Putting on your own oxygen mask first

With Covid-19 bringing uncertainty about our health, dramatic ramifications for workplaces and schooling, and the implications of lockdown at varying levels around New Zealand, it’s understandable that many of us are feeling a little fatigued, and potentially overwhelmed or anxious about the loss of control. For some, there’s also a deep underlying sense of grief as we let go of what we believed to be normal and adjust to a new way of life.

As parents and caregivers, there is the added pressure of needing to care for the mental wellbeing of our tamariki, to ensure they have the skills and resilience to cope with the pressure as well. While there are loads of tips and strategies we could offer, all of which are helpful and relevant, it’s important to recognise that as a parent or caregiver, we really need to focus first on our own mental health, so that we can then care for others.

If we aren’t able to manage our own stressors, fears and anxieties, how can we begin to manage those of our children? It’s like the safety message we hear on planes; if there is a crash, put your own oxygen mask on first.

This year, the focus for Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 is “Reimagining wellbeing together”. Here are a few thoughts to consider for your whanau, on your parenting journey.

Give in, to give out

Parenthood is one of the most fulfilling journeys we can experience. It can also be one of the most challenging and unrelenting. Strong, safe caregiver relationships are a key foundations for our kids, supporting them to build resilience and buffering them against life stressors. But when our own mental wellbeing is vulnerable, it’s really hard to give our tamariki what they need.

In order to give out, we need to care for ourselves and build our own reserves. The Māori concept of Te whare tapa whā is a beautiful reminder of the four cornerstones of our house that we need to tend to; physical wellbeing, mental and emotional wellbeing, spiritual wellbeing and social wellbeing. And connecting with the land. It can be the little things like refraining from starting that gripping Netflix series at 10pm when you know you won’t be able to turn off at a reasonable time, eating well and getting a good balance of fruit and veg (and no, that “grape juice” that goes quite well with Netflix doesn’t count as a fruit), and getting exercise, even if it’s just a daily walk around the block for fresh air and perspective.

Going into parenthood as a rookie, I had no idea how hard it would become to find time to be alone, ever (anyone else hidden in the pantry or the loo for a moment of solitude?). Even a five-minute pocket of silence can be golden for allowing time to process and reflect on what’s happening for us within, especially in times of high stress – whether it’s facing those feelings of frustration, fear or worry, or simply acknowledging a bit of sadness.

All feelings are welcome, even when they are uncomfortable. It’s important to have some space to see feelings for what they are. Feelings come and go, like waves crashing on the shore. Being kind to ourselves and having empathy and self-compassion when we have these hard feelings can help us show the same kindness to our children’s emotions as well.

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Expect the unexpected

If there is one given we can expect in all of this uncertainty, it’s that our children will have big emotions and big behaviours, often when we least expect it (like right when we’re running out the door, already late for an appointment). Our children generally express themselves through behaviour rather than words, and some of that behaviour can be pretty confronting. Hence the need to look after ourselves first, so we’re well-resourced to be a cushion for our kids when their big feelings erupt.

Big overwhelming feelings are a part of childhood and a part of growing up, but they can still make children feel wildly out of control, and this can feel really scary for them. Our kids really need us to help them find their calm – we can lend them some of ours, but only if we prevent ourselves from having our own emotions triggered by their big feelings.

Brain power

Our brains are brilliant, and they are complex. Along with our nervous system, brains are designed to solve problems, assess the threat and ensure survival. Most of this is done automatically, we don’t even notice it. When we are under stress, our natural response is fight, flight, or freeze – anything to get out of the situation. It can be helpful to explain to kids how the brain responds to stress, and the brain’s efforts to help them feel safe. This can help them understand why it can be so hard to calm down and manage these overwhelming fears and worries that lurk within. Psychologist and author of Hey Warrior, Karen Young, shares a helpful resource explaining anxiety to kids on her website. It’s important to think like a team. It goes without saying that while we look after our own hauora, it’s also important to care for our kids too! They don’t have the maturity to keep the balance right and make wise choices and hey, neither do we at times! While the odd blow out on Maccas has its place, making sure our kids eat well, sleep well, and have time for exercise, downtime and laughter help keep the balance.

Talk less, listen more

Life can get busy with work, kindy and school runs, and after school commitments. But busyness destroys connection. Having plenty of downtime at home gives kids the time and space to process what’s going on for them and opens up opportunities to talk with their safe adult. And when we aren’t rushed, we have time to listen. That might mean keeping the phone on mute, or in another room. I have recently turned all notifications off my phone as the constant email pings, texts and calls can make me feel bombarded and I can’t focus on what’s in front of me. The silence is bliss!

When our tamariki know we will take the time to stop and truly listen to them, and that we are keen to understand their inner worlds, they feel seen, safe, soothed and secure. They’ll learn the skills to open up early on about their mental health, which will set them up for future times of stress and uncertainty.

Pause, Hold, Engage

Let’s be honest – reining in our emotions, moods and tempers is a daily struggle and a daily decision, especially when we are under pressure. But it is worth the effort. Science tells us that supportive, positive relationships with parents and caregivers shield children against the fallout of stress and adversity. When we are mentally healthy, we can be the support that our kids need.

