They are always watching

Tips for parents about modeling behaviours during times of stress

Kids learn by watching…and they are always watching!

As young children, they mimic our actions, repeat our words and even role-play what we do – the good and the bad.

Have you ever listened to a toddler talking on a pretend phone? Or, perhaps you have watched the interactions of two young children sharing an ‘adult’ conversation at a make-believe tea party.

This ‘play-acting’ is not only enjoyable; it shows that our children are modeling the adult behaviour they experience in their everyday lives. By modeling your actions, they are interpreting how you feel about family values, interactions with others and how you react during both happy and stressful times.

As children grow, they continue to notice everything, but with a different lens. Instead of just mimicking adults at a child’s tea party, they deem the behaviours and actions of adults – particularly their parents, as acceptable. After all, ‘if mom and dad are doing this, it must be ok.’

In more challenging times, as in the present Covid-19 crisis, adults and kids are trying to manage this ‘new’ world, and stress levels are rising.

Kids who are normally involved in school, sports, sleep-overs, birthday parties and socializing with friends are cooped up in their homes, facing a long summer with restricted activities.

Parents are required to do so much more these days besides regular parenting.  They are scrambling for alternatives that can keep their children occupied, happy, and healthy. At the same time, they may be missing the stimulation of a work environment and the camaraderie of their colleagues, let alone the structure and daily routines that represented their ‘normal’.

Parents have to wear masks outside, disinfect groceries, and ensure they and their kids are keeping safe distances. If financial concerns, the fear of the unknown, the pressing concern for relative, friend, or acquaintance who may be ill or at risk are added to this mix of stressors – the storm of emotions may begin to brew.

Parents may be reacting in different ways to their new normal.

Some are already using coping strategies to help them deal with their feelings of fear, frustration, anger and stress. Many of these strategies are healthy, such as practicing yoga or doing a workout that they find on-line. Some parents are engaging their children in new hobbies, such as arts and crafts, baking, or re-decorating.

Other parents may turn to less healthy coping methods, like increased substance use – drinking more alcohol, beginning or increasing cannabis use, or self-medicating in other ways to ‘ keep calm and carry on.’

These behaviours may simply have been triggered by these unusually stressful times, and parents may have every intention of returning to the safer levels of substance use once the crisis is over, but their kids may not see it that way.

Kids may notice the behaviour changes that can accompany increased use of alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, or prescription drugs.

They may see or hear mom or dad expressing more anger, less patience, sleeping more, or not as engaged as they usually are with family members. Perhaps they hear their parent sharing with a family member or friend, “I am so stressed. I need a glass of wine, a beer, a smoke, a toke!” or, “I can hardly wait for wine time.”

What kids hear is this: “When I feel stressed, a glass of wine, or a beer or a toke will help.”

Parents are just trying to keep their kids safe and survive the stress of difficult times. They may not even be aware that they are transferring some negative messages to their children.

“How a parent uses alcohol or drugs can influence their children’s decisions about alcohol or drug use.” 1

According to a Nanos poll commissioned by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA), 25% of Canadians aged 35-54, and 21% of those aged 18-34 agree that they have increased the amount of alcohol they consume.

Here are some of the primary reasons from those who report an increase in their drinking habits since the pandemic surfaced:

  • 51% say the lack of a regular schedule blurs the lines between weekdays and weekends. Those who may enjoy a drink on the weekend at the end of the workweek are finding themselves lonely, isolated, and looking for some way to get through the long and tedious days. For some, ‘wine time’ has become a regular event.
  • 49% of those who have increased their alcohol use, cite boredom as a reason they have changed their drinking habits. Trying to find engaging, challenging, and rewarding experiences while staying at home with their families can be a little tedious after a while.
  • And, not surprisingly, 44% of adults report stress as a factor for increased use of alcohol. The unknown factor, coupled with the plethora of frightening media facts, figures, and speculations can be overwhelming.
  • Finally, some report that they ‘stocked up’ their alcohol supply in the early days of the virus and the mere availability may be a factor in the overall increase of use.

It is important to understand that alcohol and cannabis can weaken the immune system, making us more vulnerable to infections such as COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses. 2, 3

To see the entire Nanos research poll, click here:

Feeling guilty for any unhealthy choices we may make in difficult times can only add to our stress.  But it is a good idea to be aware of those choices and understand the consequences that may follow. It is also important to be aware that our children may interpret those choices as good ways to manage stress, anxiety, and other emotions.

Trying to find that life balance during both good times and bad is important to you and your children, especially during this pandemic. We all need to know that we can and will get through this.

Here are some tips to help you:

  • Get to know Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines for drinking alcohol.
  • Be honest with your children if you have made some unhealthy choices. Explain that you are stressed during these unpredictable times and that you have sometimes made some unhealthy choices. Ask your children how they are feeling and what they do to reduce their stress or anxiety.
  • Brainstorm some healthy things you can do together and be sure to celebrate your more positive choices.
  • Connect with family and friends through one of the many online applications that are available. Ask them what they are doing to cope. What are their kids doing?
  • Get outside – being careful to follow the restrictions for social distancing and hand washing.
  • Reset, relax, recharge, and recover!

For more coping strategies during the Covid-19 epidemic, click here.

  1. Government of Saskatchewan, Mental Health and COVID-19, 2020

2. Health Canada, 2020; National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2020

3. Cabral, Rogers, & Lichtman, 2015; Greineisen & Turner, 2010