Being a parent is a demanding job. Add in a global pandemic, and it can feel downright stressful. Given the past year, it's understandable – and normal – for parents to feel anxious and exhausted.
"The pandemic affects everybody, and it's been particularly hard on parents," says Alison Wilkinson-Smith, Ph.D., ABPP, a pediatric neuropsychologist at Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern. "This is such a complicated time, and I want parents to know that if they're struggling, there's a valid reason for that."
Some families may be facing extreme life challenges – including loss of jobs, sickness or even the death of a loved one due to COVID‑19. Some families may be struggling because of issues they had before the pandemic, like a history of medical, mental health or learning problems. Even without these things, parents are finding they have more on their plates than ever before.
During this time of increased pressure and uncertainty, it's important to be mindful of your emotional health and seek positive ways to cope.
Why should parents focus on their emotional health?
As a parent, your health and well-being matter not only for you, but also for your children. Parents' stress levels – and how they respond to stress – can have a direct impact on children.
"We have decades of scientific literature showing that a parent's mental health, even just general day-to-day stress, impacts their kids," Dr. Wilkinson-Smith says. Stress at home can affect anything from a child's physical health to how well they perform in school.
When parents model positive ways to cope with that stress, they are teaching children healthy emotional habits that can last for a lifetime.
Ways for parents to manage stress and anxiety
As parents navigate the daily challenges of COVID‑19, Dr. Wilkinson-Smith offers tips for coping with stress and anxiety.
1. Be honest about your feelings
When parents feel stressed out or upset, they may want to put on a "brave face" for their kids. However, Dr. Wilkinson-Smith says parents should acknowledge their emotions rather than hide them. After all, kids can usually tell when something's wrong, even if parents don't talk about their feelings.
Labeling or recognizing feelings is an important step in teaching children about emotional health. By being honest about how you feel, you are showing that everyone can experience challenging emotions from time to time – and that's okay. If you worry that you won't be able to show your feelings without overwhelming your child, that's a clue that you need to take care of yourself or reach out for help.
2. Model positive coping skills
"One of the ways parents can try to reduce the impact of their stress on their kids is to model good coping skills," Dr. Wilkinson-Smith says. "Kids need to see that their parents can be anxious, scared or stressed and can manage it in healthy ways."
Learn which activities or actions help you feel better when you're upset. Then, share what coping skills work for you. For example, you can say, "I am feeling worried right now. When I feel worried, it helps me to take a walk or take some deep breaths to calm down."
3. Commit to self-care and stress management
Parents' to-do lists are long, and while caring for your child might seem like your most important job, caring for yourself is a key part of doing that. Make time for yourself, whether that's finding a few minutes for a quiet break each day, pursuing a hobby or connecting with a friend. In addition, make an effort as a family to try some stress-reducing habits, such as:
- Exercise daily, even if it's just a 10- or 20-minute walk outside
- Get adequate sleep
- Have open dialog – perhaps at the dinner table or before bedtime – where both parents and kids can be candid about their feelings
- Journal or color together
- Limit excessive social media or news scrolling – particularly if this adds to family stress levels
- Practice short mindfulness or meditation exercises via one of many widely available apps
- Prioritize eating healthfully
- Talk through things (even virtually) with people you trust, like your significant other, family and friends
Know that it's okay if you can't do it all or if habits are inconsistent. Start with small goals and see what has the biggest impact on how you feel.
4. Seek professional help when it's needed
Parents should never hesitate to ask for mental health support or counseling. This is extremely important if you notice signs of severe anxiety or depression, such as:
- Abuse of drugs or alcohol
- Constant worry
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
- Feelings of despair
- Loss of appetite or eating too much
- Feeling like you can't focus or can't finish normal, everyday tasks
"Because of the challenges of the pandemic, more people are accessing mental health care than ever before," Dr. Wilkinson-Smith says. "It's so important to seek treatment and resources when they're needed. The pandemic is not something families should feel like they have to navigate by themselves."
Children's Health is committed to supporting your family during the pandemic. Read more about COVID‑19 and mental health in children and the programs we offer to support mental, emotional and behavioral health. Plus, see an entire library of resources to keep your family healthy at the Children's Health COVID‑19 hub.
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