The universal pandemic may be slightly waning in its hold over our lives, but the grip COVID-19 has had on our mental health will be slow to loosen. Some folks are returning to work, some schools are slowly opening back up and some businesses are opening back up—albeit at limited capacity. But our lives are not back to normal. Not by a long shot. And while the quarantine has affected every single person in this country, some have been more deeply impacted than others.
Therapists in Vancouver, Washington and all over the country have seen the spectrum of this impact, from depression and isolation to anxiety and overwhelm. One group of people who’ve suffered in unique ways is parents. If parents are working outside of the home, they’re coming back to pent up children eager for their attention and energy. If they’re working inside of the home, they’re stepping in and out of whatever makeshift office they might have (whether that’s a full separate room, or just a corner of the couch, flanked by laundry piles) to tend to children demanding their time, affection and interaction. And if they’re stay-at-home parents, they have essentially had a full year of all their normal outings shut down and are feeling the strain of never having a spare minute to hear themselves think, coupled with a social isolation that no amount of Facetime or Zoom meetings will ever be able to cure.
And what to do when you have nothing to spare? When you are overwhelmed, depressed, or preoccupied with the many complications of life? What do you do when your own mental bandwidth is so battle-weary and depleted that you feel utterly incapable of giving your children the time and attention they so desperately need?! While having a regular therapist can help tremendously, 50 minutes a week isn’t going to solve all your problems. The children still need you to be present… even if your own well has run dry. And this can feel really, really hard sometimes.
Introducing the power of being Alone Together. What does this mean? Being alone together means being with your children, without directly interacting with them. It’s a sort of “parallel play” that is especially useful for parents who need to be able to be quiet in their own minds in order to feel restored. There are many, many ways for parents and children to be alone together. Outside, it might look like weeding those early flower beds, or getting the dirt ready for seeds. Going for walks in nature or around your neighborhood. You can do nature journaling alone together: you have your journal and Child has his/hers. Inside, my favorite ways of being alone with my children are to do puzzles (which don’t require as much interaction as board games) and to draw or color next to my children with some soothing music playing. It’s remarkable how delighted the children are when I choose to color with them and it requires very little interaction or talking at all on my own part. They feel close to me and I am investing time into them, while simultaneously allowing my brain to rest and my thoughts to wander as they are wont to do in introverted brains.
Being alone together is not just a good way to show up and be present for your children, but it is also an essential part of development. Studies have shown that people who are comfortable being alone and alone together are better able to self-regulate (defined here as the ability to respond to and manage emotional experiences in a tolerable way that produces ultimately positive results) than those who are uncomfortable with solitude. This will be critical for children to go on to have healthy relationships with others as they get older as well… since self-regulation and healthy intimacy go hand in hand.
Please remember that children of course, still need healthy, quality interaction. They need parents to put away their phones and lists of urgencies and to be with them, engaged in meaningful work, play and rest and communicating about big and little things in life. But being alone together is also important for a multitude of reasons, and can be an absolute saving grace when we are trying to get our lives and mental health back together this springtime.
Written by: Elizabeth Rose, Licensed Mental Health Counseling Associate