties for parents and children alike. Hari Sreenivasan spoke with clinical psychologist and parenting consultant Becky Kennedy, whose Instagram page @drbeckyathome has become a must-read for many families looking for advice.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So, Dr. Kennedy, let's start with perhaps the most obvious question that parents ask during the pandemic is, is there a reason why children are having tantrums and outbursts that we just haven't been used to with our own children.

  • Becky Kennedy:

    Yes, because kids, first of all, adults too, we act how we feel and if you think about this period we're in, there's just so much out of control feeling to go around. We're out of control. Things that we thought were predictable, aren't. I usually go to school, I usually see my teachers, I always play this with this friend of recess. And then I come home and one of my parents is there, both my parents are there, neither of my parents are there. We have a cadence, and now every single part of that has changed.

    And what's really, really difficult about that is that kids don't have the same order and feeling of predictability. And what happens in their bodies is their bodies feel out of control. And then the littlest thing where the banana had an extra brown spot. Right. Or the apple. Right. Isn't red enough. This happens in my house. To buy the apple isn't bad enough. The banana's too sweet, wherever it is, it just spills over the bucket of this did not go the way I wanted it to go. This did not go the way I thought it was going to go. And then we see meltdowns about these small things. But they really represent the release of all of this unpredictability and out of control feeling.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In a way, if they are mirroring us, we are feeling that as parents, as human beings around them all day long. And I guess maybe they're picking up something nonverbally or maybe they're picking up the waves, the vibe.

  • Becky Kennedy:

    Absolutely. Our kids are experts at sensing their environment. It's actually part of how they've learned to survive, how we've all survived. Kids have to notice what's different, what's the scene, what might be a threat, because if you think about it as a human species, our young are helpless and are dependent on us for survival for much longer than other animals, and so they really have to notice changes. And when you notice a change, what's evolutionarily adaptive is to assume it's the threat before someone in your environment has explained that you're still safe. Right. We have to assume the noise in the forest is a bear before a kid assumes it's a squirrel. Right? You have to. And so it speaks to something very practical, which is actually we can do so much to help kids feel in control, not by changing their life back to.

    However, it was pre-COVID by explaining all of the changes. So often people say, but my kids so young, will they understand that? One hundred percent, no matter how old the kid is, I'll tell the parent. Yes, they will. They'll also understand that you're trying to explain something. They have to know why are they not seeing grandma? Why are they wearing masks? Why is Daddy working from home? Why is Mommy more upset? Why are Mommy and Daddy arguing more? The more we actually talk to our kids about these things, then in their environment, our kids can start to feel safe again.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How do you think the pandemic affects our relationship with just our coworkers, other folks and their children? We now see them in the back of Zooms and running around and screaming and making, you know, they've showed up. And it's much harder to ignore that reality when you're thinking about making workplace policies or national policies.

  • Becky Kennedy:

    I've noticed kind of this relative binary there and things I've heard from, you know, even my clients where either it's made them in some ways more dedicated to work. They think my work has become so much more humane. They understand. And then other people saying it's as if my workplace has no idea that my whole life has changed. And that makes me less and less productive. I think it really brings up that we have to appreciate someone's whole life and how we feel in our family life has always impacted our productivity and our job. And so I think the workplaces that are really talking about that and bringing that into the conversations are actually doing a lot in the workplace. And it's really, really highlighted how important that is.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know, I think parents are also concerned about our relationship with technology and how much of that is being absorbed by our kids. Because, in a pre-pandemic era, if I had to be in front of a screen or if I had to be on my phone, there were several hours a day that my child never had to witness that. But now it is so obvious to them that this thing is really important to me. And at times it feels like it's more important to me than they are to me. So. I don't know what this is kind of separate from, how much screen time should my child get? I'm just saying, how do I say to them, well, you shouldn't be in front of screens so often because they're going to turn around and say, what are you talking about, hypocrite?

