Screaming into the void? Us, too

Commentary: Coping tips for stressed-out families in pandemic

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Talk to any parent during these dark winter days and you’re likely to hear a mix of fear, anger, exhaustion and defeat. These are tough months when many politicians have moved to a living-with-the-virus model despite millions of our youngest citizens being ineligible for vaccines.

There seem to be endless immediate stressors of unpredictable child care, school closures and isolation requirements. What can you do when there are truly no good choices? Here, we offer coping tips to help push back on parenting-during-the-pandemic despair.

As psychologists (and parents), we’ve focused on understanding families’ experiences since the onset of the pandemic. We know that so many parents are struggling with burnout, loneliness and mental health problems. Based on the science of stress, we describe why this should feel hard and strategies for taking back control when you dread the challenging day ahead.

Why is this so hard?

There are three core components that make up the concept of “stress,” and the pandemic has served parents up a textbook example of each:

  • Unpredictability — When you’re faced with something unfamiliar or the future feels uncertain.
  • Uncontrollability — When it feels like you can’t change your circumstances or protect your loved ones.
  • Social-evaluative threat — When you fear being judged. For example, “Am I a bad parent for giving them so much screen time?”

Stress takes a toll on our bodies through activation of our stress response system, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA). The HPAA is designed to help regulate our energy and metabolism.

Shared with our evolutionary ancestors, the HPAA is great for helping us respond to urgent threats to family safety or tricky social settings by mobilizing our attention to respond effectively. However, the adrenaline surge is less helpful when it persists long term or results in late-night anxiety about decisions like keeping your kid home.

Chronic stress has downstream effects on health, including altered sleep, appetite and mood dysregulation (like anxiety, depression and anger). However, you can also push back to bring your stress system in check and reduce the mental health burdens of the pandemic.

What you can do

  1. Say “Help!” out loud. You probably know that being able to see friends helps your mental health. This is aligned with research highlighting the “stress-buffering” effects of social support.

The trick in the pandemic is that you need to tell your people that you’re struggling. Before 2020, allowing people to see your tears, rage or nervousness would signal a need for help (a key function of emotions), but now they probably won’t know that you’re struggling unless you tell them because we’re interacting less in person.

It is helpful to be direct about asking for what you need: I’m feeling crappy and sad, do you have a minute to talk? My kids are driving me bonkers, any chance you take them for an outside play? I really need a hot shower to unwind, could you Facetime read a few books with Devin?

We know it’s not the warm hug or shared meal you are craving. It can still be helpful, especially when you’re managing pent-up inner chaos.

  1. Do something (anything). Taking 10 minutes to move your body (stretch or walk, keep it easy) and purposely seeking out good news can help shift gloom-and-doom thinking. Behavioral activation, an evidence-based treatment for low mood and stress, emphasizes that in the midst of lifestyle disruption, finding pleasurable daily activities — ones that are really important to you — significantly impacts health and well-being.

Choosing to engage in any sort of activity can provide positive reinforcement, which decreases stress and improves mood. The activity may not be the gym class you used to love, but substituting an online class (even better if it’s with friends) or a 10-minute walk can be helpful.

  1. Be kind. When things are hard it can be tough but incredibly important to offer yourself compassion. What do you say to your friends when they are feeling defeated? Likely, you meet them with warmth and kindness: This is so hard. You are doing your best in an impossible situation. I totally lost my cool yesterday, too. Being a great parent includes having bad days.

Most of us are less generous to ourselves than we are to others. Take a moment to reflect on supportive words that you can offer yourself next time those tough thoughts creep in. Evidence shows that reframing self-critical thoughts and working on self-compassion can improve mood and facilitate positive coping during these challenging times.

How you can support your child’s mental health

  1. Lower expectations. Children have a tough time with unpredictability and can sense parent stress. Keep things simple and familiar to help them know what to expect. For online learning, this could look like setting a short period for engaging (do 20 minutes, then take a break). Offering praise or small rewards for their efforts, not abilities, promotes a growth mind-set, which helps children take on challenges. If you have the energy, try a visual schedule to let children help plan their day.
  2. Sit on the floor. Getting down to your child’s level and giving them your focused attention for five to 10 minutes a day can offer an emotional reset, strengthen your relationship and prevent challenging behaviors. You can even try lying down and see what your child wants to do. (Read? Pretend your belly is a race car track?) Your presence and connection, even through short bursts, can help kids manage stress and feel confident to do things independently later in the day.
  3. Say what you see. Big emotions and behaviors are normal ways children react to unpredictability. Pointing out what you notice and naming emotions helps children make sense of their own experience and develop socioemotional competence.

Your fists are balled up and your voice is loud, are you angry your tower broke?

If your child is safe, all you need to do is sit with them calmly (even if you’re not feeling your calmest) and let them know you’re here. If they are actively doing something dangerous, feel free to move their body first. The saying, “That’s not what you wanted to happen, is it?” can apply in most situations.

When it comes down to managing stress as a parent right now, there are no easy solutions. Sometimes, a good cry in the car is a necessary release but try not to keep these feelings to yourself. Occasional team screams (or pack howls) as a family can offer a surprising mood boost at the collective challenge of it all. It has been a difficult two years, and acknowledging the challenges of parenting during the pandemic is part of coping.

Leslie E. Roos is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Manitoba. Anna MacKinnon is a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary. Elisabeth Bailin Xie is a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary. Kaeley Simpson is a master’s psychology student at the University of Manitoba. Lianne Tomfohr-Madsen is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary. Marlee R. Salisbury is a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at York University, Toronto. Published via The Conversation.