Pandemic Parenting Tips

Pandemic, coronavirus, COVID-19. Regardless of what you choose to call it, this globally-impacting disease translates to one universal fact—these are challenging and unprecedented times for all. In the midst of a new normal, mental health is sacrificed while many scramble to establish structure in their daily lives. In other words, life doesn’t simply stop, even when it may feel like we’re in a perpetual state of limbo. With survival mode as our shield of armor, we learn to shift and adapt.

Now picture this: school is closed for the remainder of the academic year, and parents suddenly have to tackle new roles including teacher, tutor, therapist, mediator, and friend—just more skills to add to your repertoire as a parent. Children are ripped from their routine, and in turn, may be manifesting these sudden changes in the form of anxiety, depression, and developmental regression. You may find that your fiercely independent six-year-old is now begging you to let her sleep in your bed. Your sweet and shy four-year-old is kicking and screaming with every ounce of his being. Your Tic-Toking teen has officially locked herself in her room and is refusing to engage with the rest of her family. Here’s where the good news kicks in—you are not alone, and this is not your fault—nor your children’s.

Below are some tips and tricks to tackle common behavioral and emotional concerns that parents are facing today, and more importantly to start welcoming mental health back to the forefront of your mind.

1.     Gut over guilt: Parental guilt is inherent, and especially now can be at an all-time high. It’s understandable to feel upset that your child was robbed of the joys and benefits of school, yet your desire to fill the void and promote happiness may be hindering them. By needing to fulfill their every demand, wish, and desire, you are strengthening your child’s capacity to eventually push back against structure and defy your requests. Follow your parental gut, the one suppressed underneath the guilt, and follow accordingly when something isn’t sitting right. It’s okay to delete that extra toy out of your Amazon cart, or to have difficult conversations with your child, even if it may upset them.

2.     Establish structure: This is both to your benefit and theirs. Create a makeshift school or daycare, one where rules are written and verbalized. Sit down with your child and identify at least three rules or tasks to be followed daily. Including your children in this activity places the accountability in their court. Children thrive off structure, even when they crave chaos and spontaneity. Find a happy medium and attempt to create a weekly schedule to check off homework, meals, and playtime.

3.     Negative attention = attention: Highlight positive behaviors you are desiring more of, and practice selective ignoring when the negative behaviors are not posing a safety threat. This applies to children across all ages. Ignoring your child does not make you neglectful, so long as you are boosting their confidence and recognizing them for their polite manners, problem-solving skills, and following the rules. Replace words that are trigger points for children including “don’t” or “stop” with positive statements that promote the behaviors you are wanting to see in them (e.g. please use your inside voice; please keep your hands to yourself).

4.     Set consequences: This one is tough. Every family has a different tactic and strategy when it comes to discipline. However, removing desirable objects and activities from your child of any age when they are breaking important rules or acting defiantly is an effective measure to establish greater harmony at home. Sit down with your child and identify three consequences that can be enforced in a single day if a house rule is broken. These may include losing electronic privileges such as the television or cellphone for four hours after refusing to complete homework, or losing coloring time for 20 minutes after screaming at a sibling. Setting concrete consequences removes the power struggle and heated arguments by simply identifying and sticking to the structure. Selective ignoring will be a key player if your child attempts to refute.

5.     Spend quality time with your family:  You’re probably wondering why that would be a suggestion when you are with your loved ones more than ever, but there is a difference between physical presence and emotional connection. Go for walks as a unit, play board games, spend a few minutes each day letting your child pick the activity to build their confidence and assurance that their opinions matter, and remind every family member that you love and appreciate them. These are trying times, but your family will get through this as a team, one day at a time. Remember to prioritize your mental health—your silent, but efficient, captain chartering new territory in the right direction.

Dr. Bahar Rahnama obtained her Doctor of Clinical Psychology degree at the APA-accredited California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University, Los Angeles (CSPP-LA). Dr. Rahnama completed coursework and field-based training in congruence with her graduate specializations across family, child, and couple dynamics. Through both research and clinical practice, Dr. Rahnama’s interest encompasses the correlation between enactment of cultural norms and parent-child attachment styles. Her examination and focus on these factors have led to a multitude of clinical opportunities and advancements including her UC-Davis certification in Parent Child-Interaction Therapy (PCIT), an evidence-based model that meticulously targets disruptive behaviors in children between the ages of two and seven while enhancing a positive and healing bond between caregiver and child.

