As I get ready for “back-to-school” week with my kindergartner, I cannot ignore the knots in my stomach. I try to tune in to the somatic sensation, as I often tell my clients to do, and notice what my body is trying to tell me. The core feeling I tap into is anxiety mixed with sadness. Anxiety about the immense uncertainty of the school situation and sadness that this is how my 5-year-old will begin her educational journey.
A client with a 3-year-old shared how she is unable to focus on work, or as she called it “being in a state of flow”, while having a toddler screaming in the background. These are just examples, but how has all of the transition been affecting parents all over the country?
Let’s look at the data
In 2019, two-fifths of all families in the US included children under 18 years of age—that’s 33.4 million families. This pandemic has put these families under immense stress of juggling work, childcare and becoming a teacher for their children overnight.
A recent Two Chairs survey of parents in the Los Angeles area showed that most parents are stressed about the uncertainty around their child’s education for the upcoming school year.
Parents are worried about children falling behind academically, the impact of remote learning on their socio-emotional development and children/families possibly contracting COVID-19. These worries are exacerbated by the lack of a consistent approach towards reopening schools with schools varying between in-person, hybrid, and online-only models. Parents are understandably confused and struggling to figure out what is best for their children.
With increasing rates of unemployment and related financial challenges, many parents cannot afford to step away from their jobs while working from home to provide childcare. Due to financial constraints, many parents do not have the option of joining a “pod” (a group of children put together by the parents with a hired teacher/nanny).
Further, if there is a high-risk individual in the family, parents cannot take the chance of letting their children interact with other children from the school or neighborhood in “social bubbles”.
These increased stress levels in parents are leading to an exponential rise in mental health issues. A published 2020 study on the mental health status of parents showed that stress, social support, marital satisfaction, family conflicts, child’s learning stage as well as parents’ history of mental illness had significant effects on parents’ anxiety and depression during COVID-19.
These chronic levels of stress in parents with no end in sight has led to what is called “toxic stress”. According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, toxic stress is the kind of stress which doesn’t let up, and feels like you have no support to get through it. This stress can put one in a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze, which is the feeling of being on edge.
When toxic stress is related to things we cannot control such as racism, the pandemic, and natural disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes, parents’ day-to-day lives can feel especially challenging.
So how can parents get through this?
The answer lies in resilience. Resilience is defined as the ability to bounce back when faced with adversity, trauma or stressful situations.
According to the American Psychological Association, resilient individuals have the capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses, have a positive view of themselves, possess skills in communication and problem solving as well as can make and execute realistic plans.
While there is evidence that points to some traits of resilience being genetic, resilience can be developed throughout one’s life, especially during childhood. Attachment theory supports this construct showing that children who experience secure attachments during their early years have higher emotional resilience during adulthood.
However, for children who don’t experience a secure attachment in childhood, all is not lost. Behavioral and biological scientific research point towards individuals in adulthood being able to develop resilience through neuroplasticity—the capacity of the brain to be rewired through new relational experiences.
In other words, the same relational aspects which lead to a secure attachment in childhood (and later impact resilience), can be developed in adulthood as well.
Below are some well-researched ways of developing and nurturing resilience for parents as a way of coping with toxic stress during this pandemic.
There are three core components to building resilience: connection, wellness and meaning.
Maintain connections with family and friends
To experience secure attachments as adults, we need stability and predictability in our relationships. Shared experiences and connection with people reduces our sense of loneliness and thus increases resilience.
While the pandemic has deeply impacted this essential process in our lives, getting creative with how we can get our social needs met is essential. For example, while meeting a friend outdoors for a hike while wearing masks may not be ideal, it is better than not seeing your friends in person for months at a time. Further, putting effort towards regular check-ins via phone or video calls with close family and friends helps maintain security in our relationships and contributes to nurturing resilience.
Strengthen existing support systems and form new ones
Along with one-on-one connections, being active in a group with shared interests/experiences creates connection with the larger community. Parents can form a group with other parents from the neighborhood or their child’s school to meet on a regular basis to share thoughts and feelings about the experiences of being a parent during COVID-19. Such shared experiences reduce loneliness and increase resilience in facing adversity. Many towns have community organizations for parents and resources for families. Cultural and faith-based organizations can also help with finding such community support.
