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Advice for parents is seldom in short supply. But this September, as kids return to school amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve noticed an uptick in parenting advice, and mental health advice in general. In 10 minutes on social media this morning I saw posts about:

• how parents can talk to their children about COVID-related anxieties 

• the mental health benefits of practicing gratitude

• how important it is for teachers to practice self-compassion

• the importance of “lending our calm” when working with anxious or upset kids

All good stuff: sound advice that is rooted both in science and clinical wisdom.

But here’s the thing. We’re not going to be able to do any of these practices very well when we’re overstressed.  Feeling and expressing gratitude isn’t easy when your stress response system is working overtime. Having a calm, anxiety-reducing parent-child chat is going to be very challenging, if not impossible, if your stress alarm is stuck on the hair trigger setting. One advice-giver observed that it always feels better to talk about what you’re worried about. Well, ideally yes. But maybe not if both participants in the convo are abuzz with excess stress.

So here’s yet another place where the unique value of Self-Reg comes in. If we have learned to be aware of when we’re overstressed and what to do about it (how to get ourselves back into a balanced state), then we’re going to be best able to do the things that wise people advise us to do.

The phrase “think stress first” keeps coming into my head (I used it in a previous blog). I don’t mean that we need to obsess about stress every waking minute.  It’s more about Practice 4 of Self-Reg: Reflect, develop stress awareness.

If you need to talk to your child about their anxieties, or reflect on what makes you grateful, or if you need to support someone in ways that require self-control, it’s helpful to be aware of where your own stress level is at. Then you can ask, “Am I in the best state to do what I need to do?”  If not, you can often do something about your stress level before you jump into your task.

Obviously, we won’t always have the time to meditate, do yoga, go for a run, or whatever, before dealing with an upset or highly anxious child. Some situations call for quick action. But developing stress awareness will definitely help us be more successful, more often, in many endeavours. That includes making good use of the practices that are beneficial in parenting or for our overall mental health and well-being.

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