How fatigue may be making parenting harder

Nicole was working from home while trying to oversee her children’s academic learning that was taking place in a mix of online and face-to-face coursework. She was finding it hard to get all of her work done, monitor the kids’ learning, care for her children, maintain the house, cook, and still find time to sleep. Instead of getting her normal 7 hours of sleep at night, she was trying to manage with 5 hours of sleep. While Nicole thought of herself as a happy mom, she noticed she that she was feeling irritable, yelled at her kids for small things, and was having trouble concentrating. She wondered why she felt overwhelmed.

Nicole was overwhelmed because she was doing too much without having sufficient time to rest her mind and body. As humans, good quality sleep is how our bodies repair themselves at the cellular level and our minds consolidate information and regulate emotions. These processes happen when our sleep passes through distinct phases, including REM sleep. Normally, adults need 7-8 hours of sleep to pass through various REM sessions and get all the benefits of restorative sleep. When we shorten our sleeping hours, it makes it harder and harder to get to the deep, restorative levels of sleep that repair the body and mind.

Recent research has again verified that sleep is an integral part of our health. Parents who lack sufficient rest find that doing their normal tasks become more difficult. A lack of concentration, making small errors and getting distracted easily are some of the most common behaviors that happen when we don’t get enough sleep. Additionally, fatigue and sleep deprivation also influence how we communicate with others. Studies have shown that parents lose some of their verbal control and speak more harshly when sleep deprived. This can be seen as severe word choices or using a more aggressive tone.

It’s not just the time that we spend in bed that matters. Many overwhelmed parents report that it is harder to fall asleep or stay asleep because their minds are busy processing all the things that need to get done. This mind processing often happens at bedtime because all the other distractions of the day are gone. The quiet, dark setting of the sleep environment invites our minds to start to mull over the day’s events, think about what needs to be done tomorrow, and re-process how we felt in different situations because there is time and space for these thoughts. Yet, having an active mind at that moment is a barrier to going, and staying, asleep.

So, what can parents do to help manage all these competing demands and stay well rested?

The first step is to recognize that self-care, especially sleep, is a vital part of health and coping. Often times we start to go to bed later in order to do a few more tasks before the day is done, but research has shown this to be counterproductive. It’s better to go to bed on-time and get a good night’s sleep because we will be more focused and productive the next day.

We should also try to stay away from “quick-fixes” like using stimulants, such as lots of coffee, to stay awake or depressants, such as wine, to relax and go to sleep. These tools can work in a pinch if used occasionally. However, if they are used daily the body builds up a tolerance to their effects and it takes more and more of the substance to get the same result. Over time this can lead to other health concerns. So, it’s better to use activities that are healthy and have an overall benefit to the body. Examples of things that energize the body and mind include taking a quick walk, standing up and stretching every 2 hours, or calling a friend for a 5-minute chat. Similarly, there are healthy ways to slow down and relax, such as deep breathing for 1-minute a few times throughout the day, taking a warm bath before bed, or doing a few yoga poses to relax tight muscles. All these activities can be included into a short, simple routine that can be incorporated into our day to help us manage stress and balance all the demands on our time and attention.

Finally, when our minds are running wild at bedtime or when we wake in the middle of the night with a mind full of ideas, try to “park” those thoughts. To do this, put a notepad and pencil on the bedside table to write down and record all of the thoughts that are keeping us awake. Think of this process as putting the ideas that are bothering us in a safe place until there is time to deal with them.  By writing the information down and telling ourselves, “now I can let that go because I won’t forget,” can release some of the stress and allow our minds to drift off to sleep. Many times, in the morning, when we read the list it won’t seem as daunting because our minds have had time to process the information while we slept.

Learning to prioritize our own needs as individuals can actually help us be better parents and face overwhelming demands with more success. Doing self-care will help us be more prepared and ready for the day’s challenges. It will also make us more patient and accepting of our children’s needs and help provide them loving support as they maneuver the complexities of growing up and finding their place in the world. 

