How to tame your temper when pandemic parenting stress has you boiling

Judy Mandell

THE WASHINGTON POST – The first few weeks of being sheltered in place were a reprieve for Sara Ahmed, a 41-year-old Houston-based writer and mother of two sons, ages seven and 12.

But after managing her sons’ virtual school learning, her own deadlines, ordering groceries, figuring out dinner, and doing all this without any breaks, she often became snappy, she said. “I raised my voice more regularly than I ever had before. The boys noticed the change and started going to their dad for help with things, which was fine by me,” Ahmed said.

But then her children started mimicking her abrasive tone while talking to each other, and one day, her seven-year-old called her “cranky pants”. She realised she had to change her attitude.

Like Ahmed, many people are facing a situation they never imagined. Wearing masks, social distancing, facing financial instability, being stuck at home for months: it’s hard to be your best self. Parents are stressed to the max and there’s no end in sight.

That resilience many had in March and April has transformed into fatigue and frustration, said Professor and Psychiatrist Nina Vasan, at Stanford University.

And with this frustration, it becomes difficult to control emotions. Although those outbursts might feel okay in the moment, habitually blowing off steam in front of your child can cause problems, experts said. “The real damage is done if the screaming is directed at the child,” said Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. “Even more scary and upsetting than the words are the tone and facial expression with which the words are delivered. They can shatter a child.”

Many experts contend that constant yelling can trigger a young child’s stress response, resulting in serious long-term consequences. “Research suggests that verbal abuse can change the structure of our brains,” said Harvey Karp, a Los Angeles-based paediatrician and founder of Happiest Baby. “Persistent yelling and the stress it causes has been linked to increased risk of anxiety, depression and other mood disorders, as well as to chronic pain and other long-term health issues. It also doesn’t curb misbehaviour. It tends to make kids more likely to act out.”

It’s not just young children who suffer when parents yell and scream at them. Studies have shown that harsh verbal discipline increases behaviour problems in adolescents. “It does not teach healthy communication skills, but rather models yelling, bullying, and negative social interaction,” said attending Psychologist and Assistant Professor Jenny Seham at Montefiore Health System in New York City.

But don’t assume a parent can and should sit calmly through this incredibly stressful time. We’re not perfect, and patience is understandably thin. So parents have to be forgiving of themselves, too. “Any discussion about ‘yelling’ and parenting strategies during the covid-19 pandemic should begin with the validation that parenting is incredibly hard right now,” she added.

Seham said it’s important for parents to know that they are not alone in feeling overwhelmed, finding that their patience is strained and noticing themselves losing control.

But although screaming might feel like a quick fix, she said, “persistently losing control of your emotions can have long term negative consequences for your children”. The good news is that children are resilient and parents can positively influence outcomes with their own behavioural changes.

Seham offered strategies to gain control, regulate your own emotions, and improve immediate and long-term outcomes for your children. Yes, even in the midst of a never-ending pandemic:

– Practise self-compassion.

– Learn how to slow down your reaction to stress.

– Identify your allies and limit negative social interactions.

– Remove as much negative news as you can.

– Exercise and include your children in physical activity.

– Learn to communicate in a positive way.

– Seek support if needed.

Finally, said Walfish, “Be kind to yourself. Know this is a process, not a quick fix.

“Be sure to hold on to your motivation to raise happy, healthy, disciplined, loving children.”