Parents are under heightened stress and anxiety during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, for so many reasons related to school and childcare, work and the economy, health and safety, and more. These underlying worries can cause many parents to have a short fuse, and blow up—for instance, yelling at the kids about something that, under normal circumstances, wouldn’t be a big deal. Anxiety might also make you withdraw from your family, or make you feel so exhausted you can barely handle your daily responsibilities (let alone do “extra” things like plan socially distanced outings or set up fun activities to do with the kids).
Even when parents are careful not to take their stress out on kids directly, children can still be affected. “Children are keen observers and often notice and react to stress or anxiety in their parents, caregivers, peers and community,” warns Arthur Evans Jr., chief executive officer of the American Psychological Association (APA).
If you’ve been struggling with stress, anxiety, or other mental health challenges lately, and feel it has been affecting your parenting, it pays to sit down with yourself to reflect and make a plan using these five tips.
Observe your own behaviors
Try to look at your own stress levels as if you’re an outside observer, and write down your triggers. What times of day do you get most stressed or anxious, and tend to either blow up or shut down? Is it when you have to get the kids ready for bed? After you read or watch the news? When you’re hungry for a meal? When your child interrupts you? When you have a work commitment approaching?
Adjust your schedule—and your expectations
Brainstorm some ideas for how to diffuse some of the stressful situations you identified, before they get out of hand. Sometimes that will mean doing things in a different order than you’re used to, like calling bill collectors first thing in the morning so that it’s not weighing on your mind all day. Other times it will mean adjusting your expectations, like agreeing to let your toddler skip a bath because otherwise you know bedtime will be a 3-hour nightmare.
For example, maybe prepping for dinner earlier will help keep you from yelling at the kids while you’re trying to cook—or you could relieve some of the pressure you’re under by having simple soups or sandwiches for dinner on certain nights of the week. If being interrupted is what often sets you off, it can reduce your anxiety to just save FaceTimes with friends until after bedtime. Another option, though, is to devise a signal that makes it super clear to kids that you’re not available to grab them a snack while you’re on that call. Or maybe you want to rearrange your schedule so that your partner can tag in—or a grandparent can video-chat in—at certain strategic times of day so that you can compose yourself or take a time-out during times when you know your anxiety is high.
Find in-the-moment stress relievers
Even if you can anticipate and avoid some of your triggers, there will still be times when stress and anxiety take hold in the moment. Make a list of quick things you can do to temporarily de-stress when you’re starting to feel overwhelmed. Leave the room or take a walk, if possible. Open a window or turn on a fan, and count 10 deep breaths. Go into another room and do a few stretches or pull on an exercise band. Figure out one clue in a crossword puzzle or find the slot for one piece of a big jigsaw puzzle. Keep the list handy—even making copies to put on the fridge, inside a clear phone case, and other strategic spots—so you know it’ll be nearby the next time you feel anxiety creeping in.
Make your strategies accessible
Not all coping strategies are as simple as taking deep breaths. Plan ahead for other things that help you feel better, and make them easier to access. Create a playlist of calming music, or songs that make you feel validated in your anger, frustration, or stress—listening to these can help you release the emotions too. Make a “favorites” list on your phone of your most supportive friends that you can text anytime, or create a group chat of fellow parents you can rant to. Once you’ve done a little groundwork, you can add these strategies to your list of “in-the-moment” stress relievers.
Have a communication plan
Make a list of things you can say—either out loud or to yourself—in times of distress. Things to say out loud might be: “Please let me think for a minute,” “I’m feeling overwhelmed,” or “I could use some help.” Questions to ask yourself could include: “How do I want my kids to see me react?” or “How can I avoid saying something hurtful right now?”
Talk to your partner (and friends/relatives who are supporting you from afar) about your strategies, so they know what to expect and what you might need. Even simply sharing what you’re going through is often enough to make your emotional load feel lighter. Plus, you might inspire them to come up with a similar plan for managing their own stress.
Your calm-down techniques should not only help you avoid saying damaging things to your family, but they’ll help you set a good example for your kids as they learn to manage their own emotions. The Child Mind Institute reminds us, “As you learn to tolerate stress, you will in turn be teaching your child—who takes cues from your behavior—how to cope with situations of uncertainty or doubt.”