It’s been 10 long months since the stay-at-home orders began. Thankfully, many of us aren’t facing the worst — but still, the work of stressed parents is never done. The pandemic rages on, taking our family’s peace of mind down with it, and all we want to do is fix it for our kids.
But we can’t.
“Many parents, especially in this generation, are so used to going into ‘fixer’ mode whenever kids express unhappiness,” says Dr. Kristin Kleppe, clinical psychologist and founder of Orange County Health Psychologists. “But we’re helpless to fix a lot of this.”
So now, parents are suffering because their kids are suffering: Young people have seen their lives altered dramatically, through the canceling of important milestone events, the inability to see friends, and even the loss of loved ones.
Not only that, but parents with kids at home are now under a tremendous amount of pressure — and it’s not getting any easier. “Parenting during this pandemic truly feels like treading water,” says one OC young mom we spoke to. “When the time to homeschool hit last year, I will be honest — I had a bit of a break down.”
And the stress has taken a toll. In fact, since the March lockdown, 27% of parents in one study reported a decline in their own mental health, and 14% reported worsening behavior health in their kids… and that was only by June.
So what do you do as a busy parent to manage stress, especially when you already have so much on your plate? Consider the following tips for stressed parents.
1. Accept what is.
First, don’t deny your feelings about what’s going on — and encourage your kids to do the same. “Try to be loving and supportive when children express pain,” says Kleppe. “Be a good listener.”
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) can help give structure to this practice, which can be enormously helpful for stressed parents and kids. Based on the theory that denying our healthy responses to crisis will only cause more distress, ACT teaches us to instead face and accept what’s happening. Only then can we commit to specific actions.
“Sometimes the answer is to just accept what’s going on, normalize it, and move forward,” explains Kleppe. “This can make what’s going on feel more manageable, more palatable.” A skilled therapist at Orange County Health Psychologists can help you explore this.
2. Make an effort to do some self-care.
“I already have so much to do… how do I make the time?” you might be thinking. We get that. Actually, the need for self-care is probably the last thing you want to hear, considering everything that’s going on. “But if you can carve out time for self-care, you’ll be more able to manage the stress,” says Kleppe.
Self-care can not only reduce stress, but also the consequences of stress, such as depression. When you do self-care activities such as taking a longer bath instead of a shower, going for a walk, or even just breathing deeply for a few minutes, you create space to calm down and reflect. Your overall mental health — and even physical health — will improve too.
3. Get creative with your social relationships.
Maintaining social relationships is key for stressed parents. Like other self-care activities, it can reduce stress and the severity of depression. “Social support is good medicine,” says Kleppe.
At the same time, social relationships can be a double-edged sword: How do we do nurture friendships during COVID? Of course, we often use Zoom — but that doesn’t mean we like it.
“A lot of people hate happy hour Zoom calls,” admits Kleppe. “But there are creative ways to have socially distanced get-togethers that are beneficial.”
Kleppe suggests trying anything with a theme. Think about a book club, watching a show together, or even a game of 20 questions can ease awkwardness and spark more interesting conversations that help you bond with others.
4. Involve the family in your self-care.
Instead of adding self-care to your list as another “to-do,” why not involve everyone? For example, you don’t have to find extra time to go exercise every morning by yourself. Cue up a fun YouTube dance tutorial that you and the kids can do together or put the leash on the dog and go hiking as a family.
Emotionally, you can also be more vulnerable with your kids. “Tell them Mom and Dad are overburdened, and get the kids’ input,” says Kleppe. Use family meetings to talk about family goals and how you can handle stress as a team.
Finally, look up examples of how healthy families function during stressful times. Get your kids’ ideas about how you can put those strategies into action. For instance, you’ll probably discover that healthy families consider each other’s needs, are flexible, communicate well, engage in meaningful activities together, and share common goals. How can you incorporate these values into your daily routines?
5. Approach your kids’ schooling in different ways.
One of the hardest things about “pandemic parenting” is working at home remotely while also being a teacher to a school-age child. But usually, there’s no choice. The kids’ schools may be closed or it may not be safe to send them there full-time. So stressed parents have to find ways to make it work.
Kleppe suggest the answer may be to think outside the box. For example, pooling resources with other working parents can help share the burden of supervising kids during the day. A COVID-safe, at-home study group with a shared tutor or coach could be helpful.
Or, just reaching out to other parents for support could make all the difference. Parents who already homeschooled could have great ideas to borrow.
Finally, you could simply relax a little. “Reduce your expectations,” says Kleppe. “Maybe your kids don’t have to have all straight A’s. It’s okay to lower your expectations for a few months.”
6. Let go of the need to control.
As parents, we pride ourselves on how we run our household… until an unforeseen pandemic hits and throws everything into a tailspin. These days, no matter how much you try, those dishes may not be getting done as fast as you want them to, and you have to just roll with it.
Obviously, that’s not easy.
One OC mom described her level of frustration when it comes to keeping things in order despite the chaos at home. “I am a HUGE neat freak. Messy kitchens, toy explosions, and piles of laundry trigger my anxiety and truly make me feel like I am drowning … my anxiety went through the roof.”
Soon, she told us, she decided to let go of some control — and was able to find her center once again. “Sure, my house wasn’t perfect and laundry definitely took a back seat, but my kids were happy and I started to regain my sense of motivation. I learned that nothing is more important than having happy and healthy children, especially in times such as these.”
It’s time to get the support you need
Today’s environment is creating a lot of stressed parents — and as always, we are here to help you. Call us today at 949.528.6300 or email info@OCHealthPsych.com for a therapist recommendation.
—Written by Ekua Hagan for Orange County Health Psychologists