The Digital Issue

An Expert Tells All: Parenting Before, During, and After the Pandemic

Ann-Louise T. Lockhart, PsyD, ABPP, is a lot of things. She’s a doctor, board-certified in clinical child and adolescent psychology. She’s a highly sought-after speaker and writer on parenting, children’s mental health, and racism. She’s a parent coach and is a parent herself. With almost 60,000 Instagram followers, she's even something of a parenting influencer.

Given how the world has turned since early 2020 in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, mass demonstrations in support of racial equality, and extreme political divisiveness, we’re living in one of the most turbulent times that many of us have ever experienced. As we’ve all ridden the roller coaster over these many months, our kids have been forced to spend crucial development time adapting to several new realities. For kids and parents alike, these are uncharted waters.

For that reason, we sat down with Dr. Lockhart to get her take on, well, everything. What follows is the result of that conversation, which was equal parts illuminating, insightful, helpful, and even quite a bit fun.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Nick Ingalls: How do you think the pandemic has impacted parents’ attitudes and their approaches to dealing with their kids’ mental health?

Dr. Ann-Louise T. Lockhart: I think a lot of the rules that parents had before, they tried to maintain, and then realized as the pandemic was extending, they couldn’t keep those same rules, like limiting screen time, because there was nothing to do. A lot of parents had to learn to pivot, shift, and be more flexible to provide allowances for things they never had to consider before. They had to fast-track conversations about social media or Internet safety. It forced a lot of parents to fast forward their parenting.

Ingalls: Do you think that flexibility is a good thing that parents will carry forward beyond all of this?

Dr. Lockhart: I hope so. How it can be a good thing is to model to our children psychological and behavioral flexibility. Sometimes you have a plan, and then something happens. Life happens, emergencies or crises happen, and you have to make a shift. If we can allow ourselves to be flexible, then we can model that for our kids. It’s a guideline to be able to say to our kids, “Yes, I know this is not what we expected, but now things are changing.”

Ingalls: We do hear a lot about how resilient kids are—have you seen that play out during the pandemic?

Dr. Lockhart: The term ‘resilience’ is something that we always used to say, like, “Yeah, kids are resilient!” but I’ve heard many people are offended by the word now. Resilient kids have to be resilient because they’ve been traumatized. Because they’ve been stressed and have this heavy burden upon them, resilience is an adaptation to that trauma. But also, kids are more resilient. To me, that resilience is being able to take something that sucks and then thinking, “Well, this is the way it is, so this is the way I function for now.”

Ingalls: We also know that kids often express issues with their mental health in different or unexpected ways. How can parents better recognize and deal with distress?

Dr. Lockhart: What I have found is we—including myself—will look at child behavior from an adult lens and then project based on what we would do in that situation. So you have a child who’s coppin’ an attitude with you, and you say, “Well, how dare you be rude to me!” And we’ll punish that behavior, when really, that sassy talk or that rudeness or that disrespect might be because they’re just missing their friends, they’re tired of being home all the time, they’re tired of seeing their siblings, every single day all the time. I think a lot of kids have sought connection through conflict. It’s a different way to connect, but you’re still connecting.

Ann-Louise T. Lockhart, PsyD, ABPP

We have to pay attention to what is really driving the behavior versus looking at the behavior as parents. We look at the behavior and we think, Oh I have to do something about the behavior, when we have to really pay attention to the need and the desire driving the behavior. And then meet that comfort, that need.

— Ann-Louise T. Lockhart, PsyD, ABPP

Ingalls: There’s also an element of knowing that even adults don’t always know how to take the time for their own self-care. That can play into it to where, as a parent, I’m not taking care of myself mentally, and I’m stressed, whether it’s work, whether it’s a relationship, whether it’s everything, and then whatever is going on with the kids at the same time. It just seems like it could snowball from there.

Dr. Lockhart: A lot of the parents I meet with for parent coaching think that being a good parent means being self-sacrificial like, ‘I put all my needs on the back burner,’ ‘I don’t go to my own doctor’s appointments, I don’t go out with friends, I don’t go on date nights with my spouse or my partner, I’m just always there for my kid.’ That doesn’t make you a good parent, because you’ll probably find that you’re less patient, you’re more irritated, you’re resentful sometimes of your kids.

Ingalls: When you’re watching the safety video on a plane, they always say in an emergency to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping your child.

Dr. Lockhart: Yes, exactly. I’ve always told my kids, “I am a better parent, to you, it is more fun and enjoyable for you, when I’ve taken care of myself, when I go out on a date with Daddy, when I hang out with my friends, when I take a nap.” I feel more refreshed, and so certain behaviors that they do actually feel less frustrating.

So it’s not so much about the kids’ behaviors—sometimes it is—but most of the time it’s not about the exact kids’ behavior. It’s about whether or not our needs have been met, and how we respond. It’s actually poor self-care to not have self-care because it’s a bad model to our kids if they’re seeing this tired, haggard parent. And then we’re telling them to have a balanced life but we’re not modeling that.

Ingalls: Does your mental health and parenting expertise ever come into play with your own parenting?

