Agile Parenting: Working from home, while parenting

IMPORTANT: This blog is not a substitute for therapy, but provides evidenced-based education for the purposes of self-help, or to compliment the therapeutic process. ​ ​This blog is non-monetized.

While our days continue to blend into the next, our use of the magical coping strategy we called ‘going to work’ has all but disappeared. Life has changed. It might be pretty stressful if you’ve got young children. 

WE LOVE OUR WORK. WE’RE PASSIONATE ABOUT WHAT WE DO. 

​And (somehow) now there is a grimy toddler (ours!) trying to get our attention during our mid-day conference call…in the middle of our dining room… and there is no cafeteria in sight…

(Send help!)

Right now, we’ve all got some transferable skills we can apply to help us manage the continuously changing meaning of ‘going to work’.  We can borrow from business and leadership theory, and discuss what it could mean to apply Agile Principles to parenting during this pandemic.  

Recall the original principles of agile management: while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.​

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation.
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
  • Responding to change over following a plan.​

ADAPTED TO ‘PANDEMIC PARENTING’, IT COULD LOOK MORE LIKE THIS:

  • Parenting relationship over rules and processes … maybe now isn’t the time to be hard on screen time. 
  • Authenticity and accountability over keeping up with the Joneses. Or Bob in marketing.
  • Collaboration over competition … with our teens, with each other.
  • Responding to change over following a plan … being flexible on your old structure and schedules.

Human connection and strong relationships ARE the buffer to the stress of this pandemic.  This is especially important for parents of adolescents and teenagers.  Your teens aren’t foot soldiers (or substitute parents for younger kids).

Here is the shift: They are valuable team members you want to encourage to join forces with you in staying safe, staying home, being an engaged member of the family.  The essence of ‘agile’ – checking in on our physical health, our mental health, our family and our relationships and iterating along the way, is something we must do as parents all the time, and especially now.  

HOW EXACTLY DO WE DO THAT?

​First, we start with learning more about how humans instinctively deal with stress, and then, where we can disrupt the cycle.  This is foundational: co-regulation is the phenomenon of a regulated nervous system calming an unregulated nervous system.  Simply, working mom or dad or stepparent? 

You gotta get it together first, if you expect your kids to be able to get it together.

Image of a dad, holding his toddler and giving him a kiss on the cheek

Understanding how our autonomic nervous system operates can make an immediate impact on supporting your situation (a stressed working parent, who loves their job and loves their children, but is finding it hard to demonstrateboth of those feelings at the same time, 24/7, during a global pandemic). 

Knowing what stress looks like both in yourself, and in a young child, and then what to do about it, is what nervous system regulation is all about.  It requires remembering we human beings are mammals.  We have evolved neurological wiring that has allowed us to survive as a species, for a looooooong time so far.  At a basic level, to reproduce and care for our young. Over time we have developed the capacity to intentionally turn off the more primitive responses to perceived threat (fight, flight, shut down) – pretty neat.  This newer part of our autonomic nervous system – the myelinated ventral vagal pathway – allows for adaptive social, affective, and communicative behaviours that allow us as a species to flourish (instead of just ‘survive’). 

When our needs for relational or emotional safety aren’t met (those we turn to when in distress are unavailable), we adapt (also sometimes known as “we just go figure it out”).  Some of us adapt better than others, but humans are wired to always default to seeking relational safety as a signal we are okay to move on to the flourishing part. 

Lots of factors affect how well we adapt to a stressor like this pandemic: our age, our language/comprehension abilities,  the presence and severity and type of mental health disorder(s) or other psychiatric conditions (diagnosed or not) that may be lurking,  our prior history of trauma or serious illness of loved ones or self, and the occurrence of other recent stressors or major life events (such as parental divorce, death of loved ones, major moves, change of school). 

Maybe we were already worn pretty thin. 

IDENTIFYING STRESS IN A YOUNG CHILD

Young children often cannot tell us about their worries in words (it’s hard enough for us adults sometimes!).  

​It looks like

  1. Increased fussiness, crying, whining or temper tantrums,
  2. Increased clinginess,
  3. Increased hitting, biting or scratching,
  4. Becoming quiet or withdrawn,
  5. Changes in eating, toileting, or sleeping patterns, such as trouble falling or staying asleep. 

​When you see these behaviours, it means our kids know something is up in their world, and they don’t like it. They are stressed.  Even though they may not be aware of danger (COVID19 in this case) on a cognitive level, on a neurophysiological level, their body has already started a sequence of neural processes** that facilitates adaptive defense behaviours we commonly know as fight, flight or freeze. Specifically, from the list above, items 1, 2 & 3 are more fight-like mobilizing energy.  Items 4 and 5 are more flight-like.

Everyone can experience all three responses, but some of us lean more heavily to one. Our kids are experiencing an involuntary mobilizing need (I need to do something!!) to get out of this situation – which is back to relational safety. That’s the fight-flight of the nervous system in its sympathetically charged state. And that is where parent’s are expected to come to the rescue.

IF A YOUNG CHILD’S CAREGIVERS ARE TIED UP ON CONFERENCE CALLS, WHAT IS A WEE TODDLER TO DO?  

WHAT IS A 10-YEAR-OLD TO DO? 

AND WHAT IS A 16-YEAR-OLD TO DO? 

WHAT ARE WE TO DO?

