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How to Parent When Times are Tough

It’s just been one of those times recently—one of those tough phases in life that everyone goes through now and then when the clouds converge, the stars mis-align, and it feels like I’m the walking embodiment of the when it rains, it pours idiom.

The last time I was knocked off my axis like this was before I had children (and in fact, suffering a miscarriage was part of that particular string of difficult events). So this time, with my 2-year-old and 7-month-old in tow, it’s been quite a different experience handling all-encompassing stress (and in my case, grief due to a death in the family) with little ones there not only witnessing it but also, you know, needing to be parented.

Gone are the days of surviving on take out and coffee, having hours to be alone with my thoughts, or indulging in lengthy self-care practices (I remember a few times where I went for a massage and a mani-pedi on the same day. Can you imagine?) But now, there are diapers to be changed and a baby to be breastfed and train tracks to be built and bedtime battles to get into and did I mention the baby is also teething so crankiness is copious and sleep is scarce?

Obviously, raising kids takes so much head space and energy in normal circumstances. So how do you deal with major life events—especially negative ones—that demand even more of your head space and energy?

Well, with some trial (and a lot of error), here are a few things I’ve learned about how to parent when times are tough:

Keep a routine for the kids

You know it. I know it. We ALL know it: kids just do better on a routine. I mean, if I miss the bedtime window by a mere 20 minutes with my toddler, instead of minor resistance that can be dealt with via loving redirection, I’m instead wishing I had a priest on speed-dial to perform an exorcism due to full-on demonic possession.

When I’m stressed, though, I find it really hard to be strict with a schedule. I’m internally processing and I’m checked out and drifting and not paying attention to the clock. But I’ve realized that keeping a routine also has the important benefit of children knowing that certain parts of their lives will remain stable despite other factors changing around them, so I make it a priority. Avoiding avoidable meltdowns also helps save time and energy to cope with whatever you’re coping with.

Tip: Set phone alarms to remind yourself of when to start the minor routine tasks (e.g., start getting snack ready) when you don’t feel mentally clear enough to be on top of the daily schedule.

Be good with good enough

Though keeping a routine for the kiddos is necessary, give yourself permission for everything else to just be good enough. When you’re carrying stress, grief, fatigue, hardship—go back to how you lived your life when you had a newborn where frozen meals, lax house cleaning, and yoga pants reigned. Carry on, but allow yourself to save some energy to tend to the weight of whatever it is you’re going through.

Tip: Your self-care can be good enough, too. Bringing some brief but intentional focus to lingering over a cup of tea, going for a short walk, writing down a few things you’re grateful for, or taking five extra minutes in the shower just to breathe can make a difference.

Use positive media to lift your mood

Just like using pumped-up playlist at the gym out or watching a motivating TED Talk to inspire you to take some action in your life, have your favorite positive piece of media on hand to consume when you need an instant mood lift. This can be especially helpful before entering the more, uh, challenging parts of the day with kiddos.

My go-to mood lifter is the stand-up comedy of Tig Notaro. Her dry, cynical humor can have me peeing my pants with laughter in seconds (and not just because of postpartum incontinence!) If I strategically listen to one of her sets right before I pick up the kids from daycare to start the end-of-day push, I tend to be in a lighter mood, which is really important when I’ve been down for most of the day.

Tip: Watch/listen to/read your uplifting source but don’t then move on to other forms of media. No checking work email one more time. No looking at Twitter for a breaking news fix (you know it ain’t good!) Stay in that buoyant head space for a while. Repeat as needed.

Show emotion in front of your children

Of course I’ve been emotional in front of my children before, but a show of “I’m frustrated you’re not listening to me” feelings is different than a show of “I’m heartbroken my grandmother died” feelings.

Recently I was hit with an unexpected wave of sadness and naturally, my toddler was concerned. I started talking out my emotions that mimicked the way we talk his emotions out: “It’s OK for Mama to be sad. Yes, I’m crying because I’m sad, but it makes Mama feel better to cry and talk about why I’m sad. I’m not sad because anything you did, sweetheart.”

The wave passed, I reassured him again that I wasn’t sad because of anything he did, he saw that I got through it, and I was indeed OK. You don’t have to hide emotion and it’s a good thing to model the processing of it.

Tip: Google advice on how to talk about hard topics in age-appropriate ways (and know that you can be vague if you just aren’t sure before doing a little research.)

Ask for help (no seriously, do it)

I’m pretty sure “ask for help” has been a piece of advice in every single article on parenting I’ve ever read, which means a lot of us might be pretty bad at it. It may not feel like the most natural or comfortable thing (it’s certainly not for me), but trust that it does get easier the more you do it (mostly because you’ll find that anyone you ask is more than happy to lend a hand).

You are human. It’s OK to need and ask for help, especially during hard times.

Tip: When you ask for help, DON’T apologize profusely for asking, DON’T feel guilty, and DON’T promise to repay the favor ten times over. DO be specific in what you could use help with (meals, babysitting, housework) and DO pay it forward when the time is right.

* * *

Even though the above advice is formatted into a nice little organized tip list, know that I’m still figuring things out. Sometimes the routine is thrown out the window and I get mad the dishes are piling up and I don’t have enough patience to talk my emotions out with a toddler and I resent myself for not asking for more help.

So if you’re going through a tough time too, hear this: You’re going to be OK. You will get through this. Just do the best you can with what you have (and some days, you might not have much).

And if you have any advice on how to parent when times are tough, let us hear about it in the comments.

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