Joining me today is developmental psychologist Dr. Erin O’Connor, co-creator of Scientific Mommy and co-host of the podcast Parenting Understood. Last week Erin had me on her podcast, and we discussed all the factors that made parents particularly vulnerable to stress, anxiety and burnout during the pandemic in part one of this two part episode.
And now, in part two, we’re talking all about strategies we can implement right now, in our daily lives to reduce our stress and build support systems around ourselves and our families that enable us to find acceptance and to thrive as we begin looking toward a post-pandemic future.
Dr. Sarah (00:00):
It’s not play is leftover time, all the things that have to happen, and then whatever time is left, we’ll do play. But saying like play time and family time are just as important as the soccer and the swimming and the music.
Dr. Sarah (00:20):
If you’ve been listening to this podcast, then you’ve probably heard me say you can’t pour from an empty cup. As a psychologist, I know how vital it is to prioritize self-care, which for parents, it’s often the first thing to go. But when we’re operating on a full tank, we’re able to show up in the world as our best selves. So while self-care may feel indulgent to you or just inaccessible. In reality, it allows us to be better parents, partners, and friends. Now you might be rolling your eyes and thinking like, oh yeah, sure. I’d love to make self-care part of the routine. But between household duties, parenthood, work all the other obligations on our plates that’s just not in the cards for me right now. So if that’s you, uh, I hear you. You are not going to want to miss this episode! This week, we’re doing something a little different on Securely Attached. Joining me today is developmental psychologist, Erin O’Connor she’s co-creator of Scientific Mommy and co-host of the podcast Parenting Understood. Last week, Erin had me on her podcast and we discussed all the factors that made parents particularly vulnerable to stress, anxiety, and burnout during the pandemic in part one of this two-part episode. And now in part two, we’re talking all about the strategies that we as parents can implement right now in our daily lives to reduce stress and build support systems around ourselves and our families that enable us to actually thrive. So tune into this episode now, and if you missed it, go check out part one on Erin’s podcast, Parenting Understood.
New Speaker (02:08):
Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research and brain science and child psychology and the insights I’ve been on my own parents and distilled everything down into easy to understand actionable parenting insights. So you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.
Dr. Sarah (02:43):
Hi, I’m so excited to welcome Erin O’Connor. We just finished recording part one to this conversation. So if you haven’t already listened to that, go back to Parenting Understood and listen to that episode, but we’re really excited cause we just kind of broke down sort of what we thought was some of the sort of issues that made parents so vulnerable to stress during COVID and just in general. And now we’re going to talk about what we do about it. So Erin, so glad to have you here. Welcome.
I’m so excited to be here. Thanks for having me.
Dr. Sarah (03:20):
So, okay. Let’s think about this. So we were talking a lot about how stressors for parents seem to put them in a really vulnerable category of people like higher rates of depression, higher rates of anxiety, higher stress markers, like chronic stress markers, like higher levels of cortisol. And when we’re in a state of that chronic stress, what is some of the things that that does to our body, to our, our cognition? Like what do you think would parents need to understand, like why this is so important?
Well, I think, you know, like we were talking about in the first part too, is that with these heightened levels of cortisol, this heightened trauma response. So we’re seeing kind of this fight or flight reaction to maybe smaller instances that before would not have led to this trauma response of fight or flight, but because we’re at this elevated level of stressful at all times, we are reacting to different situations in that manner. And then just thinking biologically, you know, cortisol eventually if you have higher levels for extended periods of time and not that everyone has had this experience with COVID, but a lot have, then it leads to different sort of a little bit of a breakdown in the neuro biological system, right? So you’re, you’re deregulated. So again, you see this fight or flight is the, you know, physical manifestation of it, but of how we’re acting. But then also the physiological underpinnings are that we’re, our body is not setting the proper hormonal responses that it should to various environmental stressors.
Dr. Sarah (05:04):
Yeah. And so that makes parenting really hard because, one parenting requires a lot of focus and attention and flexibility. So you have to be able to like cognitively switch from one task to another very rapidly and you need to stay regulated so you can stay patient and, you know, perspective take when our kid is like, you know, having an epic meltdown, how do we keep that from feeling personal? How do we keep that emotional space between us so that we can help co-regulate with our child? You know, all of that’s diminished when we’re in this sort of chronic fight or flight persistent, you know, stress response for like prolonged periods of time.
And that coregulation is so important. Like you were saying, it’s this, if we’re showing these signs of anxiety and stress, our children are definitely picking up on that. They’re going to show heightened levels of anxiety and stress, which is going to stress us out as a parent. Right. So it’s a cycle of deregulation, really.