Part of the parenting job description is to be intentional about cultivating a state of safety, calm and connection in our homes, so all of us can access that snazzy new part of our nervous system, to activate the ventral vagal ‘brakes’ on our haywire-all-hot-and-bothered sympathetic nervous system.  

As agile and adaptive parents, we can intentionally create emotional safety signals for our kids, so they can be reassured and calmed, in the very least, by the presence of our own regulated system.  

Image of a parent comforting a toddler

​Consider, what does ‘reassured’ look like for you?

Have you had practice asking specifically for that, from your colleagues? From your boss? From your romantic partner?  How can you access that feeling of “Oh, I can breathe right now. This feels okay. The pandemic is not great and I have no idea how I’m going to manage it in the next two weeks, but it’s okay right now.” 

Understanding the function of the autonomic nervous system as it relates to stress helps us internalize the knowledge we weren’t mean to get through this alone. This just isn’t how humans are wired.  We have to communicate openly and seek (ask for what you need) those cues of safety from all of the important people in our lives. This helps us understand on a very deep level (in your spinal cord to be specific) that it’s going to be okay.  

Then you can be the reassuring presence your kids need.

CONSIDER THESE POTENTIAL TO-DO’S:

​Talk to your boss

Identify what’s been hard for you – maybe it’s a standing conference call that is your toddlers lunch time? Or a time when you can simply see, my kid just really needs my attention. “Here is what I need to attend to at home, how can we work together to figure this out”? 

Talk to your colleagues

The upside of the pandemic, is that it’s happening to everyone you know.  And if you are the only one on your team with a very young child, it’s time to reach out to your friends. Find out how they are coping, what have their companies done that is helping? 

Your kids do need your attention

You can try to encourage age-appropriate independent play, with the acknowledgment that it will be short lived and young kids do need your positive attention.  While none of us signed up to be daycare workers, a little googling can help uncover the wonder of busy bags, mystery boxes and you already know the power of your work call mute button.  Instead of “daddy, daddy, daddy”, ask your child to quietly place their hand on yours when they need you.  You respond by planning your hand on top of theirs – that is the visual signal to them you see them and will be there for them. 

Reward your kids by verbalizing the positive behaviours you see, and what you expect.

Wow, thanks for cleaning up!”  and use If/then with them, “I’ll know you are ready for that Kinder egg you found under the couch when you clean up your blocks.” 

Model the behaviours you want to see in your kids

Kids learn what they see. Model regulation, proper hand-washing, good sleep hygiene, self-compassion. Most children and teenagers will learn from simply living with you. Now is a great time to use mindfulness meditation at home, teach your kids and make it a family activity. 

Split parenting responsibilities with your partner

If there is a partner in the picture, work together and divide childcare responsibilities equally. If parenting styles clash between you, one of you can take care of the more serious needs of the children, while the other one entertains them, and then work in shifts. 

Stay in touch with your people

Call or email coworkers, not only to see how they are doing with work, but also to benefit from their support. Staying in touch helps provide a sense of normalcy and shared humanity.

For your kids, set up video calls with classmates, grandparents, cool aunts and teachers they love (especially while you are on your conference calls!). Allow older kids space to process all they have lost by not being in school with their friends. 

Talk to a licensed therapist online

If you have a therapist, congrats – you are ahead of the game. There has never been a better time to experience first-hand the benefits of protected safe space for you to process your own reactions, thoughts and feelings to this unprecedented global event. 

Finally, maintain sanity by keeping structure

Although it’s easy to think about sleeping a little later, sticking to regular working hours helps your autonomic nervous system think everything is cool. The brain is accustomed and wired to keep a routine.  Create a daily or weekly work schedules with your children in mind. Meaning, schedule breaks in the middle of your day so you can get outside, have lunch together, go for a walk together. Be emotionally available. Check in with each other and vibe check.  

The pandemic requires newer things of us.  

​It’s requiring us to apply all of the fantastic skills we use in our jobs, to help manage this new nutty working-parenting-teaching-partnering 24/7 role we all find ourselves in.  It requires us to be mindful that there are biological processes at play, for all of us, tied directly to the stress caused by the pandemic. And if it’s hard for an adult brain to manage … we can’t expect toddlers, adolescents and teens to do what we aren’t demonstrating.  

Understanding what we need to do now, in constantly changing conditions, to meet the outcomes we want to meet – fulfilling work with a happy and healthy family – then adopting an Agile Parenting approach – focus on relationships, be real, collaborate and adapt to change.

It might help make it feel like everything might in fact, be okay. 

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** This is called “Neuroception”, named by Dr. Stephen Porges. It describes how neural circuits distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous, or life threatening. This explains why a baby coos at a caregiver but cries at a stranger, or why a toddler enjoys a parent’s embrace but views a hug from a stranger as an assault.

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Picture of ​Christina Crowe, H.BSc. MACP, RP, (S-Cert) OAMHP (she, her)

​Christina Crowe, H.BSc. MACP, RP, (S-Cert) OAMHP (she, her)

Registered Psychotherapist, Validated Clinical Supervisor, ADHD Therapist & Coach Podcast Host The Christina Crowe Podcast Christina is a Canadian Registered Psychotherapist, a member of CADDRA's Advocacy Committee and relentless mental health advocate. Christina believes great mental health information should be available to everyone, loves creating content that makes invisible things VISIBLE and finding new ways to bring healing experiences to as many people as possible.

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