Today most people don’t usually connect the idea of values with children. We generally think of children as free spirits, innocent, curious, blank slates, or dependent, to name a few. Yet values are something that most parents want to teach to their children. However, many parents struggle to see how the values that they hold as adults can be communicated to their children in a practical and effective manner. This generally leads parents to put off teaching values until their children are older, more mature, or begins to exhibit behaviors that show a lack of values.

‘Values’ is a word that may be difficult for some families to define in today’s fast-paced world. Values are the ideas and beliefs that we use to evaluate situations, make decisions and choose our actions. Values are the guideposts to measure what is right or wrong, what should and shouldn’t be done, and what is appropriate and not appropriate.

Sadly, waiting to teach values is will be problematic. Children are developmentally prepared to learn values throughout their lifetime. The key is to teach values in a developmentally appropriate way. Teaching values can begin around a child’s first birthday and continue, without stop, until late adolescence. Learning values early means children have time to really understand the depth of what the values mean rather than just the external action. Furthermore, learning early allows them to receive feedback from parents to solidify their understanding of the values the family it trying to impart.

When children understand both the behavior and the value behind the behavior, they are more likely to practice this behavior independently. There are many children that behave one way when parents or adults are present and in a very different way when they are unobserved. One reason this happens is because children see their ‘good behavior’ as something that is necessary in front of adults to receive praise or avoid discipline. However, the child doesn’t understand that the ‘good behavior’ is the embodiment of an important value. A disconnection between the appropriate behavior and the values behind those behaviors can make children seem unpredictable and lead them into trouble.

An important aspect to raising value-driven children is to be explicit in explaining both the behavior and the values behind it. This process becomes more and more complex as children grow, but each step is the building block for the next.

Here are some practical examples to help you get started:

When children are small, they learn best by example and are watching their parents for patterns to mimic. Therefore, parents can “talk out loud” as they perform certain behaviors so their small children not only see what they are doing but put words to the purpose of those actions. An example could be a mother saying, “I’m picking up all my supplies now that I am finished working so this space is ready for someone else to use,” as she clears away papers and letters from the coffee table. In this simple action, the mother is showing and saying how her action demonstrates responsibility, respect for others, and sharing. Together the action and the description give the observing child an explicit behavior and the motivation behind that behavior.

As children grow up into school age, parents can start to use appropriate vocabulary to give names to the values they are displaying. School-age children are concrete thinkers and learn best by taking in information through their senses. With school-age children, parents can teach values by helping children link their personal experience to the desired behaviors and then give them opportunities to practice. For example, when a child is judging another child’s athletic ability, his father might say, “I understand that you would like John to play soccer better at recess but remember that you have been playing soccer a long time and John just started. Do you remember how other kids said mean things to you when you missed a goal shot? I know you wouldn’t want John to feel that way because of something you said. It may be better to support him, so he feels more confident.” While being empathetic to his son’s views and feelings, the father is purposefully connecting an experience in his son’s past to a current event to help learn empathy, kindness, and patience.

When children reach adolescence, they develop abstract thought that allows them to think about and evaluate ideas and topics that they haven’t yet encountered in real life. This means that parents can start to talk about abstract concepts like love, injustice, rights and obligations. Furthermore, parents can guide their teens on the appropriate ways to evaluate these issues based on the family’s values. For example, parents can allow teens to choose the music in the car and then talk about the lyrics and what they mean. Lots of popular music makes references to sexual acts, drug culture, or violence. Parents can use the music to open a conversation to learn what their teens think about the themes of the music. Then, based on their response, parents can guide them towards or reinforce the values that reflect the family’s views.

In the end, the teachings of early life set the framework for the teachings behaviors desired during childhood. The learned behaviors during childhood set the stage to discuss how those behaviors are carried out into larger life during adolescence. Together, all these activities propel children to learn values in a deep and meaningful way that will guide them into adulthood.

It is never too early to begin teaching values. The key is to make sure that they are being taught in a developmentally appropriate way in each stage. Naming what values are important and being clear about teaching them throughout the life of a child is the best way to raise value-driven children and adults.

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