If you’ve been feeling a bit frazzled lately, you’re in good company. There’s nothing like a global pandemic and a nationwide lockdown to elevate stress levels, especially for parents. When it comes to most of life’s challenges, it helps to know you’re not alone. It helps even more when one of New Zealand’s most respected voices in the fields of psychology and parenting weighs in with some encouragement: don’t worry, your kids are going to be fine!
It was a great honour to host Nigel Latta on our Facebook Live event recently. Parenting Place in-house child and family psychologist Dr Linde-Marie Amersfoort compared notes with Nigel on the topic of regulating emotions and managing stress in our homes. We’re sharing the highlights of the interview in this article.
There’s no shortage of things to worry about when it comes to parenting – from teenagers who don’t want to come out of their rooms to device addiction in kids of all ages. And the lockdown has certainly ramped up some of these typical concerns. Nigel Latta’s overarching advice: A lot of the ‘shoulds’ we worry about – ‘you should do this and you should do that’ – don’t actually do us, or our children, any good. “They’re nonsense,” says Nigel. Dr Linde-Marie Amersfoort agrees, stating that modern parents have bought into a fallacy of ‘successful parenting’, and now live with the pressure of unrealistic and unnecessary expectations. If this was our modus operandi pre-COVID-19, it’s understandable that we’re all feeling a bit tense in the current climate! Take a deep breath everyone, it’s time to go back to basics. Nigel Latta suggests we start with our ABCs.
Now I know my ABCs
While ABC is the foundation of literacy, it is also foundational for parenting. Tricky stuff happens all the time when you’re raising kids and complicated theories are hard to retain in our overloaded brains, so here’s Nigel’s simple golden rule: Always Be Calming. Note that C is for calming, not calm. “It doesn’t mean that you will always be calm, because as a parent that’s impossible,” says Nigel. Having a calming influence, however, is always beneficial – no matter what the circumstances. It’s not always easy, and we’re not going to get it right every time, but calming any issue you’re presented with as a parent is a worthy goal.
Okay, so our job as parents is to calm things down. That sounds great, but just how do we do this when our own emotions are skyrocketing under the pressure of any given stressful situation? First things first, Nigel explains, we need to come up with a game plan ahead of time. With every stressful situation we face, we can think about what we could do differently or how we could react next time. And we need to be intentional. All power to the Post-it Note – get strategic and leave yourself some reminders around the house to ABC!
Your mission to remain calm could involve some deep breathing, explains Nigel. Ask yourself how you’re feeling on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being highly stressed), then take some slow deep breaths until you can move down the scale and feel a bit calmer. Learning how to calm ourselves down as parents is pivotal if we’re going to be able to teach our children to find their calm. You’ve heard us say it before, and it’s well worth saying again – parental self-care is vitally important for family well-being. That oxygen mask must first be fitted on the parent, before it’s any use to the child. This is why Parenting Place have embraced Pause, Hold, Engage as a strategy to help families navigate a calm and constructive way through challenging and complex emotions.
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Keep calm and carry on
Why is it so important, indeed so profoundly effective, to remain calm as a parent? Because, Nigel tells us, “all of the good stuff you need for parenting is in the prefrontal cortex of your brain – but you can’t access it when you’re stressed and emotions are running high.” We literally can’t think straight when we’re stressed out. Plus we tend to get a bit shouty in the panic, and things just get really unpleasant. Nigel explains that our brains don’t go to the ideal place on their own – “It’s a stone age brain and it’s going to go straight to stone-age parenting skills”. We therefore need calm so we can access the “smarter and wiser” parts of our brains.
The heart of the matter, Nigel tells us, is self-control. Practising self-control leads to better outcomes in all areas of life, including managing our reactions. It’s just the first step, however. Even more strategic and useful is self-regulation – the ability to calm yourself down. This is why the skills of noticing your emotions, managing them and regulating them are so beneficial to parenting. These skills significantly help us deal with life as grown-ups, and when we model them to our kids, we empower them to be awesome humans too. Self-regulation is a key part of the previously mentioned Pause, Hold, Engage strategy – click here for more information on how to use this great tool.
Kids use their parents to help them self-regulate. Our sweet little (and not so little) sponges are very busy learning from us. They’re watching us manage our emotions and handle stress and they’re observing our ability to calm down. Our calm then breeds more calm. If this all sounds ideal but a bit out of reach, be encouraged by Nigel’s realism: “Everyone still gets angry. The more you practise these skills, however, the better they’ll become.”
So we need to practice. Just like with our physical muscles, the more we exercise self-control and self-regulation, the stronger our impulse control will be. And the more inclined we’ll be towards ABC parenting. Some practical applications for specific situations help too.
Wisdom for your game plan
Finding it stressful to manage your children’s home learning while simultaneously caring for pre-schoolers and babies? Abandon the ‘school work’ and turn on the telly, suggests Nigel. “No harm will come to a young child who misses school for a while. What will do them harm is if your mental health suffers because you feel a.) stressed and b.) guilty. Your most important job as parents right now is to reduce the amount of stress for everybody in your bubble,” says Nigel.
But what about teenagers living the ‘vampire life’ – up all night then sleeping till mid-afternoon? “Be okay with it – it’s actually how teenage brains works,” Nigel reminds us. Studies have proven that a teenager’s brain is more alert at night, but not so much in the morning. It’s also helpful to remember that teenagers have lost so much independence and activity due to the lockdown. Nigel endorses extending grace and letting them do what they need to do to cope.
Then there’s the screen-time. Should we be worried that we’re creating a generation of device-addicted children during the pandemic? The truth is, we’re all on our devices a lot more than usual – some of us adults are looking at screens for most of the day. Again Nigel calls for grace and leniency. Have the conversation that this is not ‘normal’ life – talk to your kids about how things may change as we go back to some form of normality. You could make a plan to reduce device usage going forward. Giving kids the awareness of how things might look in the future will work better than pulling the plug on electronics all of a sudden. The same theory applies in general terms as we move out of lockdown and re-adjust our lifestyles, but some kids will need more conversation around changes than others, depending on their temperament.
Linde-Marie wrapped up the interview by asking Nigel for one thing he hoped parents would take to heart now, that would then serve them well post lockdown. “When in doubt, when you don’t know what to do (almost everything that happens to you as a parent – being lost and confused is just par for the course), just do the ABC stuff. If you can remember nothing else about parenting, do the self-regulation stuff for yourself and calm stuff down for your kids. Then, together, try and work out what just happened and what we can do next time to avoid it. And if you just do that for the rest of your kid’s life, you will raise an empathetic, kind, intelligent human being. Just doing that one thing.”
The full interview between Parenting Place’s in-house psychologist, Dr Linde-Marie Amersfoort, and Nigel Latta can be viewed on our Facebook page, along with all our other Live events discussing various issues relating to family lockdown life.
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