Dr. Sarah (06:02):
Yeah. So, so since the premise of this part two, is to talk about what do we do do, how do we solve for this? How do we generally speaking understand and reduce stressors? And also how do we kind of build a more robust system from like in a family unit perspective, in a self care perspective, in a work-life balance perspective so that we’re not coming into this as taxed.
And I think, you know, I think of a lot of things from the child perspective, I guess just cause so much of my work is focused on that on the younger years. And I think play is something that’s really so critical for children’s development, as well as adults. But something that we’ve found a lot within this, within the pandemic is the importance of independent play. And of course that looks different at different ages and stages, but allowing children at the time to really have unstructured play time where they can sometimes work through some of the stresses that they’re feeling through their play. So just observing children, they might, you know, be worried about their doll being sick and sort of working through what that, what happens when they’re doll is sick and who takes care of the doll and allowing them to process what’s going on around them, through that play that’s child directed. So that they’re really being able to be the ones that are telling us through their play what’s going on in their heads. And also for parents, independent play is so important in terms of giving ourselves a little bit of time to just sit back and take a breath and not feel like we have to be quote unquote kind of like regulating our children in terms of, you know, thinking about stress again. So I think play for many, many reasons is something that has been so important during the pandemic and something that maybe children didn’t have enough of before the pandemic, because we were such an over-scheduled society by and large. So I think when we think about self care for both children and adults play is, is something that is so important.
Dr. Sarah (08:08):
Yeah, and even think play for adults. Like I think when our children have a solid, independent play routine and skill set, it’s great for us to have that sort of parenting break. But also, what, what do we do that’s playful. Like play looks different at all ages, but everyone, even grownups should be playing like, you know, for us, maybe that’s, you know, I, you know, you play tennis or you do crosswords or you play, you know, have game night with your partner once a week or, or maybe it’s, I like to, you know, paint or take photos or, you know, but what are you creating? What are you building? What are you doing that’s for you? And it can be small. It can be something that you visit, you know, revisit from time to time. It doesn’t have to be a daily practice. It can be, but what’s our outlet. Because just like we talk about the benefits of stress relief for children who play. I think parents just need to do it too.
I totally agree. And I mean, the science supports that, right. If you actually look at, you know, we keep going back to cortisol levels, but it’s such a good marker of stress response that during play both for children and adults, there’s a precipitous drop in your cortisol level often. So and that play can look very different, right? So maybe it’s somewhat more structured if you’re an adult and you’re playing tennis. Right. Or maybe it’s not, maybe it’s like, you’re just taking time to walk around and just be.
Dr. Sarah (09:43):
Yeah. daydreaming is play.
Dr. Sarah (09:49):
You don’t have to have a hobby to play.
Totally. And I think we fall into that trap sometimes of feeling like we need to have some again, because those sort of our societal leanings of, you know, having to be structured and scheduled, it’s like, you feel like you have to have like this defined “play outlet,” but you don’t.
Dr. Sarah (10:10):
Yeah. And it’s funny thinking, going back to the over-scheduling thing, you know, we talked about in the part one about how, one of the reasons why parents were so taxed going into the pandemic, which made them more vulnerable to becoming a highly stressed out group during the pandemic was because of the culture. We’re so over-scheduled, and I think it’s based on fear, it’s based on competition. It’s based on a perception that resources are, you know, scarce and that I need to get my kid into the best program and have them. So they have to play three instruments and do two sports and, you know, like, or, or that it’s my job to enrich my child’s mind. And so I’m feeling as a parent, if for some reason my child isn’t involved in so many extracurriculars and then we’re stressed out, our kids are stressed out that it’s it’s too much. And I think one of the, one of the silver linings of COVID as few as they were, there were some is that it’s forced us to slow down. It forced us to stop doing 50,000 things. And then now that things are coming back online, not even online that’s because we’re offline. Things are coming back in real life and we’re starting to reinvest our time in these extracurriculars again. The pressure’s coming back and parents are feeling it again. And like to keep, to hold on to some of this slowness to actually say, you know what we’ll do, we’ll do one sport and maybe one extra activity and let my kid pick it. And if it’s something that’s not going to be, what gets them into, you know, whatever school, maybe it doesn’t, and that’s fine, like and then maybe that’s not the thing that would get them into the school in the first place. Because if they actually spend time playing and getting to know themselves and building this rich inner world, because they have time and space to do that, maybe that’s what gets them into the program because they can actually articulate, you know, to another person who they are cause they know. Um so I think we have this myth that like the only way for kids to achieve in our world is for them to do a ton of stuff. And I think that that’s one, it’s a myth, it’s not true, but also COVID really like flattened that for a moment. And so like maybe as we’re moving out of it to be really mindful and intentional about what we bring back and how much so that there is time for play.
