Stress management for parents in a time of uncertainty
Being a parent has always been a demanding job. Working to keep your children safe and physically and mentally healthy, balancing work and home life, acting as a caregiver for older parents and relatives, and managing your own health and wellbeing can be stressful at times. But during the pandemic, the stress levels of many parents have risen significantly and stayed relatively high as parents face changes in school and daycare routines, changes in their own work routines, worries about keeping their loved ones healthy, and the economic strains that the pandemic has created for many families. A survey conducted by the American Psychological Association found that 48% of parents surveyed reported that their level of stress was higher than before the start of the pandemic and 31% said their mental health was worse than before the pandemic.
Ongoing high levels of stress affect not only parents’ mental wellbeing, but also their physical health and also can have an effect on the mental wellbeing of their children, so working to better manage stress is essential. Taking small steps to defuse and manage stress can help parents strengthen their resilience and have a positive impact on the whole family’s wellbeing.
- Start with one small step. Telling yourself that you need to overhaul your approach to stress will most likely just make you feel more stressed. And any behavior change is easier and more likely to become an enduring habit if you build your new behavior slowly, so the smart approach is to choose one thing to focus on, whether that’s reading or listening to an audiobook for 10 minutes before the kids are up or after they’re asleep or practicing breathing exercises for a few minutes a day. Once that new behavior feels like second nature, add a new one.
- Connect with other parents. In the middle of a stressful day, you may feel like you’re the only one who can’t handle what’s happening. Of course, that’s not true. Connecting with other parents who are dealing with similar situations can not only help you see that you’re not alone, but it can also create a community where you can share strategies and challenges, build friendships, and have the chance to express your feelings in a no-judgement atmosphere. There are parent support groups, but even a text chain with other parents you know can help create this connection.
- Take time for yourself every day. This one can be tough. Parents often automatically put the needs of their children and partners above their own, so you’ll need to make a mindful effort to carve out time for yourself and honor that time. Some parents even add the time to their daily calendar—a small way to remind yourself that this act of self-care is as important as other commitments.
- Treat yourself with compassion. As our resilience wears down, we’re more likely to engage in increasing amounts of negative self-talk. The first step to stopping these negative thoughts is to acknowledge what you’re thinking, then ask yourself what fact-based evidence you have to support these thoughts. Acknowledge that what you’re feeling is colored and amplified by the stress and anxiety you’re living with. If you have trouble breaking a negative self-talk loop, try talking about your thoughts with a trusted friend with a different perspective.
- Prioritize healthy habits. Choose a healthy diet, incorporate exercise into your day–whether it’s a few 10 minute walks or a 30 minute swim–and practice stress management techniques such as breathing exercises, mindfulness practices, or yoga or other movement based practices. It’s also important to take steps to help you get good, deep sleep each night. Stop screen time at least an hour before bed, don’t work in bed, and make sure your sleep environment is dark, quiet, and cool.
- Ask for the help you need. If you have a partner, ask her or him to take on a task that’s adding to your stress or to take the kids out for an hour so you can have time to yourself. If your children are old enough, ask them to help out with tasks like putting away laundry, setting the table, and feeding pets. And if stress is making you feel consistently anxious or depressed or contributing to habits that can damage your health like excess alcohol use or substance use, make an appointment with a mental health provider.