It’s easy to talk the talk, but harder to put all these good ideas into action, particularly when we are in a high-stress situation. Like when your preschooler throws her toast at you, screaming because it was cut in squares and she wanted triangles. Or your 8-year-old rages because the family vote for movie night on the couch landed on The Sound of Music. Those behaviours aren’t exactly acceptable, but our response is what we can control.

Pause, Hold, Engage is a tool endorsed by Dr Linde-Marie Amersfoort, Parenting Place’s in-house child and family psychologist. Amersfoort believes this simple strategy can help reduce the brain’s threat level, enabling our pre-frontal cortex do the work it was designed to do. It’s particularly helpful for those of us struggling with mental health issues too.

Pause is about stopping and taking a slow, deep breath (or three or 10) in a stressful situation. It really is just about breathing. Oxygen is a gift to the brain and nervous system and a very quick and effective way to calm things down a bit.

When we “hold”, we gather information about and from ourselves, as well as from our surroundings. We use “hold” to notice our thoughts and feelings based on the situation we’re in.

We do this by asking the following questions:

▪ What is happening for me right now?
▪ What is happening around me?
▪ How does that make me feel?

Once we have that information, we can use it to better understand ourselves and the situation, and we can formulate a plan of how to look after ourselves with empathy and compassion.

Once we have that plan for self-care, we can “engage” it, or put it into action. Here’s an example of a typical scenario in my house. I’m in a busy season of life. I have two young children under the age of 10. I work at Parenting Place, run a business and run the house. We’re currently building a house and renovating our home. I have a chronic health condition which can leave me with low-level anxiety. At the moment my life is very busy, my mind is busy and I have little room for inconveniences. Not the ideal place to be operating out of.

As the kids were getting ready school, I was frazzled and rushed. I had gotten up too late and the kids weren’t getting ready for school well. My 5-year-old has big feelings at the moment, and they are loud and intense. As we get ready to leave the house (finally and by getting ready I mean I’m rushing them along) she decides she can’t put her own shoes on and I need to help her. My arms are full of bags and water bottles and we’re late. Frustrated, I tell her she’s a big girl and can put them on herself.

She begins yelling that she needs help, I am not giving in to her demands, rage is building in my head and I am ready to explode. Why does she need to do this right now? She can tell we are late!

Here’s where Pause, Hold, Engage steps in. Pause. I took my three deep breaths. Hold. I gathered my information. What is happening for me right now? I am running late and I am furious that my child is stalling, yelling at me and she’s holding us all up. What is happening around me? I am flustered. My daughter is yelling. My son is stressed about being late for school. My mind is racing with all of my to-do list and my 5-year-old has unreasonable behaviour. She is overwhelmed and unable to self-regulate in this moment. How does that make me feel?

I feel triggered by her rage; the child in me feels threatened and wants to escape or defend myself. I want to yell back ‘How dare you talk to me like that?’ I feel angry. And honestly a little bit sad that I am being yelled at, unjustly. Based on the information: I remember she is 5 and, in a moment when she can’t calm down on her own.

Yes, her behaviour sucks, but she is learning. I am the adult and I’m triggered because I expected too much of all of us. I remind myself of a phrase one of my past counsellors told me to remember in moments like these, “Here and now, there in then”. Here and now, I am safe, I am in control and I am okay. I need to be gentle with myself, and my daughter, we are both feeling vulnerable and frustrated and angry.

I wasn’t able to support her feelings as I was on a mission to get out the door. I put everything down, ask her to take a deep breath and say, “I can see you’re really angry about your shoes. I am angry you are yelling at me. Let’s take a moment to take a deep breath and have a hug so we can get through this”. We hug. We calm down, I help her with her shoes. I tell her, ‘I know you wanted my help. I had my hands full and was in a rush and I know you can put shoes on yourself. I didn’t like being yelled at, next time please ask me for help with your kind voice. I will try not to rush you so much tomorrow’. She says “Sorry for yelling at you mummy”, and we walk to the car, only two minutes behind schedule, but in a better headspace.

Reimagining mental wellbeing together can have a strong whānau focus as we work together through our triggers and uncomfortable feelings. When there are other factors at play, like anxiety, depression, bi-polar, PTSD, you will need other tools in your kete, to help you in your parenting journey. There is no shame in getting therapy, taking medication, and taking the time out you need to be the parent you want to me. Pause, Hold, Engage can be one of the tools to help you on your journey.


Looking for more personalised strategies and solutions for your family? 

Our Family Coaches bring their extensive training and experience to help uncover new insights, ideas and practical solutions to parenting and relationship challenges. Through one-on-one support (in person, via Skype or email), you’ll be provided with take-home strategies to bring about the positive changes you desire for your whānau.

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About Author

Holly Brooker

Holly Jean Brooker works as a PR and Communications Specialist for Parenting Place. She is a mum of two, runs her own marketing consultancy business and has a background in high school education where she specialised in health and social sciences.

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