Dr. Lockhart: When I go home, and I have a challenge with my child or my kids, I don’t always naturally go to what the right thing is to do. And that’s what I tell parents—I’m always very transparent about this—“I understand why you yell, I understand why you get frustrated, I understand that your kids get on your last nerve; I go through the same thing.” I have to be able to stand back and take a different perspective to say, “OK, this annoying behavior is about wanting more time with us or feeling sad about something or feeling lonely.”

illustration of parent concerned with kids' mental health

Verywell / Alex Dos Diaz

Ingalls: How difficult is it for parents to learn some of these strategies, especially if it wasn’t part of their own background?

Dr. Lockhart: People are much more receptive to an intervention or strategy if they understand why it’s effective. For example, I might tell a parent the reason why yelling or being inconsistent in your parenting causes more problems is because your child never knows how you’re going to respond. Then they feel unsafe, emotionally, in their own home, because they never know: “OK, am I going to be yelled at, or am I going to get the silent treatment?” With that knowledge, we can stay more consistent and understand why we were triggered and where that trigger comes from.

Whatever a parent’s ethnic background, cultural background, or age—if they understand what the research says about these parenting behaviors and child development, why kids need this, why parents need this, then interventions are much more effective.

Ingalls: How has it been for you as a mental health professional during the pandemic? Have you felt added strain?

Dr. Lockhart: I don’t think it’s added strain, but it’s added a huge demand, exponential demand. I feel like it’s made the work more fulfilling because I’m more able to do the stuff that I’ve always wanted to do—getting this information out so that people can heal.

Ingalls: We talked before about self-care; what are some of your go-to strategies?

Dr. Lockhart: Family movie night is one that we do every Friday, we have a picnic-style spread, and we eat on the floor and watch a movie every Friday night. I have date nights with my husband. Time out with friends, those are big ones for me. Writing, because it’s a great way to use creativity and express myself in fun ways, and I actually find that as a really good self-care strategy, although it’s work. Oh, and changing up my hair often—my clients often comment on that.

Ingalls: What are some things that parents can teach their kids about self-care? Things we know they can handle and that will help them throughout the day?

Dr. Lockhart:  I think we have to start with the basic stuff—explaining to them what self-care means, that you take care of all parts of you, so that’s making sure that you go to bed on time, and you get the right amount of sleep that you need for your age and your activity level, making sure that you eat the kinds of foods and the amount of food that you need to fuel your body, making sure that you’re staying connected with friends. Self-care is holistic. And I think that’s how we should talk to our kids about it, and that’s how we should treat it for ourselves.

We have to know that appropriate self-care means taking care of all parts of ourselves and then teaching that to our kids as well. Again, we don’t have to be a martyr in the process.

Ingalls: With so much stress and anxiety in our adult lives, how important is it for us to show our emotions to our kids, to model that it’s okay to cry or feel bad sometimes? Those are hard conversations.

Dr. Lockhart:  It’s tricky because it depends on what you’re struggling with and the kid’s age. I’ve found that parents who are struggling a lot with anxiety, for example, if they share too much about that with their kids, that anxiety can actually be something that the kids start to adopt for themselves. That’s where we have to really be cautious. But when it comes to things like stress, it’s easier because that’s not something that necessarily has to be absorbed, but it can be shared. And we can tell our kids, “I’m struggling right now. And I’m feeling overwhelmed because there’s so much going on at work. So what I’m going to do is make sure that I talk to my boss about reducing my workload, and I’m going to make sure that I log off every day and turn off my computer at 4:30 so that I can be present and hang out with you more. Does that sound like a good idea?” That way they understand, this is how my parent is feeling. This is why they’re feeling this, and this is what the strategy is to address it. And that, to me, is great modeling.

But we have to be careful not to dump all of our struggles on our kids, because that could feel very unsettling and unsafe for them.

Ingalls: How do you see things moving forward? There’s so much uncertainty right now, but in the coming months, as we hope to get closer to some normalcy, how fast do you think kids will be able to bounce back?

Dr. Lockhart:  I’ve seen with a lot of teenagers and kids that anxiety is really bad right now, and they’re having a tough time recovering from it. A lot of strategies that used to work really well are not as effective because the fear is now so ingrained. When we are isolated from other people and don’t have our social support, it’s hard to recover because, with anxiety, so much of our focus is on the self. I think that we also have to address the social issues because a lot of kids have no idea how to socialize anymore.

Ingalls: For kids, this has been a much bigger percentage of their life. They don’t really have other reference points.

Dr. Lockhart: I mean, I saw it as a problem before the pandemic anyway from social media use, but it is really a problem now. I’m working with a lot of teenagers on just basic social skills, how to meet people, how to talk to people, how to establish eye contact, how to engage in a conversation, how to continue a conversation, and how to stop it if you’re uncomfortable, but they don’t know how to do it.

Ingalls: Do you see hope that younger generations, like Gen Z, for example, are much more open about mental health and social issues than previous generations have been?

Dr. Lockhart: Absolutely. Gen Z is growing up in a society where they have seen things differently, and things have happened differently from previous generations. I think a lot of parents think that they’re shielding their kids by not talking about certain topics. You’re not shielding them because they probably already know more than you. We have to realize that things change, and our generation, our kids, they’re different, and it’s OK, and that it’s the same thing with parenting. Parenting has to be approached differently because we can’t parent today’s kids the way we were parented. It doesn’t mean that we let go of boundaries and consequences or throw it all away—it just means that we have to adapt to how things change.