Dear Dr. Andrea,
These past few months have been stressful, to say the least. My husband and I have two elementary-school-aged children and we both work full time, so the lockdown and schooling have been hard. He has a particularly demanding job. My kids are generally good kids and we have always had a pretty smooth relationship. Anyway, I have gradually become a yeller over this time and I feel like such a hypocrite.
I am not screaming at the top of my lungs or saying truly mean things to my kids, but I have started raising my voice pretty regularly, when they aren’t doing what they’re supposed to, or when they have conflicts with each other, or when I find that they’ve made a mess or can’t stay quiet. It’s a tone that’s angry and that I don’t like and I feel like it’s my new normal.
My kids have started to ignore me even more now, and sometimes even plug their ears. Every day I say I’m not going to do this anymore, but it’s like the floodgates have opened and I can’t stop, even though I know it doesn’t help. I would love to go back to how things were.
—Want to be better than this
Your last sentence says it all — there are probably so many ways that you’d like to go back to how things were.
This is hard.
Please extend yourself some compassion. Heightened stress depletes our patience, period. And being unexpectedly responsible for all-day, everyday supervision of your children while also working full-time (so, double the usual roles to perform, and simultaneously) is a level of demand that can make even the most patient person frazzled.
Let’s also not be all-or-none here. You start off each day with the goal to never yell again. But I’m thinking that creates too strict a standard, because when you do lose your patience, then you probably feel disappointed enough that it takes away your motivation to make the next interaction just a little bit better. (It’s like the crash diet that turns into a binge the second someone feels like they “messed up.”)
So, instead of declaring raising your voice to be the absolute enemy, or reminding yourself constantly what you’re not supposed to be doing, aim just to add more of an alternative, positive behavior, like pausing and counting to 10 before you respond when you’re frustrated. Or practicing breathing exercises when you feel yourself getting angry. Or giving yourself a timeout when you are overwhelmed, where you go and get some silent space for a few minutes.
You might also talk with your husband about your struggle, and see how you two can make sure there’s equilibrium in supporting each other. Yes, his professional job is demanding. But that shouldn’t automatically mean that you now have too much of the also-demanding job of keeping your kids on track with the nine different passwords they need for online schooling. Talk it through, because it will be so helpful if you all — including your kids — take this on as a team. Don’t set it up with you as the problem, but rather make a family goal out of it. To be more patient with each other, perhaps? To have more fun together? To communicate with each other more respectfully? By listening to everyone’s ideas for improvement, you can get them on board. When you view this as your burden to bear alone, you just take on more pressure, and you don’t get any help in fixing a dynamic that everyone is likely contributing to.
Finally, as much as I have become a broken record these days, we can’t truly address your stressed reactions without addressing your baseline stress itself: It’s the only way to get real bang for your buck when you try to make changes. You’ve got to prioritize your own self-care during this time. And while many parents have a knee-jerk reaction that it’s selfish to ever put their own needs first, the opposite is true. Doing what you need to do to be more rested, calm, fulfilled and energized ends up being a kindness to your children.
So, you know the drill — but take it seriously. Sleep, movement, nature, social connections, creative pursuits on your own: Consider them your vitamins right now.