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View From Vis: Dr. Jules Nolan on Parenting in Stressful Times

Parents are asking how to navigate the next several weeks as we move into deep winter. Winter months can be tough regardless of what else is going on in our world, but this year, we are facing an enormous challenge. Many are worried about the toll remote learning, isolation, and quarantine will take on our children's mental health and social development. Others are asking how to keep kids motivated academically while maintaining peace at home. While this won't be an easy time for any of us, there are some strategies we can use to bolster our kids in handling the stressors, unpleasant losses, and hard emotions that are likely to occur.

Lead with Empathy and Compassion
Understand that the 10 months this pandemic has been upending our lives represents a much larger portion of the lives of our children than it does for us. For example, 10-year-olds have been dealing with the loss of friends, events, special occasions, and fun for nearly 10% of their lives! When they are whiny and cranky about how bored they are, how little fun they are having, how much they miss their friends, help them talk about their feelings. Simply saying out loud how we are feeling helps us to manage negative emotions.

Avoid "over-saving"
While we want to lead with empathy and help our kids talk about their emotions, understand that we don't need to "save" them from these negative emotions. In fact, our kids are learning some life-long lessons about how to be resilient in the face of disappointment, how to manage stress, and how to find "silver-linings" when experiencing loss. Acknowledge their negative feelings and ask them what they could do to make themselves feel 10% better. If we try to jump in with ideas, a cranky kiddo might push back and seem disrespectful or ungrateful and even set off a conflict. Instead, allow time for them to brainstorm alternative ideas and plans on their own. This helps them develop creative problem-solving skills and learn to be responsible for soothing their own discomfort.

Attend to Your "Tweens"
Elementary and High School students seem to be having an easier time with the isolation that quarantine and remote learning has created. In middle school, the work of development includes pulling away from parents and spending more time with peers as part of identity exploration. This is enormously difficulty in the pandemic and our middle schoolers are struggling. Help them to connect with peers remotely by allowing more time for online games, chats, and activities. However, keep a close eye on the kinds of things they are doing online. The pressure to exclude, bully, or mistreat others is ramped up in the online world. Talk to your tweens about how to navigate the pressure to fit in. Make sure they know how to protect themselves online. Common Sense Media has a wealth of resources on this topic.

Use Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation
Extrinsic motivation (external rewards) has an image problem. Many people think that rewarding kids with external things (treats, time on screens, time with friends) is "bribing" and therefore bad parenting. The truth is that we all use extrinsic motivators to help us get through the unpleasant tasks we must do every day. In fact, people who know how to use both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to keep going when inspiration is low, do the best in school, in work, and in life. Think of it this way...What do you silently "promise" yourself as a treat to keep yourself working on something you hate doing? A hot bath? A call with a friend? A favorite food or drink? We all use external rewards, and those of us who are skilled with both types of rewards are able to sustain motivation in times of stress. One caveat to consider: when others decide what to use as a motivator for us, it is often less effective than when we decide ourselves. Talk to your children about what external rewards they think would help them persist in getting their work done. Then help them develop a "system" in which they receive intermittent rewards for persistent work. In other words, don't buy it when they say, "I need 2 hours of gaming time first, and then I will be able to do 15 minutes of math homework". They must always work a bit first, before receiving a small reward, for a short time. The external motivator never comes before the work.

Using these strategies may help to make this time more manageable in your families. Remember, however, that none of these will be helpful if you aren't taking good care of yourselves. Research demonstrates that the best predictor of a child's mental health is the mental health of their primary caregiver. Kids cannot cope better than their parents are coping. So, take some time to model good self-care strategies. Do something each day to care for yourself physically, socially, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually. And most important of all, lead with compassion, especially self-compassion.

Dr. Jules Nolan, Psy.D., LP
Licensed Psychologist

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Dr. Nolan is a psychologist, author, speaker, and partner with Dr. Steve Kahn in Phoenix School Counseling LLC. She is the president of Minnesota School Psychology Association and recently co-authored a college textbook on adolescent development: Real World, Real Challenges: Adolescent Issues in Contemporary Society . She has conducted and published research on school performance and mental/behavioral health in the USA and abroad. Dr. Nolan serves schools and families with mental/behavioral health, school performance, and social/emotional learning needs.