We live in a society that places a high value on work. It is not just a necessity to put food on the table, but it is also tied up in how we think of ourselves and how we create a meaningful life. This is not altogether a negative thing, but it can become a problem when work comes at the expense of other aspects of our life.
Past discussions of work-life-balance don’t seem applicable currently as many of these work-life boundaries have become blurred—especially since the pandemic. Some families work from home, or their children are in online school. Some families aren’t traditional, two-parent situations. These past ideas of balance seem to suggest that everything needs to be weighed out and equal to everything else. A fifty-fifty split like this is not usually possible, and, as a result, a search for this kind of balance can create more tension.
The truth is, we only have so much energy to expend in a day. If life is asking us to work full-time, raise our children, and keep our own personal lives, something will likely need to give. It is crucial then that parents allow themselves to schedule in breaks to recharge throughout the day in order to meet the day’s obligations.
The same may be true for your gifted child in many ways. These students often hold themselves to high standards and, while intellectually advanced, may lack the developmental skills to emotionally cope with the rapid changes of the world today. With so many things happening in the world—and with all that at our fingertips via the news, the internet, and social media—it can sometimes seem impossible to act like everything is fine when, for so many people, it isn’t. Gifted students may have a hard time balancing their conflicting desires to do well in school while simultaneously wanting to retreat into themselves or their videogames, books, imaginative play, sports, or other interest as their means of coping with stresses from learning and stress in general.
So how does anyone balance it all?
First off, no one does it alone. Even if it feels like you’re alone right now, you aren’t. There are many families that are so deep in the weeds that it can be hard to see each other. Eve Rodsky, author of the book Fair Play wrote about feeling so overwhelmed with the tasks of the day and being what many refer to as the “default parent.” The default parent is the one that the school calls when your child is sick, the one who knows all the activities for the day, the one who picks out the outfits. Rodsky’s website lays out one hundred of the most common tasks that families perform. Everything from who buys gifts, who does home maintenance, and who makes choices about the holidays are included as cards. Holding a card means being responsible for a task. But what does that look like?
One of the first steps to balancing things is realizing how much you are doing. For example, to pack a school lunch, here’s (most of) the steps involved: First, you need to consider the menu for the week (not just for lunch because of the budget) and get a lunchbox to keep everything in (that fits any classroom constraints or student needs). Then you need to shop for all the ingredients (remember that your Young Scholar doesn’t like this brand!). Then you get home and prep everything for the week (remembering that your Young Scholar will only eat peeled grapes) and put it away in the fridge. Then, morning of, you must gather a balanced array of snacks, fill the water bottle, grab utensils, remember an ice pack, and make a sandwich while keeping in mind the “no nuts” rule in the classroom. That’s so much mental work going in to just one task! Going above and beyond at every task you do simply isn’t possible when every single thing involves mental load in the form of conception, planning, and execution.
Once you see how much you are doing, it may be easier to ask for help. Not every family in our community has the same support and resources. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t support available. For example, children are a part of the house and should be able to reasonably contribute to the household in age-appropriate ways. So, let’s keep using the example of school lunches. Different families expect their children to contribute in different ways and at different parts. Younger children can tell you their favorite and least favorite lunches of the week, but likely cannot pack themselves a balanced meal yet. You may consider starting to involve them in the lunch making routine by letting them fill their own water bottle and pack it. Older children can contribute to shopping lists, help prep food, or even make their own lunches. But what happens when they forget? Part of involving children in tasks means having a “back up” plan of sorts, so that everyone knows who must take the lunches to school when a child forgets.
When thinking of ways to balance your family life, it makes sense to play to your strengths. Are you a Type-A planner with appointments booked out for months? It would make sense that you oversee the family calendar. Is your spouse really interested in current events? Consider asking them to be in charge of “family engagement” which includes going to local events or showing up as a member of the community.
One of the major shifts to consider during this balancing process is making time for self-care and emotional regulation. Rodsky calls this “making time for unicorn space” but you can call it whatever works for your family. It may feel unnatural to put parental self-care as a daily top-priority but taking time to take care of yourself may be the best possible thing for the whole family. Finding what recharges you throughout the day, such as a quiet cup of coffee alone, a creative activity, or a walk around the neighborhood, may help keep your own nervous-system calm and collected enough to carry on. This kind of self-care is important to model for your children as well, who are still developing their own set of emotional regulation strategies. Taking time for you as a parent allows you to be more present for a child who is feeling dysregulated. Being present doesn’t mean you need to have all the answers or fixes for your child; however, it does mean that you can be available for your child as a calm and caring adult.
Executive functioning plays a big role in both emotional regulation and time management, and, unfortunately, it is the suite of skills that gifted and twice-exceptional children often struggle with the most. Children may benefit from parents mapping out the week with them in a way that builds in additional “stress-buffers” between tasks or explicit periods of time in their schedule to unwind. Some families have a visual reminder for self-care like a sign in the house, or they have a built-in reminder on their family calendar. Giving your child the structure to make time for self-care also signals your permission that they can prioritize their wellbeing over academic accomplishments.
The second major scheduling shift that may alleviate the mounting pressure is to lower your expectations of yourself, your child, and your other family members. Chronic-stress and the emotional-toll of living in turbulent times mean that no one is operating at maximum capacity. With only so much energy left-over, parents need to help set realistic expectations in the household. What is it that you really feel you must get done? Rodsky calls these “minimum standards of care.” This can be as simple as putting food on the table each day, maintaining a source of income, and hugging your child once a day. Losing a few homework or screen time battles here and there doesn’t mean that you are failing as a parent or a person.
Similarly for gifted students, especially ones with perfectionist tendencies, it will be important for them to prioritize a few reasonable goals and ease up where they can. It might be unrealistic to expect students to perform at the same levels they are used to by getting straight As in all subjects. Let your child know that it is okay if their usual 100% maximum effort in school is turned down to a more reasonable effort. Help them pick a smaller, achievable goal that they can start with so that they maintain a positive experience with at least one aspect of school. Also, helping them to understand what “cards” they hold in the house, and what the minimum expectations are can help them learn to prioritize where to place their efforts.
Does this really work? Are families really balanced?
Every family goes through periods where things are more harmonious and other periods with more struggle. It is important to reward yourself and your child when small things are going right no matter which period your family is in as a way to build traction and keep going. This doesn’t have to be a daily grand celebration; your family might use breakfast as a time to discuss small joys and build each other up to start the day on a positive note. Making a habit of celebrating small wins can help to balance out perfectionistic attitudes and remind everyone in the family that balance is an active process, not a singular achievement. In the sage words of Dr. Jim Delisle, remember that being less than perfect is perfectly okay.
The Stresses of Sheltering in Place from Emily Kircher-Morris
SMART Goals from MindTools
Episode 239: Dr. Aliza Pressman on Trauma and Resilience in Covid-19 from TiLT Parenting
Will My Child Bounce Back from the Coronavirus Crisis? from Child Mind Institute
How to Ask What Kids Are Feeling from Child Mind Institute
Keeping Kids Engaged in Remote Learning from Child Mind Institute
Seasonal Affective Disorder from Child Mind Institute