North Dakota State University Parenting Education Network hosted a hour-long, brain-science based presentation by parenting expert Erin Walsh, co-founder of the Spark & Stitch Institute based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. The event was streamed via Zoom on Wednesday, January 27, from 7-8 p.m. The presentation was titled Parenting in a Pandemic, The Many Faces of Stress.
Walsh approaches the stress of parenting from a neurobiological point of view. Understanding how the brain reacts to stress guides us through handling stress. In simple terms, when overwhelmed with stress, the brain will shut down one level at a time. The top level is the thinking brain, where you reason and problem solve. The next level down is the feeling brain, and below that is the functional brain where your survival skills take control. Normally stress comes at us in spurts, and we deal with it and move on. In the pandemic, it has become a river of stress that has not let up yet- more of a marathon than a sprint. In this environment our brain may shut down the thinking level and move to the feeling level.
When your child is overwhelmed by stress (or you, for that matter) they are no longer thinking on a problem-solving level but rather going on feelings. You may see anger, irritability, fuzzy thinking, difficulty focusing or making decisions, overdrive or perfectionism, changes in sleep/eating/mood, humor, or disengagement. You need to try to connect to your child through their feelings, providing support for those feelings, and letting them know it is okay to feel what they feel.
It is easy to try to problem solve for them and fix things, but they are not thinking at that level. As a parent, remember that this is not the last time they will feel stress, and you can help them by helping them find the skills that get them through these feelings. That toolkit of “coping and moving on” skills is unique for everyone, including you.
Dr. Bruce Perry has stated that there is no more effective neurological intervention to stress than a safe relationship. One of the biggest things our kids need is empathy. We can tell them this is hard, but we will figure it out together.
When both parent and child are prickly, it is the parent’s job to take the first step. Walsh recommends the sequence of Calm, Connect, and then Coach. Calm yourself first, by using what works for you: breathe, get some space, take a break, and tell yourself, “I can do this. Our relationship can hold these big feelings.” Connect with your child with empathy for their feelings: “This is hard, isn’t it?” or “Can you tell me more about it?” Coach your child to work through their feelings and help them find what works for them: “Let’s focus on one thing we can control right now.” “You seem less angry now. What helped?” “It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to hit someone.”
If you see unexplained or worrisome behavior, sleeping too much or trouble sleeping, changes in social motivation, feeling down and hopeless for long stretches, or recurring thoughts of death or suicide, it is not a time to isolate. Get in touch with your pediatrician or school counselor. Walsh stated that asking about depression, mental health or suicide does not create mental health challenges, it gives you windows into them.
Finally, take stock of what things connect your family together, such as family meals, talking, reading, dancing, singing, traditions, playing and celebrations. Know what recharges you and “fills your bucket.” These may include physical recharging with sleep, exercise, and nutrition; helping and having a purpose in your family, school, and community; connecting with family, friends, and school; and taking time to find joy, have fun, and play.
This presentation was the first in a series of five. There will be a presentation on the last Wednesday over the next four months. Registration will be found on the NDSU Parent Education Network website at www.ag.ndsu.edu/pen under Programs and Events. Once registered, you will get emails for upcoming webinars.
• February 24, 7:00 p.m. – Staying Engaged in Learning and Work: the Science of Motivation.
• March 24, 7:00 p.m. – Screen Time During COVID-19: Three Supportive Insights from the Research to Guide Your Parenting Today.
• April 28, 7:00 p.m. – Parenting in a Pandemic: Setting Limits and Avoiding Power Struggles
• May 26, 7:00 p.m. – Loosen but Don’t Let Go: Helping Teens Cope with COVID
Erin Walsh is a parent, speaker, educator, and writer. She has worked with communities across the country that want to better understand child and adolescent development and cut through conflicting information about kids and technology. She co-founded Spark & Stitch Institute with her father, Dr. David Walsh, and mother Monica Walsh. Dr. Walsh is the author of three books, “No: Why Kids – of All Ages – Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It,” “Smart Parenting, Smarter Kids,” and “Why Do They Act That Way,” all available on Amazon. Their blogs, online classes, free resources, and more can be found at www.sparkandstitchinstitute.com.