Whether you’re a biological parent or a stepparent like me, our world seems to provide a never-ending source of parental anxiety. In fact, parental stress is described as:
“anything that threatens our ability to keep our children safe, healthy, and thriving.”
This casts a wide and non-discriminating net. These threats can trigger our fight-or-flight response – from a low, yet constant level causing generalized anxiety, to a high, acute level causing a panic attack. Feeling out of control is one of the biggest sources of anxiety. So many things affecting our children feel out of our control during these extraordinary times.
In-Person Learning and Sports.
After remote learning for what felt like forever and brought with it its own set of stressors, our children are not as prepared as they typically would have been. Learning, studying and test-taking looked very different while remote. Your child may have struggled in some areas and thrived in others. For instance, some children struggle with less access to their teachers but thrive taking tests in a quiet room alone with more time and an open textbook. Now back in a classroom, where the old rules apply, this adjustment brings new challenges.
After a big hiatus from sports, your child’s skills may not be where they were had they been practicing and playing regularly. This can be a source of stress and anxiety for your child as they return to the field or court.
Most parents didn’t grow up with social media. This generational gap can create an intense sense of lack of understanding and control over your child's life given how much time they are spending on it. Adding fuel to those flames are the Facebook Files, confirming our greatest fears. That social media can create and exacerbate its own set of stressors resulting in increased levels of anxiety and depression.
Keeping our teens physically healthy (free from infection) and mentally healthy (free from anxiety, depression, etc.) has been one of the greatest challenges of the past year. One of the biggest sources of stress for a parent is watching their child struggle with mental health issues. NIMH research shows 30% of kids between 13-18 have anxiety disorders. Research shows that 46% of parents report their teens have shown signs of new or worsening mental health conditions since March 2020.
Parents are also feeling the stress from the decline in economic conditions. They’ve experienced job loss, more stress, and demands at their jobs if they are front-line or service industry workers and over 5 million women left the workforce in 2020. This put enormous strain on families and there is currently no end in sight.
What Can We Do for Ourselves
Feeling overwhelmed as a parent is normal and comes with the territory. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent, so stay compassionate with yourself. If you are getting triggered often and tend to “react and regret”, this is a sign that you’re feeling out of control, anxious, and/or overwhelmed.
Self-care is not selfish! It’s actually one of the best things you can do for your family. Don’t settle for being stressed out and anxious all the time because it’s expected and normal. Your mental health can be contagious. Your feelings and emotions directly affect your kids and partner in a variety of ways affecting their own mental health. It helps everyone in the family if you rest and recharge your battery. You can’t give if your tank is empty. Your wellbeing is intrinsically important and essential to helping your children maintain their own mental health.
Schedule, Schedule + Schedule.
We can’t solve a problem we can’t see or are afraid to look at. A great way to identify your stressors is to look at the family’s schedule. Get a whiteboard, a Google calendar, whatever works for you. Then do a complete brain dump – writing down every appointment, practice, game, phone call, Zoom meeting – everything you need to do that week personally and professionally.
Then identify what is a priority, what is an unrealistic deadline, what can be delegated or moved to next week, and so on. Then make sure you add personal wellness and time to connect as a family – not where you find extra time because there likely is none. Schedule them as daily priorities.
This will help both of you maintain your connection even with little time. If you are still thinking about your workday or what needs to get done next, your child will sense it and you won’t internalize the same result. But by being present, you can fill your tank while you check in. Easier said than done!
What Can We Do for Our Children
Prioritizing our children’s mental health is not only essential for their well-being, but for the well-belling of parents as well.
As mentioned above, one of the leading causes of parental stress is watching their child in distress.
Identify + Alleviate Pressure Points.
If they are struggling academically or athletically because of a lack of preparedness due to the pandemic or otherwise, reduce the external pressure by lowering your expectations. This will help your child cope with the new landscape and challenges. Walk through their schedule with them to identify where they feel the most pressure and find better use of time to relieve it can create connection and help them prioritize. And if your child is a student-athlete and struggling academically, help them request credit for gym so they can have an extra study hall.
Keep the line of communication open. Kids can be reluctant to talk about things that make them feel uncomfortable whether it’s social media (external) or mental health (internal). Feelings of shame and fear around consequences can keep them from disclosing it. Ask questions with examples. Check-in frequently and get them talking.
Take a genuine interest in your child’s social life and social media accounts – what are they on, who are they talking to, how they feel after, and if they feel addicted. Help them find a supportive tribe, teach them how the “social media machine” works (e.g., “profit over people”), and build their self-esteem and confidence through validation at home so they aren’t seeking it externally.
Watch for signs of distress. Isolation, appetite, disordered eating, mood swings, drug and alcohol abuse, and self-harm are just a handful of signs your child is struggling. Incorporate preventative measures before your child has an issue (just like eating a healthy diet and exercising). Prevention can stave off the need for treatment of a chronic or acute condition. For instance, connect with a school counselor or have online support.
If your child is showing signs of distress, seek treatment sooner rather than later. Remember, mental health issues can be terminal if not treated.
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