Managing Parent Anxiety in the Age of COVID-19

Strategies for getting through today and managing worry about tomorrow.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

Gustavo Fring/Pexels
Source: Gustavo Fring/Pexels

COVID-19 with its multiple demands and uncertainties has lifted levels of parent anxiety and stress to new heights. So if you’re feeling anxious, inadequate, or out of sorts as a parent right now, know that you are not alone. Below are some concrete strategies to help manage your anxiety during these challenging times.

Be Prepared for Reactions and Regression
As parents, we can expect big feelings and regressions from our kids and teens, as well as ourselves. We may be more impatient, more easily frustrated, and quicker to anger or upset to tears. Things are going to feel hard because this is hard. Our kids may seem like they are needing us more, or they may have difficulty following through on things they used to be able to do. We may fall back on old habits or have trouble putting our best parenting foot forward. Remember, under stress, people tend to regress.

Remember too that regression is a part of normative development. Development happens in fits and starts, and continues on its path — pandemic or not — so our children’s development is not entirely on hold now. They keep learning, as do we.

Remember the Big Picture
Parents can help keep their anxiety in check by remembering some of the big picture. As with most things in life, there is no one right way. There is no such thing — especially now — as perfect parenting. Also, know that children have the capacity for resilience. Like a muscle, resilience can be strengthened over time. Brain development and maturation are continuing to proceed. Although it may feel like so much of our lives are at a standstill, learning and growth are not. And remember, though we may not yet know the details of what our post-COVID lives will look like, we can say with certainty that what we are going through now will not last forever.

Prioritize Self-Care and Connection, Even in Small Ways
Though self-care often feels like an impossible thing to prioritize, a little self-care goes a long way in supporting mental health. How can parents do this? First, protect the basics: sufficient sleep with set bedtimes and wake times, healthy eating, and regular physical activity. Accessing coping strategies that work best for you, even if only for a few stolen moments each day, is helpful for countering anxiety. Reading a book, taking a few extra minutes in the shower to relax, listening to a favorite song — small moments of regulation and re-charge matter.

Connecting with loved ones and friends is another powerful way to decrease stress and anxiety. Research has shown that long term, positive relationships are one of the most important variables to good physical and mental health. Our own self-care also helps us feel good enough, rested enough, and stable enough, to be the best parents we can be each day.

Protect Your Time and Boundaries
If and when possible, allow yourself time off from being a parent. This is especially important now that work, life, school, and the demands of daily parenting are occurring 24/7 in the same physical space. Work with your family to make this possible. If your home allows it, give yourself a personal place just for you, if even only for certain times. Give yourself (and your kids) time boundaries for certain activities, like working or quiet time. If your kids can be left safely for short periods, seek out a little time in kid-free spaces — a walk outside, some time for fresh air, or even time alone in the bedroom or a drive in your car can be helpful.

Tune Into Self-Compassion
Parents are often hardest on themselves during times of stress, which is why self-compassion is especially important now. Self-compassion increases motivation, fosters resilience, and protects against anxiety, depression, and stress. It involves recognizing when you are suffering, forgiving yourself for making mistakes, and being kind to yourself. It is accepting that you won’t have all the answers, reminding yourself that no one does, and telling yourself you are doing the best you can. If self-compassion is difficult to access, try talking to yourself like you would a best friend: recognizing your suffering, appreciating your effort, and giving yourself encouragement. Or try using an anchor statement: These are difficult times. I am not alone. May I be kind to myself. I am doing the best I can.

Focus on the Present
Because anxiety is future-oriented, efforts to bring ourselves back to the present moment will decrease our anxiety. To come back to the here and now, we have to first notice we are experiencing anxiety. Then we can choose a strategy that will ground us in the present. Try taking three slow, deep belly breaths and paying attention to how your body feels. By focusing on your body, you can interrupt loops of anxious thoughts. You can work to identify things you see in the room or sounds from around your home or outside. It is hard to focus both on sounds and worry thoughts. As with resilience, focusing on the present is a skill that can be cultivated and strengthened.

Take Note of Positives and Practice Gratitude
Parents can practice the habit of positive thinking as an effective antidote to anxiety and stress. Positive thinking first requires identification of automatic negative thought patterns. We can then deliberately challenge the negative thought by noting evidence against it. We can also practice noticing the positives, however small. Research has demonstrated that gratitude helps us to relate to what is happening in neutral and positive ways, helps us maintain perspective, and is consistently associated with greater happiness. Practice expressing gratitude out loud to yourself at different moments during the day. Keep a gratitude journal and take time to savor small moments and fully reflect on things for which you are truly grateful. 

While there is so much we cannot control during this pandemic, there are steps we can take to help ourselves manage our own anxiety and stress levels. In taking these steps, we will be better able to care for ourselves and our children.