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Parent Well-being Check-In: What If You Don’t Feel Like Playing?

2021-02-18 by Dr. Jenny
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Greetings from Michigan, where the temperature hasn’t gone above freezing in weeks and it takes several minutes of layering on snow gear, hats, gloves (“Mom, where’s my other glove!?”) and masks before the kids can get out of the house. The house we’ve spent most of the past 12 months in. Does any of this sound familiar?

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A parent recently asked us what to do when your child wants to play, but you’re not up to it. That question inspired this blog post because many of us are at our highest levels of pandemic exhaustion right now. Almost a year of remote learning, role overload, and watching our communities struggle has been a heavy weight, and perhaps a time of self-reflection. What have you learned about your emotional health and coping mechanisms during this long year? Have you built any insights about your relationships with your kids or partner? Or does it feel like you don’t have the mental space to have a single clear, uninterrupted thought?

I’m turning to parent well-being because we spend a lot of attention and time on kids’ needs, but not our own. This is important because we are kids’ meaning-makers and their “holding environment” — a clinical term I love because we help our kids contain their big emotions and give them safety, stories, and skills to make sense of life. But this role can be harder to do when you feel like you’re drowning every day. You’re not going to feel like playing unless your tank is full and your head is (at least somewhat) clear.

Parenting in a Pandemic: 3 Questions to Ask Yourself

So here are a few check-ins that I hope will help. Some are related to playing with kids, some emphasize kids playing by themselves while we get a break.

      1. When your head feels too full and your chest heavy, what’s your favorite way to let go of worries and time? Think about it — what lets you let go? (besides drinking a glass of wine or binge-watching shows!). Is it listening to music and honing in on the particular rhythm or instrument sounds? Is it feeling sensations in your body through yoga, swimming laps, or walking on grass? Is it laughing with friends, or solitude with a book? These are all playful ways of letting our senses (rather than task lists) take the foreground in our brains. Dancing, snuggling, drawing, reading, or building with kids can be other ways. Think about which senses calm and center you the most, and try to tap into them briefly once a day.
      2. Speaking of which, what are the coping strategies you’re most proud of this year, and which ones would you rather not carry forward post-pandemic? What have you intentionally done to care for yourself during the pandemic? It’s been impossible to access the usual self-care activities you might be used to, so it’s ok to have simple goals for well-being. For me it’s sleep. No matter how much work I have queued up for the next day, I just go to bed by 10:30. This way I can try to not be a jerk the next day (another simple pandemic goal!). And like I’ve mentioned in prior posts, I realized my social media checking-habit was not helping me feel more grounded and hopeful, so I’m trying not to carry that one forward. For you, it might be exercise, increased quality time with your pet, or talking to your neighbors more. Applaud yourself for the positive steps you’ve taken or plan to take.
      3. What insights have you gained about your kids this year, or how you react to them as a parent? Being stuck at home together has been crazy-making, but also a pretty interesting experience of observing kids adapt to stress (and masks!), figure out distance learning, and handle loneliness. Understanding your child’s mind is hugely important in feeling like an effective parent. On the other hand, feeling confused or alarmed by your kids’ behavior can make you feel stressed and guilty. Next month, we will talk more about how play can provide insights into your child’s way of thinking and feeling, but for now, reflect on what has really worked this year, how your child might have impressed you with some resilience, and times when you felt even a little effective (remember, simple goals!).

Bottom line: You’re not going to feel like playing all the time, and that’s OK. Parents have never had such an impossible task of being teachers, child care providers, employees, and emotional “holding environments” for their kids, like we do during this pandemic. Go easy on yourself. Get on a waitlist for a therapist or read up on mental health resources for grown-ups. Talk to folks in your community about how they are coping. And keep the mindset that we will all grow through this challenging time.

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Dr. Jenny

Jenny Radesky, M.D., is a Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician whose research focuses on family digital media use, child social-emotional development, and parent-child interaction. She graduated from Harvard Medical School cum laude in 2007 and is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. Her clinical work focuses on autism, traumatic stress, ADHD, and self-regulation. Dr. Jenny’s ultimate goal is to help parents understand the individual ways their child thinks, learns, and feels; to help parents provide the best therapy and play experiences for their children; but to also allow parents to sit back and let their child’s mind take the lead sometimes. She authored the 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics digital media guidelines for young children.

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