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Dr Tracy McGlynn: Learning as we go – the pandemonium of parenting in a pandemic

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She has been in the shower for all of about two glorious minutes, before they are shouting for food.

They’ve  just finished breakfast. They stockpile energy throughout the day and just as bedtime approaches, release it full force. The boredom that was lurking about the house earlier is nowhere to be seen. Aided by the extra sugar in their tanks from snack overload, her nighttime ninjas are ready to battle sleep.

She does her best to put structure and routine into the day, between working, refereeing and entertaining the needs of different aged children. There are times of course when everyone is getting along great, and dusty boardgames are given a new lease of life. Then there are those other times. Like this one, where the very roots of her patience are being pulled up. Welcome to parenting in a pandemic.

Prisoners struggle to get along in close confines. So why should a family be any different in lockdown? The length of sentence is uncertain, the diet of pasta is growing old and day release is limited. Our children are adapting to change, as we are. It is a shared but unique experience for everyone. There may be a welcome slowing down of family life and enjoying time with each other. But it’s also a time when people are experiencing feelings like frustration, loss and anxiety. If you add in expectations about how you should be coping, the pressure is set to build.

You might have expected to have a better handle on homeschooling. Teachers are brilliant beings, but they also work in a structured environment that is designed for learning. Our kitchen doesn’t quite achieve the same focus, other than to remind my kids to eat again. Stress also impacts on our brain’s ability to learn so there are a few factors working against you. Remember, you are the one that helps them how to manage big emotions, that teaches them how to get on with others and most importantly how to cope with stress. You are the one that makes them feel loved and safe.

From a child’s perspective, their world and routine has changed dramatically. They have even less control over their little lives than normal. They may not yet be of an age where they can put into words what they feel. Instead, they use their behaviour to communicate their internal world. And those behaviours aren’t the endearing kind, nor are they the ones that bring out the best in us. Think whingeing, lots of it. This can leave both parent and child feeling heavy booted. You don’t have to get it right every time, I know I don’t.

All loving relationships endure little ruptures and repairs along the way. It is what teaches a child to tolerate frustration that you and the world are not perfect and that life is not always fair. When I am not having a proud parenting moment, I kick myself and take a shot of guilt to keep topped up. After a deep breath (or twenty), and everyone has calmed down, we then talk about behaviour, including my own. Kids should hear grown-ups apologise more. Then we play. I let them guide me in whatever Lego adventure they want to take me on. It gives them a sense of control and lets us reconnect.

In addition to being wonder parent, you may have felt the pressure to be more productive. To achieve more. If you have small children, your time is not likely your own. If you do learn some Italian or pick up the ukulele, fair play to you, but if you just get through the day, you’ve done more than enough. Do what you can. And try your very best not to compare yourself to others. Everyone is on their own parenting journey, you may be measuring your worst day against their best staged one on Facebook.

Whilst I picture the images of people scrapping over toilet roll, a sad reflection of how fear scrambles sense, I think this tragic time will become synonymous with kindness. Hopefully, this will be its legacy. For if you want to benefit your own mental health and that of others, be kind. Kindness connects us. And it is connection to others which allows us to cope that bit better with anything life throws at us, including dodgy quarantine hair cuts. And whenever you can, show compassion to a fellow parent. I’m thinking of a parent who has no choice right now but to bring their child with them on a food shop and is met with disapproving stares. Probably the same accusing glare you met when you boarded a flight without first checking your kids into the baggage hold.

There is a void in our lives at the moment. We may be searching for ways to fill it or seek distraction. My phone is not shy in telling me exactly how many minutes I have increased my screen time. Between checking the news and handing the phone over too easily to distract one of the boys, I seriously underestimated the time spent doing both. It strikes me how much more physically present but virtually absent we can all be together, including with partners. Like most things in life it’s about achieving a balance. Getting enough sleep versus the lure of Netflix. Having a sense of purpose in your day with just letting yourself be. It’s having fun amid a new routine and structure. And it is acknowledging with gratitude what our day has still brought, despite everything we are trying to cope with.

We are learning to parent in a pandemic. And just like when you brought your little one home at the start of your parenting journey, you may have felt overwhelmed, but you found your own path. Be kind to yourself and recognise each day what you are doing well.

Dr Tracy McGlynn is the mother of two young boys and an experienced clinical child psychologist who works for the NHS with families in the Highlands.