So I have an interesting just question sort of for you as a clinician. I think at least I’m seeing with some of the parents I work with in more of a research context, but it’s that, there’s almost this added stress of recognizing that children need more of this free unstructured time, but feeling like they have to go back to the structured life that there was before COVID. So there’s like now this almost like added stress of feeling like you have to build in free time. So how do you help parents put boundaries and feel comfortable with the boundaries that they put around these scheduled activities?
Dr. Sarah (13:18):
Yes. Well, I think the, I think the most important thing as a parent, when it comes to boundaries is to one like, or at least to combat that perceived pressure of, okay, now I have to protect play time. Like, oh my God. One more thing to like protect is to know that you have permission to be flexible. Like boundaries actually can be flexible. And that’s an important thing. I think parents have this perception that if I have boundaries around something, then I have to be rigidly attached and uphold them at all times. And that feels like work, right. When we can have a flexible approach to boundaries and a flexible approach to the things that we say yes to and no to. Like, sometimes I’m going to say yes to something I usually say no to. And that’s okay. And sometimes I’m going to say no to something I usually say yes to and that’s also okay. That like, that also gives us a little bit more comfort around boundary setting. Like, oh, I can do this because I’m not like signing a contract in blood. Like it’s flexible. But I do think it also helps to zoom out a lot and say like, cause sometimes I think we get so stuck in like, well, I have to have this and I have to have this and I have to have this and I have to, and then you don’t realize you’re doing so much of the things you quote unquote, have to do that you, that nothing is going to be very beneficial at that point. So it’s like being comfortable with sacrifice a little bit and saying like, I don’t, you know, one sport, one sport, and obviously this is different for, and again, like, this is different for different kids. Like some kids need to move their bodies. They are athletes, they need more sport and that’s fine for those kids. You, you, you, you shift it, but then maybe it’s not, maybe they’re not playing an instrument too. Right. Like being able to say, I’m going to try this thing, one thing right now and see how that goes. And then I might add in another, if there feels like there’s room, but I, you know, my kids are young. My oldest is four and my youngest is two and a half. But even I’m like I’m like a real aggressive, like protector of their time. Like I won’t sign them. I, my son swims and he really wants to play guitar and he’s four. So I’m like, I don’t even know what that looks like at four, but he’s really into it. I’m like fine. You’re passionate about them. Not gonna say no to you, of course, but that’s going to be it for him. Like that is absolutely it. And that means that I didn’t put him in soccer when all his friends were doing soccer. And, and that was just like, again, this is, this is my family. This isn’t to say, this is what you’re supposed to do or have to do. But it’s, it’s more about the way I think about it, less about what I choose to do. It’s about like, I’m zooming out and I’m looking at the whole week. And I also know that there are birthday parties and there’s sometimes like a dinner that’s going to happen and there’s play dates. And I want time for that. And I want time for us as a family to have dance parties after dinner and like, you know, for him to be able to just play with his Legos for an hour, sometimes in the, you know, in the evening. So like he doesn’t, when I’m thinking about the things that are important, I’m involved, I’m including playtime in that it’s not play is leftover time. All the things that have to happen, you can’t see my quotes, but all the things that have to happen. And then whatever time is left, we’ll do play. But saying like play play time is, and family time are just as important as the soccer and the swimming and the music or whatever, you know, whatever it is that’s important to your family.
Yeah. And I think it’s sort of interesting that it’s coming out of your discussion right now that we’ve talked about in the first part too, is this idea of acceptance, like accepting that this is what is good, what is best for me or what is best for my family. And like you said before, sort of that accepting is like the negative or however you phrased it of resentment. So if you could talk a little bit more about how to come to that point of acceptance with boundaries, with just how life is right now.