  • Becky Kennedy:

    I guess I have a couple thoughts on that, and it kind of actually relates to feeling more in control in your environment. In general, kids do better with things that are said than left unsaid. So when we're on our phones all the time, we think, oh, I'm just going to do this to the side, I'm going to do this under the dinner table. They notice and they always notice and we want them to notice. I don't know anyone who says, I hope my kid, when they get older, doesn't notice the things in their environment. We don't want to train them not to notice.

    So just even saying, hey, I know this is a disruption and my work is different now than it used to be. And I know that's hard on you. And I know I say not a lot of screen time for you and you see me doing it. Oh, what a mess. I'm going to finish this email and then I'm going to put my phone over there and at least be here for the next couple of minutes. That makes a huge difference because it also gives the kid a label to digest an experience versus having to make sense of it themselves.

    I also think the other thing around our own screen time is we really underestimate the power of however many minutes, two minutes, five minutes, 15 minutes, saying to your kid, I want to have special time with you. And what that means is no screens, but I promise not for me either, because you're right, we kind of tell ourselves and the people around us what's important by our attention. Our attention tells us or tells people our values and what matters. And I think even 15 minutes, even if that feels too much for some parents two minutes, saying, my phone is away, it's a crazy day for me at work, but I want to have at least two minutes of dedicated, no screen time for either of us and have that together. Kids really, really take that high quality time.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And that's that's one very good strategy. I mean, so right now, we've talked about explaining it to children exactly what it is that the changes that you're feeling, carving out time, what are some other good tips on ways that we can just communicate to them but also help them through this process? Because inevitably, selfishly, that also helps parents.

  • Becky Kennedy:

    Totally. So I'd say a couple of things. To me, almost proactively, we can say to our kids every morning, you know what I've been thinking about? It's a really hard time to be a, and then fill in the blank with their age. It's a really hard time to be a three year old. It's really hard to be a eight year old. It's really hard to be a fifteen year old. And the reason I feel comfortable saying that is no matter what age you're filling in the blank with, it's true. It's hard to be living through this time and just hearing that, right?

    Just imagine for you, if again, you go to work and your boss, says that's the first thing, like, wow, it's really hard to be an adult living through this pandemic. You know, I think I see how hard you're working. Your whole day is changed, right? It just fills you up. So I think we can all see that to our kids more often.

    I think another thing we can say to our kids just more often is what is the hardest thing about this for you? And I'm asking you not because I'm going to make it better. Sometimes, you know what I've learned? Sometimes the hard stuff, the best we can do is talk about it with someone and just feel a little less alone with it. And sometimes that's what makes something hard anyways, there's no immediate fix. What is the hardest part? I want to hear that from you. And I promise you, I'm not going to change it. I just want to know so I can think about that, too. Right. And we're really helping our kids not carry the baggage of this time on their own.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    If they don't have a conception of money, if they don't have a conception of why it is that your parents go and do work, how do you get that across to them, especially when they have always associated you being at home with their time?

  • Becky Kennedy:

    Yeah. So I'm going to take that question, if it's OK, I'm going to shift it a little bit because I think so many times we want to convince our kids about why work is important, because we feel guilty watching them have feelings about our work, right and we're going to like use logic. And then our kids are like, oh, I guess that's right, Mom. So you have to work. So I go to soccer. Thank you so much. You're so amazing. And be like, all right.

    But whenever anybody at any age uses logic on us to try to take us away from how we're feeling, it's just a losing battle because it's never what we're looking for. So it's not to say I don't think there's a role to tell kids, hey, this is why I work and this is what it gives me personally, not even related to money. This is what it gives our family the ability to do.

    But my guess is most kids, as they get older, they actually kind of understand that. So I think when we're in that mode, a powerful reframe is saying, wait, maybe it's not a convincing maybe what I need to say to my kid is, wait, let me get this right. When you get home from school, you really, really want to see me. And when I'm in a meeting and I'm in the house, but I'm not really in the house because I'm in the room where you can't come in, that really stinks for you. Is that right? And I think we got a lot more bang for our buck than trying to convince our kid why that meeting is so important.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Is there anything that you wish that you'd handled differently? I mean, you went through a pandemic and are going through one just like the rest of us. I mean, you guys technically have all these other tools. You think we've been thinking about children for so long. But as a parent, what did you catch yourself doing that you say, oh, my gosh, this is the absolute opposite of what I'm helping my clients with.

