Being a parent is challenging enough at the best of times, but since the start of the pandemic, families have been dealing with a whirlwind of change and uncertainty. For many, the result has been a whole new level of stress.
A recent national study of 3,000 Canadian adults showed that nearly half of participating parents reported increased mental health problems from the COVID-19 pandemic. Compared to child-free adults, parents saw increased alcohol consumption, stress at home, negative thoughts/feelings, and negative interactions with their kids.
Despite the negative impact that the pandemic has had on parents everywhere and families as a whole, there are ways to cope. Here are six practical tips that you and your family can use to help stay balanced during these unprecedented times.
1. Lower Your Parenting Expectations
Parents often put tremendous pressure on themselves to ensure that their kids are getting the most out of their education, socializing enough, and engaging in healthy activities. The pandemic has drastically changed all of these things, making it all the more difficult to live up to pre-pandemic expectations.
When the parenting demands you place upon yourself don’t match your current reality for being able to meet those demands, you put yourself at risk of parental burnout — a chronic state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. So, what can you do?
Start by working on accepting the fact that these are not “normal” times, and give yourself permission to lower the bar on your expectations as a parent. This could mean letting your kids take more frequent or longer breaks when they’re in learning mode, relaxing the rules for TV time, or forgoing extracurricular activities in favour of family time or free play instead.
2. Create Space for Yourself
Many parents have been forced to try to juggle their own full-time jobs (or employment searches) along with their kids’ remote learning, playtime, meals, chores, entertainment, exercise, and more — all at home. The stress of trying to multitask and be productive can be overwhelming.
But learning how to deal with this new kind of stress is imperative for your kids’ well-being. Research has shown that parents who struggle with mental health problems put their kids at a higher risk of experiencing greater distress, which can have long-term effects on them.
Aim to make self-care a priority not just for your own mental health, but for your kids’ mental health too. Take frequent breaks during work or remote learning, ask your partner about watching the kids while you go for a walk, and make sure to connect with the most important people in your life — even if it has to be done virtually or from a safe physical distance.
3. Stick to a Schedule
School closures, the cancelation of events and activities, and isolation from friends have disrupted the structure and routines of kids’ day-to-day lives. These prolonged periods of lockdowns and restrictions have contributed to increased feelings of loneliness and anxiety among kids.
You can help bring some structure back to your kids’ routines by starting with the basics. Try establishing regular times for waking up, getting dressed, having meals, leisure activities. Between these, look at scheduling a mix of academic, creative, and play activities.
30-minute blocks are ideal for academic activities while creative and fun activities can be longer. Keep in mind that you don’t have to maintain a rigid schedule to keep everyone happy — feel free to swap out activities or insert an extra break here or there if that’s what serves your family best.
4. Communicate Openly
A study revealed that kids who knew fewer facts about the virus were more likely to report feeling worried compared to kids who knew more facts. More than half of kids turned to the media to regulate their emotions, and around half of them reported feeling worried about the possibility of a family member or friend becoming infected with COVID-19.
The findings suggest that making the decision not to acknowledge and discuss pandemic-related topics with your kids can actually do more harm than good. Instead of leaving your kids in the dark about what’s going on, helping them increase their awareness can also help them learn how to cope.
Make sure to validate your kids’ thoughts and feelings, create an open space for them to ask questions, and answer honestly. If you don’t know the answer to something, help your kids find accurate and up-to-date information. Discussing best practices on how they can stay safe from the virus may also help ease their worries.
5. Praise Good Behaviour
It’s normal for kids to occasionally act out, but when stress levels are higher than usual and everyone is stuck at home, you may notice it happening more often or more severely. Instead of nagging or making threats without consequences, focus on reinforcing and praising the behaviours you do want to see.
You can do this by setting aside more time to play with your kids or engage with them when they take interest in something. Try to stay aware of the potential for difficult behaviour by catching it early so you can redirect their attention to something more positive.
When dealing with difficult behaviour, stay calm and focus on using consequences that are realistic and related to the misbehaviour on an immediate basis. If at all possible, offer your child the choice to follow instructions before a consequence is given.
6. Watch for Warning Signs
Parents are doing their best to get themselves and their families through this pandemic, but lockdowns, restrictions, and uncertainty can still take its toll on those who are most vulnerable — including kids. Younger kids may show more signs of clinginess and fear of the virus while older kids six years and up may be more likely to show signs of inattentiveness, irritability, or persistent inquiry about the virus.
Look out for any unusual changes in your kids’ behaviour including feelings of sadness, loss of interest in things they used to enjoy, trouble sleeping, sluggishness, or depressive symptoms (such as feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness). A mental health professional can help you determine whether it’s serious enough to require any necessary next steps.
You’ve likely taken some necessary steps toward working on your own self-care and ensuring the mental wellness of your children. And they probably helped. But now, long into the pandemic, things might feel different.
Maybe you or your kids aren’t seriously struggling with anything specific, but maybe you aren’t thriving either. How can you overcome that dull sense of fatigue or numbness that’s constantly hovering in the air, threatening to throw you out of balance?
It might be time to explore some new strategies. Book an appointment today with Hexagon Psychology to get expert advice on parenting, so you can help yourself and your kids get through the rest of the pandemic.