Dr. Sarah (17:39):
Yeah. Yeah. Cause, well, cause I think, okay. So if we, when we don’t accept things, that’s when we feel resentment, right? Think about a time in your life. Or like you had a really hard time accepting that this was the reality. And so you slowly but surely develop this resentful attitude towards whatever it is that you have to do that you are like, I can’t, I cannot accept that this is what’s going on. Like, this is really, this is a, like, this is not happening, right? Anybody else? No this is Ugh, but you’re doing it. And there’s so much resistance that you can’t help, but feel really resentful that this is happening. And I think one of the antidotes to that kind of resentment, because it’s an understandable, it’s not like you’re being a spoiled brat for resenting something like resentment is as a signal, right. If we’re feeling resentful, it’s a good, important signal. Something’s not feeling right. And usually it’s because I’m having a lot of trouble accepting a reality or accepting my feeling about something. And a lot of times like, you know, I have a DBT background dialectical behavioral therapy, you know, and there’s this idea of radical acceptance. And there’s also this idea of like distress tolerance. And they talk about distress tolerance is really what you need to do in a crisis. And a crisis is specifically defined as like something that has a finite period of time during which the situation is not going to change. And your feelings about that situation are not going to change. So how do you get from point a to point B? How do you get to the other side without making it worse for yourself without suffering more? That is where the radical acceptance part comes in. I can’t change this. We can’t change that. This is here, this pandemic, this, you know, this is here, it is here and I can’t change it. That’s not going to change my feelings about it are not going to change either. Very likely I can change them somewhat. There are some things I can do to maybe problem solve or improve situations or do things differently within the context of it. But there’s some things, I’m never going to be happy that COVID is here. I’m never going to be, you know, happy that this happened or, but I can. And so that means that in order to not suffer, you know, extra, I have to sort of say, this is here. My feelings about are not going to change. And I’m accepting that reality. And I’m giving myself permission to have those feelings, right. I’m not saying I don’t get to feel upset about this. I’m just saying, I have permission to feel upset, but I’m locating it. I’m grounding. It it’s allowed. And that tends to like lessen the resentment.
It’s so interesting because I don’t necessarily, you know, sort of being a quantitative researcher, like I’m, I don’t necessarily get to talk about this sort of stuff, but I think it’s still important because it’s such an underlying concern in so many of our lives, right. This idea of not having resentment over something that is out of our control.
Dr. Sarah (20:39):
Yeah. And we’re talking about the context of a pandemic, but I think that’s true in parenting, right? Like there are a lot of things about parenting that are totally outside of our control and they’re not going to change and we’re not going to like them. And we have to figure out a way to live with them and also not punish ourselves for not liking them. Right. Like some people don’t like aspects of parenting and that’s okay. We can accept it.
And not have guilt around it too.
Dr. Sarah (21:07):
Right. That’s another thing. Acceptance. Doesn’t just dissolve resentment. It dissolves guilt.
And how would you say, so I’m also thinking, you know, from the parenting perspective, but also I think for children too, right. Especially once you hit a certain age, you started to see resentment kind of come in. And what would you say for, you know, a younger child let’s say like a 10 or 11 year old, who’s really struggling with what’s going on right now, or, you know, not being able to do, even, even now that we’re sort of, I hope coming out of the other side of this pandemic, how would you help them sort of get to that point where they’re accepting what things look like, and they’re not resenting the situation.
Dr. Sarah (21:56):
Yeah. Well, I think with teens and tweens, it’s not making them accept. Cause nobody can get there by being pushed there. So like, you know, if, if you’re feeling really bad, if you’re having a terrible day and I’m like, but if you could just accept that this is okay and this makes sense. You’re probably going to say to me, like go away, like that’s not helpful, right? Like we can’t, we can support our kids in like accepting it, but we can’t really push them to accept it. So I think one of the things that we do, and especially with teens who like really need us to like let them know we feel what they’re feeling and we hear them, but we’re not going to necessarily try to offer them so many solutions because they really just need to be heard is to just reflect back to them the reality of the situation like this is really, this is really hard. It makes sense that this is that this is not fun. And this makes sense that you’re feeling so frustrated and it makes like to validate their experience and to help them have that sense that like, we’re, we don’t like we can’t fix it. And we, I mean, as parents, I think it’s so painfully gut-wrenching to not offer the solutions because we see them and we’re like, well, why don’t we try this? And why don’t we try this? I can help you with this because we can, and we do see it. Cause we have that vantage point of a slightly more mature view of the world and understanding of like, you know, these things can feel big in the moment, but they’re ultimately like maybe they’re actually a little bit small and I can help you realize how small they are. And that’s like, unfortunately as much as that’s our go-to, it’s the opposite of what most kids need, need to be. Feel like the things that they feel are big are big. Cause they’re big to them.
Such a good point. And I think I’m very focused on the teen years right now, just because my eldest is going into that, but all along. Right. Whether it’s like the toy on the playground and you’re like, it’s, it’s fine. Like it’s fine that the other child took the toy for a few minutes, but to them it’s not fine. Right. And just sitting with that uncomfortableness can be really hard as a parent, but so necessary.
