We’re onto our second year of a global pandemic, facing unprecedented challenges that affect our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. In our next Body Talk series, we talked to Clinical Psychologist Dr. Amanda Oswalt Visher. Director of Psychology at SPOT: Children’s Therapy Centre, Amanda offers her insight into the common obstacles families are facing during the pandemic, what strategies we can implement to inspire healthy relationships and how we can promote emotional and mental wellbeing within the family dynamic.
As the Director of Psychology at SPOT, what common challenges are you seeing families face during the global pandemic?
Globally, it’s the unknown and loss of control. We’re all working on how we make plans and find meaning and control in the midst of a pandemic. As parents, we’re juggling work, kids’ education, marriage, friendships and sanity! It’s too much to ask of one person. The biggest thing I’m telling parents is to go easy on yourself as this is unprecedented. You can’t expect yourself to do a good job in all your jobs, all the time.
Children that were previously diagnosed with agoraphobia and autism are “thriving” and doing quite well with online learning. However, oftentimes, the isolation is enabling the angst and they’re not challenging their anxiety and phobias. The isolation allows for the kids not to address the underlying triggers and confront the issues.
In general, I’m seeing more kids develop general anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), in particular, Contamination OCD. I’ve seen more kids develop agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces and other people. We’re also seeing attachment and separation anxiety in the little ones. They’re used to having parents at their beck and call - so when parents are going out - being independent can be quite scary. I’m seeing a lot of selective mutism, especially in 2-5 years olds where children might feel uncomfortable talking in front of new people.
What effect has the global pandemic had on the relationships between parents?
We’re juggling way too many roles and we’re asking the impossible of ourselves. We need to go easy on ourselves. I see so many parents that lose their cool with their children or with their spouse or feel guilty that they’re not performing well at work; they have to deal with home learning, zoom links and then they feel like they’re not doing the best job parenting because they don’t have a well-rounded life. Happy parents make good parents and it’s sometimes hard to find that happiness given the constraints with socialisation, going out and having that sense of safety. It’s hard to keep it all together and be that perfect employee, perfect wife, perfect husband, perfect mother and people aren’t going easy on themselves or each other.
So, we are seeing more separations. I’m working a lot with custody cases. Spending that much time together can take its toll on marriage especially if you’re having trouble parenting in general.
Children are really good at pushing buttons - and when kids are pushing buttons - you try to find someone that can deal with your anger and that usually gets turned on to the spouse. So, instead of being “a problem solver” we become a “problem finder”, parents argue in front of the kids which is stressful for all parties involved.
What strategies or daily mindful practices can we implement between parents and children to inspire healthy relationships during uncertain times?
At SPOT: Children’s Therapy Centre, we believe in order to learn and thrive, we first have to have a secure attachment. We have to enjoy and trust each other. So, when we’re with our kids, it’s really important to just slow down and be with your kids. If they’re building, follow their lead. If they’re drawing at the kitchen table, then you draw with them. There’s no reason or end goal - it’s just to enjoy your kids ideas and personality. So much is done without doing anything. It’s so beneficial not only for the enjoyment of our own life as a parent. By following our kids’ lead we’re telling them, “You have good ideas, you’re respected, you can trust yourself, you can trust me.”
Play is a really important part of being a kid because we’re learning: ‘my thoughts and ideas are different from yours’. And this ‘theory of mind’ helps as we become adults. As adults, we understand ‘I think and feel differently from other people. How can I react in a way that’s pro-social?’ That way of thinking comes through play and just following your child’s lead.
Finally, have separate spaces like a workspace, a yoga space – it can even be different corners of the same room. Make sure you have a schedule. Have times and places for things you do to keep sane.
What's one thing you gained from the pandemic?
Enjoying the surprise of what comes out of children’s mouths and the inventions they make – you don’t want to rush those moments.
Especially when juggling all of these roles during the pandemic, we feel like we have to rush them. We can use this as an opportunity to reconnect and to form new relationships with our kids and make new traditions and make new memories. Young kids won’t look back at this time as a pandemic when we were suffering and anxious. They’ll remember the memories created like the simplicity of when ‘Mom dressed up silly’ or ‘We all called each other Your Highness for the day’. We can value the simplicity in these moments.
In your early career, you were an early intervention specialist and preschool teacher. How do you think full-time online learning has/will affect children’s social and developmental skills as they miss out on face-to-face teaching?
There’s no replacement for play and socialisation. Every family has to make their own decision on what their priority is (physical safety, mental wellness, etc.) which may change as circumstances change. For example, if we can’t have playdates, we have to be their playmate. We have to listen and respond. As parents, we feel pressured to meet milestones and do zoom classes and checklists – it gets overwhelming. Kids love learning and naturally learn - we need to provide opportunities to develop their passions. For little ones, lower expectations of what we want our kids of 5 years old and under to accomplish online. We don’t want to teach kids that learning is hard, boring and stressful. Get the kids out into nature and don’t overcomplicate things.
There’s no doubt, Generation Z is digitally native. But, how can we raise healthy and mindful children who are accustomed to schooling online and socialisation through a computer? How can we ensure we’re bringing out the best in our children?
It’s about striking a balance. More research has shown it’s not the amount of time on screens, it’s what we’re doing on the screens. If it’s passive watching and it’s not interactive, then we need to limit screen time. If it’s gaming with no original thinking – less is better than more. We all want to hang out and chill out for a bit – there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s in moderation. We’re still studying the effects of this but so far, we know what you’re doing online is more important than the time spent.
We should ensure we have educated kids that understand the boundaries of the internet. There’s a great documentary series called ‘Screenagers’ that talks about how we monitor kids online, how we set expectations and how to teach online safety. Kids need to be educated that digital tech and apps have ways of tracking you.
As a mother of 2, how would you describe your own parenting style? Has this evolved at all during COVID-19?
It’s made me more present and more grateful. Before the pandemic, I used to worry about little things. But I’m happy, healthy, safe and there’s only so much I can control. Every moment is so valuable and it’s helped me to be present and mindful of the joy and freedoms I have.
Finally, if you could turn back time and talk to your pre-Mom self, what would you tell her?
Forgive yourself. You’re only human. Nothing can’t be undone. When you mess up, overreact or rush, it’s important to model self-care and narrate how you’ve messed up and that you’re working on it. It’s so helpful for your kids to see you resolve conflict, but it’s also important for you to forgive yourself.
Every parent is the expert of their own family.
Be forgiving. It’s easier said than done.
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