Active Parenting can help parents significantly in reducing stress, both for their children and for themselves, writes RamG Vallath, as he suggests strategies & age-appropriate techniques to tackle the challenges being faced by most
The pandemic has delivered a triple-whammy to parents. First and foremost, the pandemic itself is an unprecedented, once-in-a-lifetime event. Even the best of scientists cannot predict where it is headed; who are safe, who are vulnerable; or what precautions — including vaccines — afford what level of protection. Secondly, children have been uprooted from their routines, confined inside the house, kept away from socialising and have even been forced by circumstances to become screen addicts. Parenting, which is a discovery process, even in normal circumstances, has become far tougher due to these added stresses. Thirdly, parents themselves have been uprooted from their routines and forced to reduce social interactions. Many have lost their jobs and many have work hours that have eaten up into personal time in an unprecedented blending of work and personal life.
And now, their world is going to be shaken up yet again, with schools reopening. Routines being practiced over the last 18 months will need to be unlearned and new routines re-established, with the sword of Damocles of a possible new wave always hanging on their heads. This is when the principles of Active Parenting can come to the rescue of parents.
What is Active Parenting?
While every child is unique and every family and circumstances unique, the underlying principles, framework and strategies of Active Parenting can substantially help in every situation, for every child and every parent. Active Parenting can help parents significantly in reducing stress — both for their children and for themselves. In fact, it can even help in converting these uncertainties into learning opportunities for children and bonding opportunities for the family. The three key principles of Active Parenting are as below.
- Inculcate the right attributes and qualities systematically and proactively instead of firefighting when issues pop up
- Be mindful that every opportunity can be utilised to build these attributes and qualities and proactively use every opportunity to do that
- Provide high support, while empowering children to take ownership and responsibility for their own lives
Based on the above principles, there are several strategies and age-appropriate techniques that a practitioner of Active Parenting can use to tackle each of the challenges that school reopening presents.
Challenges Posed by Reopening of Schools
First let us list out the challenges to be tackled.
- Both parents and children may have fear of Covid. Even though most schools are taking utmost care in putting in place strict guidelines for ensuring there is no Covid outbreak, in a school with many children, implementation is unlikely to be perfect. This could lead to anxiety and stress for both parents and children.
- For both children and parents, reopening means changing routines drastically. For children, it means having to get up earlier by sometimes as much as 60 to 90 minutes, getting ready, giving up on snacking any time they want, coming back from school feeling tired etc. For parents, it again means having to get up earlier to get children ready, ensuring breakfast/snack is ready on time, sometimes having to drop and pick up children from the school or bus stop etc. These can induce stress and also create conflict between parents and children.
- For children, school reopening will create academic stress. After perhaps 18 months, they are going back into a formal classroom. While most schools had organised for online classes, in is a less-than-perfect mode of learning and it is likely that the topics covered in the last eighteen months haven’t been absorbed well enough. Even worse, surveys have shown that there is even some slippage of concepts learned before the pandemic. Many children will feel overwhelmed by the workload in the first few months as schools try to cover lost ground.
- Social stress is another problem that some children will need to deal with, especially the more introverted children. Children who have been subjected to bullying in the past and who have had a safe cocoon at home in these eighteen months will be suddenly confronted with the prospect of facing their tormentors again. There could also be children who are apprehensive of certain teachers who would dread the prospect of facing them face to face again.
In children, these signs of stress could manifest in many ways. Reluctance to go to school, tantrums, unusual levels of obstinacy, subdued look, emotional meltdowns, headache, upset stomach etc. are few of the signs that parents can watch out for. On the other hand, stress can cause irritation, short-temper, frustration, and even anger in parents.
Applying Active Parenting Principles
With so much stress on themselves and on the children on various counts, the principles of Active Parenting can come to the rescue. First and foremost, parents need to extend unconditional support to their children by demonstrating deep love, compassion and trust. While it is understandable that parents, who are themselves under stress, might feel irritated, impatient and short-tempered when children show reluctance to go to school or otherwise act difficult, parents need to be understanding and empathetic.
