Pelham Together Discusses Finding Balance at Home During COVID
Pelham Together is proud to bring back Dr. Gus Haracopos to discuss how to balance parenting with the demands of Coronavirus.
Gus Haracopos, LCSW, PhD, a social worker at The Spence School in Manhattan with a private practice in Larchmont, spoke with Melissa Ronan, a board member with Pelham Together, on how parents can find balance in their homes during this time of new pressures and demands. Dr. Haracopos, and many other vetted local mental health providers, can be contacted through our website at www.pelhamtogether.org/service-providers. This interview was edited for clarity.
MR: This is tough going into another season with the pandemic, I’m wondering if you have any advice on how to help working parents continue to manage all that they’re being forced to juggle?
GH: Parents in our communities have this idea that as a parent your role is to set up the best environment and structure for your kids as you can, and that’s how they’ll thrive. That’s a wonderful goal under normal circumstances. But there are very few people who have the ability to continue doing that, given what’s going on in the world. And some of the ones who can’t, are judging their own parenting based on their pre-pandemic standards, and are now failing in their own eyes. So the real life problems get intensified with the guilt and the remorse and the worry that really can’t accomplish anything.
What I would encourage them to do is, tomorrow find those opportunities where you can change how your kids are processing this. Find those opportunities where you can change the model that you’re being for your kids. Notice ways that this adversity —this need for resilience— can help your kids thrive, maybe in different ways than you expected.
MR: What do you suggest along those lines? Where are those opportunities?
GH: Most of us, when there’s been a problem in our life, we have been able to tackle our problems. And now, we can wear a mask or socially distance, but it’s not going to change the big picture. So the knee jerk response for many of us is to find something to control. Let me name the problem, let me find the villain, let me push for this one external change (whatever that is) as a way to exert some control.
But the real opportunity for control that you can see for parents is in the little world of their house and family. You can model for your kids the tools you want them to use whenever they face adversity. Because I don’t think you want your kid to be holding herself to impossibly high standards and feeling guilty every night when she goes to bed. I don’t think you want your kid feeling that she needs to do it all by herself, without reaching out for help to people around her. But every day that she sees you do that, you’re telling her that’s the way to do it. So the power you have as a parent is, that if you do it differently, then she’s going to be able to do it differently.
MR: That’s great, that makes a lot of sense. Anything else?
GH: What’s helped me is to realize that the position we’re in as adults now is really similar to the position that kids are often in: they don’t understand all the rules about the world, and they try to do stuff like tie their shoes or mail a letter or fill out a job application, and they don’t really know how. And things get handed back to them all the time because they’ve done them wrong. As adults, we get to the point where that rarely happens. But for the last six months, half the things I’ve tried to accomplish are more complicated and have just not worked. Our success rate with tasks on Zoom or working virtually is not as high as most adults are used to. We’re getting a daily pummeling.
When I can step back, I can see that it’s good for me to experience this because it helps with my empathy and understanding -- most children and teenagers feel like this all the time. Now I feel like it’s almost fun when I struggle, because now I use it as an opportunity to learn, and at my age, that’s not something I’ve had much chance to do in a long time.
MR: That’s such a positive way to look at our daily struggles, but I think for some people who are working and have young kids, they also need concrete solutions to reduce their stress.
GH: One strategy that I’ve found useful is to encourage parents to find small ways that they can lean on their kids, which sounds backwards to many people because it sounds like they’d be letting their family down. Just the idea that I need my kid, for example, to knock on the door before they come into my office during certain hours of the day, or when I have this sign on my door. A lot of parents think, well, they’re so young and I shouldn’t have to put a limit like that on them.
All the “shoulds” can keep parents from doing effective problem solving. I’m thinking of a mom, she’s got young kids, she’s working from home but needs to be in the room with them, if they’re on their Zoom call for school. They can’t read her body language and say, “Oh, Mom’s not available right now.” So I suggested providing a visual signal that she’s not available. But she felt like, “A good mom shouldn’t put a closed sign on herself” and “I shouldn’t be imposing my needs on my kids.” And yet at the same time she was close to tears in the conversation because her work life was falling apart and she felt she was failing her kids because she was split between those two.
So they had a family conversation to help her. Like, “Let’s talk about this. Everybody knows how hard this is and it’s hard for Mom as well.” And for Mom to admit that it’s hard, and for her to look at her kindergartner and her first grader and say, “I really need your help. I want you to help me pick a signal, like I’ll wear my green scarf, when I can’t be disturbed. It will make my work a lot easier and will let me be there for you the rest of the time in a way that you want me to be there.”
MR: So how did she make peace with setting those limits and asking for her kids’ help?
GH: She understood that kids are part of a family community, and expecting them to carry no water is probably not a good idea even in the best of times. Kids respond to being given responsibility. They respond to knowing that they’re making a valuable contribution.
And, it wasn’t a viable choice to be fully available all the time. She was fully available sometimes, and other times pretended to be available, while really being rushed and frustrated and harried. Think about the message you send when one of your kids reaches out for help, and sometimes you are your usual helpful self and other times there’s a real note of stress in your voice and your eyes are wandering back to your screen and your hands are rushing as you’re trying to help her. We can’t control the situation, but we can control how she understands you setting this limit.
MR: That sounds really helpful. I hope parents will be able to apply that. Any final words of wisdom?
GH: In terms of talking with kids or talking with parents who feel like they’re just this close to drowning and now this one more thing happened, I think you never know how much you can do, how much you can get through. Look at where you are right now compared to where you were when this started. Would you have thought yourself capable of getting through all of that?
And so as dark as it seems right now, you know you have it in you. For today, cry about it, be frustrated about it, it’s terrible, it’s awful, it’s a huge disappointment. Don’t tell yourself you shouldn’t feel that way. It is terrible and awful. But remember that you’re the person who’s also coped over these months, and remember that you still have all of that strength in you. Yes, you’re tired, but you’ve also built a lot of muscle while using that strength, and that muscle stays with you.