  • Becky Kennedy:

    One hundred percent, I mean, my husband always says to me, you need your own advice, as much as anybody, but I don't want to keep that a secret. I do. Probably part of the reason I love writing all these things is in some ways I'm trying to speak to myself. So it's interesting. I'm going to actually answer that. The way I try to help parents think for themselves is whatever we're thinking about ourselves as a parent, we have to start with ourselves. We react to things in our kids because of something happening in our own body. So I think the hardest thing for me during this pandemic that I would want to, I don't even know if I could have done it differently. Right?

    But just that I know I really struggled with is I really like to know when I like to plan for the future and when I can, I struggle to be in that. And my body feels really, really uncomfortable. And I think one of the things that was really hard for me early on is kind of relying on, I trust myself to get through this period of unknown and just do it day by day and that there is no better answer than that. Right. And I think back to last April, May, June, I got my whole body just felt on fire. And it really took me away from being able to, you know, play with my kids. I was so distracted. I was more reactive. And were my kids in a bad place, too? Yeah, but I was not in a great place. Right. So I kind of wish I could have whispered in my ear then a little more of, you know, look, nobody's doing this better in terms of just taking one day at a time. Nobody knows what the world's going to look like in a month. And your coping mechanisms of planning and feeling good and in control aren't there right now and they're not possible. So, of course, this time feels hard. And I guess I could have, I wish I could have accessed a little bit more of that compassion. And I think that would have flown out naturally, flowed out naturally, probably to my kids at that time.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We're now at this point where there are cities, counties, school districts around the country that are taking different steps at some semblance of return for their children for this year. And depending on your political persuasion, depending on your adherence to guidelines, that's a different set of anxieties now for parents who want their children, say, first and foremost, who don't want the guilt of getting a teacher sick or anybody else sick. And at the same time, there's a sort of economic pressure on let's get going again. What do you advise to parents that are kind of in that boat now?

  • Becky Kennedy:

    So this to me is one of the hardest things of this time is like really sitting with there's not a right answer. There's not a right way to make that decision. There's so many nuances in your family and your risk tolerance and the reality of your life. There's no right. And to me, when we don't have right, one of the things I think every parent has to say to themselves is this is probably hard for me, but I can only do the best I can do with the information I have available to myself at this time and anticipate the Monday morning quarterbacking. Am I going to look back with regret? I guess. But even that, it's based on false assumptions. We can't make decisions today with information we're only going to have weeks from now.

    So coming back to, I think that self compassion of no one knows right. I'm doing my best. I am doing enough. And that is enough and I am enough. And then I think to translate that into thinking if my kids are going back to school after this time period of being at home, I have to really think about the messaging I'm sending them, right? Because we've said to our kids, stop exploring, stay home. And now we're saying go back to school. Right? And at some point, all these kids are going to have that transition.

    But I think what's so critical is, number one, labeling that to saying there's going to be a big change. We've been home and there have been a message of it's not safe. And now if this is a decision you're making to say we believe it's safer for you to go to school. And it was and that's why we're making that decision. And here's how some things will go. Kids need to know what the rules are around other kids, not just the first day, but when they get there, hopefully there's a picture of the classroom you can show them so that when they first go back to school, not everything feels so new. And just to even say to kids, it's OK if the first couple of days or weeks feel really tricky, whenever we do something new, it feels uncomfortable in your body. And knowing that will allow you to say this feels hard because it is hard and that can make kids feel much more at ease instead of having to on their own interpret that discomfort and then assume they're doing something wrong or something's off in the system.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Dr. Becky Kennedy, clinical psychologist, thank you so much for joining us.

  • Becky Kennedy:

    Thank you so much for having me.

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