Parents should consider the traditional airline guidance to “put on your mask before helping others”. Through adequate nutrition, hydration, sleep and exercise, the body gets strengthened to adapt to stress. Regular self-care is non-negotiable.
Especially during COVID-19, many of my clients have shared how their regular avenues of self-care are no longer available such as getting a massage, salon services or grabbing a hot beverage in a cafe. While this is challenging, it is essential that parents find ways to practice self-care, even in small ways.
Self-care doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. It is a commitment to oneself to not abandon your needs over other priorities in life.
Ask for help with childcare
Whether it is a paid nanny or babysitter, a neighbor or family member who is helping out or an aftercare program at your child’s school, the burden of childcare during the pandemic for working parents is very real.
Many parents have told me that they struggle to ask for help with childcare as they believe that they should be able to manage given that they are working from home. This is an unrealistic expectation on parents and can result in parents being unable to fully be attuned to their children or to their jobs. Give yourself permission to outsource some part of the childcare to a trusted friend or a professional while you can focus on your work and self-care. This is an essential part of your wellness as a parent.
Practice mindfulness and radical acceptance
Parents can learn and practice self-regulatory and radical acceptance skills, interventions directly tied to developing resilience and reducing stress. Identifying triggers, building awareness of specific trigger responses (i.e. irritability, shouting, etc.) and using skills such as mindfulness to manage them is very effective for coping with stress.
There are many avenues to learn these skills. From apps such as Headspace and Calm to joining a course called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), the list is endless. A key factor of mindfulness is to practice these skills on a regular basis. With the chronic nature of toxic stress, a daily practice of mindfulness is essential to cope.
There’s also radical acceptance—a skill of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) that involves a willingness to accept things as they are right now without judgement. This level of acceptance involves understanding that life involves pain and difficult events which we cannot always control. Trying to deny this reality can lead to resentment, frustration and anger. Radical acceptance is not approval of the situation, it just involves noticing when you are experiencing resistance to acceptance, noticing the emotions which are coming up and practicing acceptance with your whole self (mind, body and spirit).
For parents, this might look like accepting that your child’s childhood is disrupted by the pandemic, that your child’s school year is going to be very different and then making a choice about the things you can change and working towards them, such as finding ways to make their online school experience more enjoyable.
According to psychologist Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun who coined the term “post-traumatic growth”, many people who experience trauma not only showed incredible resilience but demonstrated post-traumatic growth or positive psychological changes. Some of the areas of growth are greater appreciation of life, strengthening of relationships, finding new purpose and experiencing new levels of creativity.
Some of the ways in which adversity can be turned into growth are allowing positive disintegration (of one’s self), engaging in cognitive explorations (of thoughts and events), and not avoiding the difficult emotions all leading to finding new meaning. For parents, this can give hope that embracing the challenges of this pandemic and finding meaning in adversity can actually help you come out on the other side stronger and more resilient than before.
Whether you volunteer at your child’s school or simply help another parent in need, you can get a sense of purpose, self-worth, and connection with others by doing this, which is another way of increasing your resilience and finding meaning during these times.
When should you seek professional help?
It may be the case that using your own resources and the strategies listed above is enough to build resilience and face these challenging times. However, for those with a history of mental health issues and/or systemic stress factors such as racism, poverty, job loss, etc., it’s possible for depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions to surface during this pandemic.
You might be experiencing a decrease in motivation and an impact on daily functioning such as not being able to focus on your job, struggling to maintain basic hygiene, sleep disturbances, or inability to take care of children and pets. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, please reach out to a mental health professional. At Two Chairs, we offer virtual, evidence-based therapy across California, and you can get started here.
You can do this!
I often hear parents say, “This sounds like a lot of work and I don’t need more stress in my life.” Yes, this is work, but it is the kind of work which will help you get through these challenging times and strengthen you to face adversity in the future. Take small steps, you don’t need to do this all at once. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
Remember, you are doing a great job, and yet it feels like it is so hard. It is hard not because you are not doing the right thing, it is hard because it is a lot to deal with.
If you or someone you know is seeking mental health care, you can reach out to our Care Coordination team at email@example.com or by phone at (415) 202-5159.
If you or someone you know is experiencing an emergency or crisis and needs immediate help, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Additional resources can be found here.
During this pandemic there has been a significant increase in the rates of domestic violence, child abuse, and suicidality. If you are experiencing any of these, please find below 24 hour numbers you can call for support:
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-422-4453
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255