Lions, Tigers and Bears……Oh My Stomach Hurts! The relationship between stress and digestion

Many people speak of the “fight or flight” response that occurs in the body when something stressful happens. Stress can be caused by upcoming exams, playing in game 7 of the world series (or watching the game as a diligent fan), running late for work, arguing with another person, paying the bills, running from a bear in the woods, having a big surgery, getting injured, or even just constantly being on the go and never taking the time to sit down and take a few deep breaths. There are many things that cause the body to kick in to high alert. The “fight or flight” response is a protective mechanism that our bodies do without thinking about it. This response is what kept our ancestors alive when they roamed the earth in need of food, shelter and safety a million years ago. 

Take a moment to think about any of the stressful situations mentioned above. During any of these situations do you think it would be helpful for the body to all of a sudden say “Hmmmm…I think this is a good time for me to poop.” Absolutely not! The last thing you would want to do when you are being chased by a lion is to have to think about where, how and when you will stop to use the restroom. This is another protective mechanism your body has inherited over time.

When we are in a “fight or flight” response, our bodies: 

  • Stimulate the sympathetic nervous system
    • Pupils dilate so we can see better
    • Heart rate and blood pressure rise so our muscles get the oxygen they need to work harder
    • Hormone levels shift to increase the feeling of adrenaline and decrease the body’s awareness of being tired, scared and/or in pain
    • Muscle is broken down to help provide energy for the response
  • Override the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest response)
    • Digestion is stopped so more blood can go to our muscles and so we don’t have to worry about going to the restroom
    • The ability to slow heart rate is turned off
    • The ability to save up energy is stopped
  • Other side-effects of the shift in our nervous system activity include:
    • Immunity is suppressed due to elevated hormone levels
    • The body’s inflammatory response is triggered
    • The body’s ability to prevent cell damage and detoxify harmful chemicals decreases due to the body’s inflammatory response
    • Fat digestion is impaired
    • Glucose and cholesterol are release in the blood
    • Fat and fluid are retained
    • Energy levels decrease (energy is used up by the “fight or flight” response resulting in less overall energy. Hence you want to take a nap after a long day at work.)
    • Mood fluctuations occur due to energy and hormone shifts

Most people do not think about how the stress in their lives is affecting their digestion, but many studies have found links between chronic stress and gastrointestinal symptoms. When the gastrointestinal tract and digestion are stopped, less stomach acid and digestive enzymes are released. This makes it difficult to break food down and absorb nutrients. Instead, the body learns to break down muscle and over time actually replaces it with fat and extra fluid. Also, as the body is constantly breaking muscle down and releasing glucose in to the blood for energy, the pancreas is forced to work in overdrive to secrete insulin to help the body’s cells use the glucose. Some scientists think that high levels of insulin may contribute to craving sugary foods when we are stressed. Who hasn’t thought about eating a whole pack of cookies or whole carton of ice cream when they are stressed?!  

What all of this means is that our bodies are not designed to be on high alert at all times. And when we are, our bodies do not know how to use the food that we eat. As you run to catch the bus, energy bar in hand, or eat lunch while checking email on your phone, or worry about the day, or think about negative emotions tied to a relationship, you are telling your body “Emergency! Do not digest!” The digestive system is turned off, which negatively affects the nutritional value of food. It can also lead to digestive symptoms, such as heartburn, bloating, belching, feeling like food is just sitting in your stomach, and stomach pain. So here is yet another reason to take the time to be mindful and de-stress everyday. It is important for your mind and body, including digestion and nutrition.

Jonae Perez is currently a clinical dietitian at Professional Child Development Associates providing nutrition counseling for children with special health care needs. She completed her Master of Public Health and nutrition training at the University of Washington, Seattle. She has a background in exercise science and is passionate about adult and pediatric wellness.

Feelings Part 2: Identifying Feelings

As mentioned in my previous post on feeling, many people go through much of their lives ignoring or suppressing their feelings. This can be for a multitude of reasons including fear of falling apart through experiencing strong emotions and messages from childhood that labeled certain feelings as bad or unacceptable. Because suppressing feelings becomes so automatic for many, many report that they don’t even know what they are feeling. By learning to recognize the characteristics of suppressed feelings and tuning into your body, you can become much more adept at identifying what you are feeling. 

