Written by Olyvia Yoon and Gwendolyn Price
These days, everyone is stressed. There’s the pandemic, not being able to see loved ones, and work — or the lack of work — that’s all exacerbating the usual stress of adult life. And if you have kids? Forget about it. While stress is a common occurrence in everyday life, too much stress takes a toll on your well-being: your health, mood, energy levels, and relationships can all suffer for it. Because it has such wide ranging impacts on our lives, stress reduction and management is a necessity. For parents especially, navigating through work and home life during the COVID-19 pandemic can cause intense stress levels that affect more than just their own well-being.
When asking one parent what their biggest challenge was during the pandemic so far, they replied, “My wife and I haven’t had a moment to ourselves or alone since February. No dates, no breaks, nobody to help us with meals, cleaning, play etc.” (Parent of a 14-month-old). This sentiment was echoed by many parents, showing that the endless work of parenthood has been made to be seemingly never ending.
Many parents, especially first-time parents, are experiencing the wear-and-tear of raising young children without family or outside support. Even for parents with older children, countless days of social distancing and the transition to working and schooling from home and the endless Zoom calls has created emotional burdens on everyday functioning.
Although her 16-year-old daughter’s experiences of remote learning have been relatively smooth, one parent describes her motivation levels and experiences working from home in isolation during the pandemic as waning: ““It’s tough to be in the same spot, to get up in the morning, take a break, on a walk, you know?” This pandemic-induced shift to high stress at home can worry some parents. How is this stress going to affect their children? Luckily, research has at least some answers — and even some solutions.
What is happening to parents?
New research examining the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on families reveals that parents and parents-to-be are experiencing both novel and existing stressors, now exacerbated, that accompany parenthood. The pandemic has given rise to new hardships such as minimal — or at least very different — social contact and increased loneliness, while increasing existing problems such as food insecurity, lack of childcare, and delayed or infrequent healthcare visits (Patrick et al., 2020). Employment has taken a nosedive during the pandemic as well, especially for mothers, due to the lack of safe and available childcare (Henderson, 2020). For parents experiencing a variety of these, and many other unprecedented circumstances, stress is inevitable at times and can greatly hinder physical and mental health.
In describing how the pandemic has affected her lifestyle and psychological health, one parent said, “We’re both starting to struggle with insomnia and that groundhog day feeling, feeling like it’s the same everyday and wondering ‘what day is it?’” (Parent of 16-year-old).
Parental job loss, and the lack of affordable, or even available, childcare impacted parental mental health during the Great Depression in the early 20th century (Mari & Keizer, 2021), and researchers are finding the same patterns with the COVID-19 pandemic (Davenport et al., 2020). One consequence of increased parental anxiety and depression is the quality and ways in which parents interact with their children. High amounts of maternal stress, which may be influenced or accompany mental health issues, interferes with daily parent-child interactions leading to poorer emotional and cognitive outcomes years later (Essex et al., 2002; Mari & Keizer, 2021). Because stress can affect attention, mood, energy levels, stressed caregivers are less likely to be responsive to their child or engage in more meaningful conversations or activities. For the children living through this pandemic, however, it’s not all bad news.
How does this affect the parent-child relationship?
Parental stress — and stress management — not only has consequences for parents, but for children and adolescents as well. For younger children, there are long-term implications on their development of resilience, an essential life skill, that impacts children’s physical and emotional well-being into adulthood. Resilience is one’s ability to adapt to various life stressors or threats to one’s well-being (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2015). From a young age, children who develop resilience learn how to respond optimistically or even undaunted in the face of adversity. Most importantly, a stable and supportive relationship with at least one meaningful adult is essential in establishing resilience (NSCDC, 2015). Through modeling by adults, children learn how to express and communicate their thoughts and feelings. If the adults in their lives model healthy understanding and expression of stress, and positive coping behaviors, children will learn these useful tricks of adulthood.
As life throws countless and unpredictable circumstances our way, the ability to manage and cope with stressors is crucial. While small amounts of stress here and there are beneficial, chronic and severe stress physiologically wears down the body over time, especially the cardiovascular and immune systems (NSCDC, 2015). Learning how to manage stress and develop effective coping mechanisms has long-term outcomes on physical and emotional wellness, lowering the risk of negative health effects such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression. However, much more research is needed to truly understand the specifics and lasting impacts of the wide variety of personal and societal disruptions COVID-19 has created. While the emotional toll and nonideal circumstances feel especially apparent during these difficult times, some parents are still finding small moments of joy here and there.
For working parents with previously constrained schedules, the privilege of working from home has been a perk. One parent wrote, “Previously, I’d only see the kids in the mornings, and often not in the evenings due to a later work schedule. Now we see each other all the time :)” – (Parent of a 3 and 8-year-old). Considering that parental leave is often very scarce and limited, some new parents can now spend more time at home with their young children. “I think we’ve actually gotten more time with our daughter than we otherwise would have which has been a real blessing” – (Parent of a 14-month-old).
What can parents do?
The million dollar question is: What can we do to manage stress? As one parent says, “I don’t think there’s easy stress management. It’s having to do the work to find what helps you” -(Parent of 16 year old).
In these difficult times, sometimes you’re just going to be stressed and that’s okay. Even parents are allowed to have bad days and baking cookies or going on a run won’t eliminate stress and anxiety completely. In fact, not always displaying positive emotions around children may be beneficial, especially if the adults in the household have different emotional responses. When parents exhibit different emotional expressions and reactions to situations, this may actually enhance children’s emotional understanding (McElwain et al., 2007). Parents’ various emotional responses can impact children’s emotional competence, in areas such as empathy, managing negative emotions, and managing conflict (McElwain et al., 2007). This variety helps children to more fully understand different aspects of an emotionally intense event.