In fact, they need to be proactive in bringing up the possibility of the above stress points and assure the children that they understand that there may be stress on them and that the parents are there to help them. What the child needs in a parent in a situation like this is a friend who they can share their apprehensions or worries with and not a pushy and aggressive master. To quote the famous model of the clinical psychologist, Diana Baumrind, parents need to be high on warmth and responsiveness during this turmoil.
But the question remains — how can parents ensure that children share their apprehensions openly? This would depend a lot on the nature of the child. But one of the key strategies of Active Parenting — befriending — can help in unlocking some of the reluctance of children to share deeply personal stuff. The underlying principle is that children, like adults, feel more comfortable in sharing inner feelings when there is empathy and trust instead of judgment. For this, parents need to spend quality time with children. It will help if parents can share instances from their own childhood, when they faced stressful situations. This may give the confidence for children to open up their own fears.
Another technique would be to have a family team discussion: with each member sharing their own challenges and fears relating to the current situation. Then each member can share an action plan on what they intent to do to overcome the challenges. Finally, each member can request specific support from other members of the team. It can start with each of the parents sharing how the new routines could affect them and asking specific support from each other to help them cope with this. Then they could also ask for specific support from the children, such as ‘taking responsibility for manging their own routine’ or ‘being patient when they come back home hungry, if their favourite food isn’t available’. This could prompt the children to also share their challenges and expected support.
One of the aspects that can get addressed through the above ‘team approach’ is Covid appropriate behaviour. As someone who has been deeply involved with the pandemic response of a large philanthropic organisation, I would like to reassure the parents that there is very little chance of children catching a severe attack of Covid.
However, it is important to take all precaution and ensuring both children and parents follow Covid appropriate behaviour is critical. Parents need to impress upon children the importance of following the protocols such as masking, regular handwashing, and physical distancing. They need to spell these out and ensure children understand the reason behind these guidelines.
The children should know that their deviation from the protocols could affect the parents and other elders at home — if any — far worse than it would affect themselves. This is a great way to build a sense of responsibility. Let the children know that you trust them to adhere to the guidelines. Parents also need to role model Covid-appropriate behaviour when they themselves venture out.
Respect, Trust and Empathy
During this challenging transition period, the two traits that parents need to role-model are patience and empathy. With each other, as well as with kids. If the parents are biting each other’s heads off at the drop of a hat, it would be unreasonable and impractical for them to expect a patient behaviour from their children. When children observe their parents facing stressful situations in a candid and humorous fashion, they are also likely to adopt the same behaviour. This includes unabashed apology from parents to each other and to the children when they lose their cool and making fun of their own such ‘ridiculous’ behaviour.
Another key Active Parenting strategy that can come in handy in such situations is story-telling. There is no better way to inculcate the desired qualities (values and traits) in children than by telling them stories — of real life heroes and fictitious heroes who manifested the same qualities and succeeded because of them. Similarly, parents telling the children of times when they themselves demonstrated these qualities to their own advantage will also help in driving home the benefit of these qualities. Of course, it is important that these story-telling sessions do not appear to be sessions for the sake of building these qualities.
The primary purpose of stories should be entertainment as far as the child is concerned. The secondary and invisible purpose is inculcating the traits and values. The child should subconsciously absorb these deeper messages. In a stressful situation like this, the most desirable qualities to instil are self-discipline, sense of responsibility, ownership, sense of humour, respect, gratitude etc. remember that stories plant seeds in the mind and at the appropriate time, these seeds sprout.
Every crisis is an opportunity. If the above suggestions are embraced by parents whole-heartedly, they might find that this stressful situation was the best learning period for themselves and their children and that it offered a truly life-altering situation with family bonds becoming stronger than ever.
The writer is an IITian, a tech company co-founder, a motivational speaker & the author of Active Parenting: How to raise children with boundless potential, published by HarperCollins India