Even though feelings are suppressed, they typically don’t just go away. They often manifest in a number of bodily and psychological symptoms.

Free-floating anxiety: Anxiety is a very normal and common reaction to any multitude of situations. However, if you are feeling anxious and uneasy for no identifiable reason, it may be due to unexpressed feelings. If this is a state you are familiar with, try to observe if this free-floating anxiety arises the next time you hold in your anger toward someone. 

Depression: Depression can arise when we hold in grief or feelings of sadness over a loss. Indeed, a grief reaction that is not fully expressed can evolve into a depressive episode. Getting in touch with our grief, crying and fully mourning often allows us to feel better and begin the healing process. If you have not experienced a recent loss, your depression may be anger directed towards yourself. This is particularly true if your find yourself attacking and criticizing yourself. 

Psychosomatic symptoms: Frequent headaches, gastrointestinal symptoms, high blood pressure and asthma often occur as a result of chronically withheld feelings. Holding in feelings over the course of many years is a form of stress that takes a toll on bodily systems. Often people find that when they learn to identify and express strong feelings, their physical symptoms abate.

Muscle Tension: Tense muscles are a particularly effective cue that feelings are being chronically withheld. We tend to hold tension in different body groups depending on what feeling we are suppressing. Anger tends to lead to the tightening of the neck and shoulders, while grief and sadness often results in tightening muscles in the chest and around the eyes. Fear typically reveals itself through the tightening in the stomach and diaphragm. While these are typical patterns of muscle tightening, these are not absolute. That’s why it is important to get to know your own particular physical experience of various feelings.

Tune Into Your Body

Thinking about your worries and concerns keeps your primarily in your head. It is necessary to shift focus from your mind to your body. The following steps have been adapted from Eugene Gendlin’s work on experiential focusing can be quite helpful in getting in touch with your physical experience of feelings.

  1. Physically relax. Spend five to ten minutes using a relaxation technique such as progressive muscle relaxation or meditation to slow down the mind and relax the muscles of the body.

  2. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?”

  3. Tune into the place in your body where you usually experience emotional sensations such as anger, fear and sadness. Often observing the area of your hear or gut will reveal some sensations, but this may be different for you. Try to identify your particular place where feelings arise in your body.

  4. Observe what you sense when you tune into your body. Don’t try to analyze, figure out, or judge what arises. Just allow your self to wait and observe any feelings that are surfacing.

  5. Many find that they get stuck in steps 3 and 4 and are inundated with racing thoughts. If this occurs for you, simply begin at step 1 as this may mean that you need some more time to relax. You might try a few minutes of slow deep breathing.

  6. Once you have come into contact with a sense of what you are feeling, ask yourself:

    • Where in my body is the feeling?

    • What is the shape and size of this feeling?

    • If the feeling had color what would it be?

Hopefully, this exercise will help you begin to get in greater contact with your physical experience of various feelings. If you are still having a hard time identifying what you are feeling, you might find the feeling list below helpful. 

Positive Feelings                Negative Feelings

Affectionate        Great                                                            Afraid            Hostile

Alive                   Happy                                                             Angry            Humiliated

Amused             Hopeful                                                         Anxious        Hurt    

Accepted        Joyful                                                               Apprehensive        Ignored        

Beautiful        Lovable                                                            Ashamed        Impatient

Brave            Loved                                                                  Awkward        Inadequate

Calm            Loving                                                                  Bitter            Incompetent

Capable        Loyal                                                                  Bored            Indecisive

Caring            Passionate                                                      Confused        Inferior

Cheerful        Peaceful                                                           Contemptuous        Inhibited

Cherished        Playful                                                           Defeated        Insecure    

Comfortable        Pleased                                                   Dejected        Irritated

Competent        Proud                                                        Dependent        Isolated

Concerned        Quiet                                                          Depressed        Jealous

Confident        Relaxed                                                       Despairing        Lonely

Content        Relieved                                                         Desperate        Melancholy

Courageous        Respected                                            Devastated        Miserable

Curious        Safe                                                                 Disappointed        Misunderstood

Delighted        Satisfied                                                    Discouraged        Muddled    

Desirable        Secure                                                        Disgusted        Needy

Eager            Self-reliant                                                   Distrustful        Outraged

Energized        Sexy                                                           Embarrassed        Overwhelmed

Excited        Silly                                                                 Exacerbated        Panicky

Forgiving        Special                                                       Fearful            Tired

Friendly        Strong                                                          Foolish            Touchy

Fulfilled        Supportive                                                 Frantic            Trapped

Generous        Sympathetic                                          Frustrated        Troubled

Glad            Tender                                                          Furious        Unappreciated

Good                                                                                  Guilty            Unattractive

Grateful                                                                             Hateful            Uncertain

                                                                                            Helpless        Uncomfortable

                                                                                            Hopeless        Uneasy

                                                                                            Horrified        Unfulfilled

In my next post, I will be providing some suggestions for expressing and communicating your feelings, so they no longer have to remain suppressed. 

