Spinning in the Wrong Direction

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

Forthright statements like this indicate that many parents are reaching their breaking points. This particular father is working full-time remotely from his home while simultaneously trying to manage his daughter’s hybrid homeschool schedule.

And he’s not alone. The cumulative impact of this unresolved situation can lead to an increased stress level over time. What’s more, accumulated stress can render previously successful coping skills far less effective over time.

Some parents report that they are drinking more alcohol than they ever have before in their life. For many, this has become a nightly activity. While they are fully aware that they are “self-medicating,” they feel that they have no other choice in their desperate attempt to cope with their current work/life/school/children challenges.

The Studies Don’t Paint a Very Pretty Picture

As Month 10 of the pandemic is about to begin, the mental health problems of parents remain significant and show little signs of abating. While the pandemic has taken its toll on the mental health of all demographics, recent data from the University of Oregon’s RAPID-EC survey, which polled 1,000 nationally parents with children under 5 every shows that parents of young children are suffering even more.

Sixty-three percent of parents said they felt they had lost emotional support during the pandemic. According to a study from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, sixty-one percent of parents of 5, 6, and 7-year-olds in Massachusetts agreed or strongly agreed that they felt “nervous, anxious, or on edge” because of the pandemic.

“This is a chronic destabilizing force to our lives, and families and parents and children,” said Pooja Lakshmin, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington University School of Medicine. “We need to be treating this as a mental health crisis, and one that does not have an end we can see.”

Though the parents of small children across the board experience increased levels of stress, two subgroups may be even more at risk for higher levels of anxiety and depression at the moment: women who are pregnant or recently gave birth, and parents struggling financially to meet the basic needs of their children.

Before the pandemic, anxiety, and depression affected somewhere between 10 to 25 percent of women during pregnancy and in the year after childbirth. Two studies from Canada show those figures have skyrocketed since the shutdown: One study of nearly 2,000 pregnant women showed that thirty-seven percent were showing clinically significant levels of depression, and fifty-seven percent were showing clinically significant levels of anxiety.

And throughout the pandemic, the largest stressor for parents surveyed by the University of Oregon’s RAPID-EC project has been an inability to sufficiently feed, clothe and house their children, said Philip Fisher, Ph.D., the director for the Center of Translational Neuroscience at the university, who is leading the project.

How Can You Ameliorate the Situation?

So how can parents bolster their mental health in this time of chronic challenge? Lucy Rimalower, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles recommends asking yourself: What kind of self-care is realistic for you now, not six months ago?

She notes that the old coping mechanisms that were once so helpful, may not be available at the moment so that even a tiny break for yourself every day is better than nothing. “Is that a five-minute yoga video on YouTube? Is it a five-minute text exchange with an old friend?” Rimalower said.

Research shows that exercise (like that five-minute yoga video) and emotional connection (that simple text exchange) can also go a long way in reducing stress. The RAPID-EC study found that high levels of emotional support, particularly from local sources, can be very helpful in mitigating stress irrespective of where someone is on the socioeconomic ladder.

Interestingly enough, parents are finding a great deal of solace in their partners, parents, and even their children. At first, Dr. Fisher said, the researchers thought that when parents said they got emotional support from their children, they meant older children who were potentially helping care for the under-5 set. But when they dug into their data, they found that “people were finding their little ones to be a source of comfort,” he said.

Dr. Lakshmin suggests another track to pursue as well. She encourages her patients to tap into developing new sources of meaning as a parent. That could mean discovering COVID-safe ways to connect with your children, like early-morning bike rides, or creating moments to look forward to. “Little activities to plan can break up the time,” she said, and be psychologically nourishing.

Rimalower described her feelings when she found a bouquet that her 4-year-old son had left outside her door during a session with a patient, and being reminded that our little ones “have basic needs that are not that concerned with the pandemic,” she said. “I feel like I’m an impostor, pretending like everything is OK with our kids, but what’s wrong with a few minutes of things being OK?”