While it may at this point sound cliché, when stress gets too much, it’s time for self-care. Whether it’s running, baking, or catching up with family on Zoom calls, finding time to focus on yourself and what makes you happy can make a world of a difference. How well parents are doing is a pretty good indicator of how the kids are doing, too (Casas et al., 2007), so when parents take care of themselves, the whole family benefits. When asked about possible advice for other parents, one parent explained, “Having a hobby and forcing yourself to dedicate time to it. My wife and I keep each other accountable to make sure we are making time to do the things that collectively or individually make us happy. Sacrificing for your partner so that they can have that time is key.” – (Parent of a 14-month-old).
For parents looking to reduce their stress, it can be tricky to find time to focus on the self instead of the children. Luckily, playing together as a family can help everyone involved. When parents make time to play with their children and engage in leisure activities, child wellbeing increases (Coyl-Shepherd & Hanlon, 2013). Playing together also has the bonus of helping children develop communication skills, emotion understanding, and social bonds alongside reducing stress for both parents and children. Even small amounts of time enjoying a leisure activity like riding bikes, making art, and reading together can help relax and refresh the whole family.
Connecting with others whether through Zoom, distanced in person, or good old fashioned letter writing can help lower stress levels. A big misnomer in this pandemic has been the idea of “social-distancing.” What we need to be doing is staying physically distanced, while remaining socially connected. High quality social connections don’t just make us happier, but have real impacts on our physical and mental health (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2017). While Zoom fatigue is a real and difficult hurdle with work, play, and socialization all happening through video chat (Bailenson, 2021), there are many ways to connect and we need to keep those connections going. Finding different ways to connect, and even returning to older ways of connecting over distance, can help us stay healthy and less stressed.
Staying active also helps reduce stress and is associated with better overall mental health (Davenport et al., 2020). Whether you are a beginner or a full-blown athlete, doing yoga, taking socially distanced walks with friends, or quick jogs around the neighborhood are all options to stay moving during the pandemic. Some parents also suggest using mindfulness apps, mediation exercises, or taking warm baths. Focusing energy on caring for your physical body can help to center yourself.
Lastly, remember that you’re not alone! Parenting is no easy feat and whether it’s through an online parenting group or the neighborhood association, many parents feel relieved knowing they aren’t the only ones feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Not only can it be easier to discuss your milestones or worries, but sometimes the best parenting advice comes from other parents- parents who have been in your shoes or who are also currently figuring it out. In fact, one parent highly encourages connecting with other parents: “Talk to other parents; Share your successes. Vent about your problems. Ask for help! It feels good to say “I finally saw my baby giggle!” and “oh my god she pooped on me TWICE today!” – (parent of a 16-month-old).
Ultimately, managing stress not only promotes a higher quality lifestyle for yourself, but for your loved ones as well. When parents accept the difficult circumstances and work to release their stress and frustration, they are not only helping themselves, but they are doing double the good by modeling effective and healthy ways for their children to manage stress and regulate their emotions.
Note: This blog post was made possible by all the interviewed parents who dedicated their time and attention to discuss these difficult topics. We thank them for their time and consideration.
Bailenson, J. N. (2021). Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue. Technology, Mind, and Behavior, 2(1). https://doi.org/10.1037/tmb0000030
Casas, F., Coenders, G., Cummins, R., González, M., Figuer, C., & Malo, S. (2007) Does subjective well-being show a relationship between parents and their children? Journal of Happiness Studies, 9. https://10.1007/s10902-007-9044-7
Coyl-Shepherd, D. D., & Hanlon, C. (2013). Family play and leisure activities: Correlates of parents’ and children’s socio-emotional well-being. International Journal of Play, 2(3), 254-272. doi:10.1080/21594937.2013.855376
Davenport, M. H., Meyer, S., Meah, V. L., Strynadka, M. C., & Khurana, R. (2020). Moms are not OK: COVID-19 and maternal mental health. Frontiers in Global Women’s Health, 1, 1-6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fgwh.2020.00001
Essex, M., Klein, M., Cho, E., Kalin, N. (2002). Maternal stress beginning in infancy may sensitize children to later stress exposure: effects on cortisol and behavior. Biological Psychiatry. 52(8),776-784. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0006-3223(02)01553-6
Henderson, T. (2020, September 28). Mothers are 3 times more likely than fathers to have lost jobs in pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2020/09/28/mothers-are-3-times-more-likely-than-fathers-to-have-lost-jobs-in-pandemic
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Mari, G., & Keizer, R. (2021). Parental job loss and early child development in the great recession. Child Development, 1-19. doi:10.1111/cdev.13517
McElwain, N. L., Halberstadt, A. G., & Volling, B. L. (2007). Mother- and father-reported reactions to children?s negative emotions: Relations to young children’s emotional understanding and friendship quality. Child Development, 78(5), 1407-1425. https://doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01074.x
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2015). Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building Strengthen the Foundations of Resilience: Working Paper 13. Retrieved from http://www.developingchild.harvard.edu
Patrick, S. W., Henkhaus, L. E., Zickafoose, J. S., Lovell, K., Halvorson, A., Loch, S., Letterie, M., & Davis, M. M. (2020). Well-being of parents and children during the COVID-19 pandemic: A national survey. Pediatrics, 146(4). https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2020-0836