Dr. Angela Williams is a licensed clinical psychologist, specializing in cognitive-behavioral and humanistic/existential approaches to therapy. She has extensive training in Brief Crisis Intervention as well as mindfulness based therapeutic approaches. Her therapeutic style blends strength-based acceptance with practical skill development. Incorporating mindfulness-based interventions, she helps her clients move through difficult experiences and be more present in their lives.

Mindful Driving…A New Way to Commute

Living in this bustling metropolis that is Los Angeles offers us some unique opportunities to experiment with daily mindfulness. Traffic – it’s always there and provides endless occasions to look at the way our approach to a stressor effects our experience of it. Any driver confronting the 405 at rush hour is likely familiar with the torrent of negative thoughts and feelings that emerge. Because many of us spend so much time traveling to and from work in traffic-filled commutes, it is very powerful to make the best use of this time. By incorporating some daily mindfulness during our commutes, we can make a profound impact on how the rest of our day goes, which has ramifications that echo through our lives.

Mindfulness is distinguished from “auto-pilot” when we carry out actions without even being aware that we are doing them. Driving is an often-sited example of “auto-pilot” as we tend to tune out the drive, finding ourselves at our destination with little recall of how we got there. Mindfulness, on the other hand, involves paying attention, on purpose, non-judgmentally (Jon Kabat-Zinn, 2006).

Traffic can serve as a crucible to sharpen our present moment awareness. The experience of driving in rush hour is very evocative and typically elicits fairly predictable responses. These include feelings of irritation, frustration, tension and anger and negative thoughts about other drivers and perhaps yourself. We reach these highly aroused states with little awareness about how we got there. By bringing mindful attention to traffic, we can open up a space to make a choice about how we react.

Below are some ways to incorporate mindfulness into your car-time. Experiment with these and notice how they impact your experience of driving and other parts of your day.

1.     Just before turning on your car, take five deep breaths. You can also do this just prior to exiting your vehicle when you’ve reached your destination.

2.     Experiment with skipping the radio or music and allow your other senses to be fully engaged. This means noticing the sights and colors around you, observing the sounds of the cars, or even taking in the smell of the freeway.

3.     Take note of the bodily sensations you are experiencing. Notice the quality of your breath, the grip of your hands on the steering wheel, any tension in your arms and shoulders. If you become aware of tension gently breath into the tense area and allow it to release with the out breath.

4.     Try to expand your awareness. We tend to become myopically focused on what is just in front of us and ignore the entire vista. Try to carefully become aware of the cars and people around you and the nature or scenery in the background.

5.     Take time to notice your attitudes and inner dialogue towards other drivers. You may be competitive or impatient, inwardly ridiculing or berating other drivers.

6.     Smile inwardly and cultivate a friendliness towards your fellow humans on the road. A mantra taken from Buddhist metta meditation that may be helpful is, “May you be well, may you be happy.”

7.     Use stoplights as opportunities to connect more deeply with the present moment, fully becoming aware of what is happening in our bodies and minds.

8.     Try driving in the slow lane, consciously keeping your speed to slightly below the speed limit. 

The reality of living in LA means that we are more than likely to be spending a good deal of time in our cars. We often find traffic inexplicable and overwhelmingly beyond our control. However, using drive time to cultivate mindfulness will greatly reduce stress and improve overall wellbeing. You might find yourself surprised at how much control you do have in the experience of driving.

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Dr. Angela Williams is a licensed clinical psychologist, specializing in cognitive-behavioral and humanistic/existential approaches to therapy. She has extensive training in Brief Crisis Intervention as well as mindfulness based therapeutic approaches. Her therapeutic style blends strength-based acceptance with practical skill development. Incorporating mindfulness-based interventions, she helps her clients move through difficult experiences and be more present in their lives. 

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