Dr. Sarah (24:16):
Yeah. I love to tell parents that if you have a teen you’re so in luck, because you’ve already parented a toddler and that’s another version of a teen because their brains are so similar. They’re like doing a lot of the same like total transformation stuff. And so they’re, and their executive functioning skills are like, you know, really scattered and their regulation skills are really scattered because their frontal lobes are just going through like they’re under construction. And so the stuff that you had to figure out in toddlerhood, you have to go revisit that in teen years. I mean, you translate, you presented in a different way. Obviously you don’t want to be like talking to your 12 year old, like a two year old, but it’s, you have to understand that their brains are actually really similar in this moment because their frontal lobes are under construction.
Yes. And I have to say like, you know, ha have had that academic background or whatever. Right. But now, now I’m living it with a toddler and a teen and it is fascinating to see the similarity as well as somewhat scary, but it’s true. And there’s this, that period almost in between like toddlerhood, and teenhood when there’s almost a little bit of a better ability to regulate.
Dr. Sarah (25:31):
And it’s, it’s so interesting. Cause I think as a parent, you get used to that. Okay. Like my child’s regulating better. Like we’re kind of in this group. And then all of a sudden there’s this, you know, truly biological change where it’s harder to regulate again. And it’s harder to sort of have some of these executive functioning skills and it’s hard to be prepared for that as a parent.
Dr. Sarah (25:52):
Yes. I know. Especially cause you get, you, you think you’re done right. You see the toddler years and then you go into that like elementary school latency, age, time period. You’re like, oh gosh, this is fantastic. And then they hit the teen and you’re like, wait, what? So it’s like kind of comforting. I think for parents to know, like, if you can remind yourself in that moment, be like, I’ve done this. I’ve never done this before, but I have skills for this because I parented a toddler and it’s this a lot of the same skills and a lot of the same mindset work. And so just go back to your toolbox.
Yes. And I think also it takes away some of that. I mean, again, going back to resentment, but sort of that frustration with your team when you are able to say their actual biological reasons for this somewhat unexplained behavior.
Dr. Sarah (26:40):
Right. It makes sense when things make sense, we just feel so better. We just feel so much more grounded,
So much more grounded. And this conversation has made me feel more grounded.
Dr. Sarah (26:51):
Well, thank you so much for being here. And if you guys have not yet gone back to listen to part one, go back to Parenting Understood and listen to our part one episode about this, because I think it will give you some, just a lot of continuity around what we’re talking about. Thank you so much for doing this with me, Erin, this was so much fun. It was me. And where can people learn more about the work that you’re doing and all the fun things that you’re working on?
Oh, thanks. So I think the easiest access point is on Instagram @scientificmommy we post, you know, six times a week sort of on different topics around parenting and child development. But we also have a website scientific mommy, and then you can access me via my NYU email easily, which is EOC2@nyu.edu.
Dr. Sarah (27:41):
Amazing. And by the way, if you guys don’t follow Scientific Mommy on Instagram, you absolutely should. It’s one of my personal favorite accounts because you guys do so amazingly is you distill research into these like, well illustrated, but also really easy to understand like nuggets, but it’s just, it’s research. It’s actual research and it’s not opinion, it’s it doesn’t shame anybody. It’s so well presented and it’s so well done. So like I love your account.
Oh, thank you so much. That gives me energy to keep going.
Dr. Sarah (28:16):
Good. I’m glad. All right. Well I will talk to you hopefully very soon.
Sounds good. Thank you.
Dr. Sarah (28:22):
Dr. Sarah (28:30):If you’re feeling like you’re barely keeping your head above water these days, you are so not alone. It can be really difficult to take that first step in getting more of a say in how things are going in your life and really, even harder to know what that first step actually is. Before you can make any changes. You need to know what’s working and what’s not. So take a moment and take an inventory of what’s going on in your life right now. And if you want some help getting started, check out my free workbook, Building Back Better After COVID-19 it’s an interactive workbook aimed at helping you prioritize cultivate and eliminate as you curate your new post pandemic normal. With tailored prompts and reflective exercises, this workbook is going to help you identify what’s been working and what hasn’t and I’ve taken all the guesswork out of it for you and you can use this simple guide to create a personalized roadmap and to move forward with intention. You can download that along with many other free workbooks and parenting resources on my website, drsarahbren.com that’s drsarahbren.com and make sure to head over the Parenting Understood podcast to hear Erin and me discuss why parents were so vulnerable to feelings of burnout in the first place, which is part one of this two-part episode. And until next week, don’t be a stranger.
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