Six months into the pandemic's ripple effects across the United States, many families have children at home who have not seen the inside of a school since this all began. To say I am seeing and hearing (and feeling!) exhaustion is an understatement. Juggling multiple roles without a break can be exhausting enough to cause a significant sense of hopelessness, pessimism, and irritability.
Here are six tips to keep in mind when navigating this truly unprecedented stressor as a parent. And remember, like any other difficult time in life, it's important to let yourself start fresh each morning—and go just one day at a time.
1. Remember that this doesn't have to replicate the in-person school experience.
Yes, your middle-schooler doesn't get the Bunsen burner this year, and your third-grader's math lessons may lose a little vigor. But might they also be learning a little more about managing disappointment? Navigating sibling conflict? Helping their community? Cutting their dad's hair?
They may be discovering new things and growing in ways that they never would have had this not happened. And as much as that doesn't mean that you have to be glad that we are in this situation, it is important to recognize that the deeper life lessons or opportunity for boosts in emotional intelligence that can arise even in the struggle.
2. Reach out for support.
There are millions of parents in your same boat—including plenty juggling the same confusing emails from your very same school, or the same Chromebook glitches hitting your second-grader. Have you thought about how to better build your "village" lately? Who do you rely on for support when it feels like too much? What other parents can you vent or laugh with when you are overwhelmed?
Social support can provide a big boost to our mental and physical health and is a very important component of coping. But with the specific demands that are exhausting parents who are juggling multiple roles everywhere, it can be even more of a balm to talk to someone going through what you are.
3. Keep your values in mind.
When you feel overwhelmed by the homework or the technology or your constant juggling act, try to zoom out to the big picture. What is the purpose of any of this? What kind of values do you want to impart to your child? What do you want them to see in you during this time, and what kind of parent do you want to be? How do you want to look back at this time someday?
Any given day—or even week—may feel like it's going all wrong. But when you can keep your eye on a sense of larger purpose about your parenting during this time, when your kids are looking toward you to guide them through uncertainty, it can help you remember what's important, and not get bogged down by what's not.
4. Empathy, empathy, empathy.
When we all are feeling frazzled and burnt out, empathy is hard to extend to others—because our own tanks are so empty. But empathy can improve your patience in crucial ways when you're dealing with the frustrations of online learning. Empathy for the teacher who might be managing her own chaos at home, empathy for your child missing their friends and having to stare at a screen for far longer than you ever would have wanted them to, and empathy for the administrators having to make decisions they could have never anticipated—it's all justified, and important.
5. Find humor when you can.
I have worked with many people who feel guilty for having moments of levity when their friends are struggling, or who are concerned about wrongly making light of a time that for many people involves life-or-death risk calculations. But humor can be very significant in terms of emotional well-being, and it even can decrease your blood pressure and break tension to help your whole body feel better.
When's the last time you had a deep, belly laugh? And what could you do to get that again? Better yet, finding things that you and your kids can laugh about together, whether it be a TV show you share, a joke-a-day ritual, or letting loose with silly dance moves, can help increase your connection with them as well.
6. Let go of perfectionism.
Adjusting expectations is crucial not only for your perspective on your kid's schooling, but it's vital for your own role as a parent too. I am working with so many clients who feel like "failures" because they aren't as patient as they'd like to be with their kids, or they're not making the perfectly healthy meals that they're seeing on social media, or they're not having feeling especially bonded with their kids despite all the increased time spent together.
Notice the yardstick you are using to compare yourself to others. And if it is perfectionistic, ask yourself how you can start giving yourself credit just for coping and surviving—the most productive activities of all—during what may be the most challenging episode of your parenting career.