Secondary Effects of COVID-19 on Parents

Why is it so important to be honest about your distress?

Posted Sep 23, 2020

“I had the worst day of this entire pandemic yesterday…” — father of two young girls

Honest statements like this make it clear that parents are reaching their breaking points on many levels. This particular father is working full-time remotely from home. He is trying to manage his children’s hybrid homeschool schedule simultaneously, while his wife is working full-time out of the house. He appeared hesitant stating that he had such a hard day, given it was six months into the pandemic. 

He is not alone. Additionally, there is a cumulative impact that can lead to an increase in stress that builds up over time. This accumulated stress can cause individuals to have a harder time using coping skills that may have initially been effective. 

Most could not have anticipated in March that we would still be dealing with ongoing uncertainty and chaos in our lives for 6 months. There have been many losses during this time beyond the tragic passing of 200,000 lives. Much of the focus and prevention efforts have been on the risk of catching the virus, of passing it on to others, and of being sick or of dying. While that is understandable, there are so many secondary losses and negative effects that have been overlooked: friendships, community, school, sense of normalcy, social and events, peace of mind, traveling/vacation, work schedule, routine and so many more losses unique to individuals.

In the past week, I have had conversations with a variety of parents from coast to coast. Many are struggling. Simultaneously, it seems that people are talking less with each other about their challenges and are feeling alone in their despair.

Some parents are reporting that they are drinking more alcohol than they ever have. For many, this includes every evening. They are fully aware that they are “self-medicating” but feel that it is their only tool in helping them to cope with their current work/life/school/children challenges.

Parents report feeling “traumatized” about starting the school year again with so many unknowns and the back and forth hybrid/remote learning schedules. Some are stay-at-home parents who report drowning in feelings of being overwhelmed and ill-prepared to support their children in hybrid, fully remote learning and having young children using electronics to learn and engage with their peers. Other parents are having mood instability, difficulty sleeping, panic attack symptoms, irritability and depression symptoms. Some are thinking about or making appointment to talk with a provider about possible psychotropic medication

While many businesses and employers were accommodating flexible schedules in the spring with employees working remotely, there is now less flexibility in some cases. Many parents would like the opportunity to move their child(ren) to a private school that is offering five days a week of in-person school, but cannot afford to do so. They feel powerless to the choices that the regional school districts are making, and keep waiting for life to return to a sense of regularity and balance.

However, for many parents, that time is unknown. Many school systems have gone completely remote and say that they will be “re-evaluating” this decision in two months or so, but parents are growing weary and losing trust that their family’s needs will be considered.

Then, many parents turn on the news or read social media and begin to feel more fear about “a second wave” or flu season and a plethora of other negative national news and events. Some families have chosen to remove their children from school and conduct full-time homeschool, which has its own set of challenges.

At times, it can feel like there is so much to be afraid of. This can be the perfect storm for individuals who have a predisposition to anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, addiction, and other mental health issues.

There is also growing frustration about the inconsistencies in the way that school districts are operating. Some are fully in person, some are hybrid, while others are fully remote—yet the towns may be next to each other, similar in population density and COVID-19 numbers.

Families are also having to spend more money on childcare, tutoring, and trying to keep up their job performance despite an immense amount of pressure in their homes and communities. Other parents are having to take a leave from their job to care for and remote school their children because their spouse earns their benefits. And still other parents may not be working at all because certain industries such as hospitality have taken such an economic hit during this time. 

So what can parents do? My intention in writing about this topic is to increase the dialogue around it and to encourage parents to talk with each other.

Each family has unique circumstances that may be causing them distress. But we all have a common bond in living through this unprecedented time together. Here are some suggestions:

  • Reach out to another parents and ask them how they are doing in a way that opens up room for an honest discussion.
  • Be “real” with other parents about your challenges in order to open the lines of communication.
  • Ask for support within your family or friends if you are feeling overwhelmed.
  • If you feel comfortable, involve your child in community activities that are offered at this time. This can provide social support for both your child and yourselves.
  • Get outside, into the community as you feel comfortable and avoid social isolation — even if the isolation is along with your family.
  • Be mindful of the form and quantity of news, media, and social media that you are watching. Notice how you feel before and after watching/listening and adjust your choices accordingly.
  • Track your mood and sleep in order to get an accurate picture of your symptoms.
  • Track your drinking and substance usage and take a brief screening with harm reduction strategies at rethinkingdrinking.org.
  • Reach out to your therapist or obtain a therapist. Many sessions are remote and this could make it convenient to fit into your schedule.
  • Start a group text chat with other supportive parents who can bring humor and care for each other’s challenges.
  • Set boundaries on time spent engaging with toxic relationships.
  • Surround yourself physically and emotionally with supportive individuals.
  • Practice spiritual and religious rituals that bring you peace of mind.
  • Add in self-care, even if it is for five minutes throughout your day.
  • Tell your family and children that you need a “time out” and have some alone time in your house, take a walk, take a bath, read, pray, meditate, or whatever will be most effective.
  • Talk with your employer about flexible working options if appropriate.
  • Set “good enough” goals for you and your children, and avoid perfectionism.
  • It is “okay not to be okay,” but be honest with yourself about how many days per week you are struggling with your symptoms.
  • Ask for help.