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Dealing with parenting stress during COVID-19

Last Modified: April 27, 2020

Healthy Mind

Fighting with kids

This post was written by Brandon T. McDaniel, PhD, research scientist, Parkview Mirro Center for Research and Innovation.

Why am I so stressed out all the time?

First, I just want to say it is OK for you to feel anxious, stressed, angry and more at this time. You don’t have to be perfect. We are all feeling this, and you are not alone!

This is a stressful time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our world upside down. Many of us are sheltering in place, missing our friends, family or other connections, missing out on events or trips we had looked forward to or worked hard for, scared for ourselves or others, anxious about our finances or other resources, and other emotions tied to the loss of our old normal.

Some of us have temporarily or even permanently lost our jobs. Others of us are working at home while trying to juggle children and other family concerns, or we are still going to work every day at the grocery store, post office, gas station, hospital, etc. with the added stress of finding childcare for our kids who were in school all day.

Are you taking care of yourself?

In a previous article, I wrote about how to help yourself and your child(ren) and about establishing a plan for self-care. I would suggest reading or reviewing that article as it is important that you care for yourself and your mental health. Otherwise, you won’t have emotional and physical resources to draw on when parenting gets hard. You need a self-care plan, and here are some more ideas on how to care for yourself.

Your child is reacting, too.

Besides your own stress, children’s lives have also changed in many ways (schools closing, missing friends, changes to routine and/or lack of structure, and more), and they are experiencing their own fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, loneliness, etc. So, if you have noticed a negative change in their behavior, that is completely normal.

Helping your child can help your stress level

Listen and validate their feelings
To help your child, you need to listen and validate their feelings. In the aforementioned article, I also talked about tips for emotion coaching your child (and here is a helpful video). I completely understand this is not always easy, especially when you are also stressed out, but I promise you that their behavior will be better if they feel listened to and understood, and this will make your life a little bit easier.

Children thrive on predictability and structure
Now, I’m not saying you need to have every minute planned for every day. You probably have a lot going on in your life and this just isn’t possible. Instead, I would suggest that you create at least some form of a daily routine with a consistent bedtime, some structured activities, breaks for fun and screen time (if you have young kids, make it a visual schedule).

Focus on high-quality screen time for your child
Try to avoid screen time as a babysitter, but it is understandable if screen time has increased. Sometimes you just have to use it to get things done. In those situations, I would focus on the quality of the screen time instead of the quantity. Here are some ideas for how to have high-quality screen time. Overall, try to make the screen time have a purpose and include interactive components.

What can I do to help myself not lose it with my kids?

Have you created a community of support for yourself?
Do you have people in your life who can support you through the hard times? It is going to be important that you have people around you (physically or virtually) who can help you to get through this.

Here are some ideas:

  • Make a list of supportive people you can reach out to in moments of distress.
  • Create a group text with friends/other parents.
  • Set up a regular daily video chat time with a friend or family member.
  • Join a parenting group on social media.

If you have established a community of support, then finding a way to reach out to those who can help you will work wonders in stressful situations. Often, we can’t see past our own emotions and stress which makes it difficult to come up with new ideas and ways out of our distress.

Stop the fights before they start
Are there certain things you almost always fight about with your kids? Think about whether there are things you can do ahead of time that would make the fights disappear. For example, if you always fight about your child getting on the TV or their tablet every morning, then take the TV remote or their tablet to your bedroom each night. This would reduce you having to “catch” them doing it again later and all the nagging and yelling.

Change your expectations
Sometimes, it is our expectations that cause us to get frustrated with our kids. Are we expecting too much out of them? Are we expecting them to hold it all together when it’s even hard for us right now? Are we expecting them to sit and listen too long without a break? Are we expecting them to be able to entertain themselves with no parent interaction for a long period of time?

Find what triggers you
We all have them. Things that trigger an explosion inside of us (and maybe outside sometimes, too), where the shark music turns on and the fireworks begin. For example, one of my triggers is feeling like no one is listening to me. You might have a trigger where being hungry or tired puts you on edge, being asked too many questions, being interrupted from work or when on a phone call, having a messy house, and the list could go on and on. Being aware of your triggers can help you prepare for those situations ahead of time.

Check your anger/anxiety level throughout the day
It is easier to calm down when you have not yet gotten to the “explosion” state. Set reminders on your phone or around your home (such as sticky notes) that will help you remember to think about how you are currently feeling.

If you notice that you are feeling tense, then do something to help yourself calm down, such as:

  • Take a break
  • Deep breaths in and out
  • Find someone to talk to
  • Text a friend
  • Write down your feelings
  • Get a drink of water
  • Go outside for a few minutes
  • Stretch

Again, it is easier to stop yourself from reaching the “explosion” zone than it is to calm down after you are overwhelmed and already exploding.

What do I do if I’m losing it right now with my kids?

If you just know you are going to lose it, then…

Take a time out
If possible, physically leave the space, and allow yourself to “lose it” or decompress away from your child. This can help you to not yell at or hurt your child in the moment.

It is also helpful if you have something that you typically do to help you calm down when you leave the space. You want to have decided on this beforehand, not in the moment! For example, some will go and squeeze a stress ball, some will give their spouse or partner a signal and have them handle the situation while they walk away, and so forth.

Time away from the child or the issue at hand can help to clear your head and allow you to think straight again. Sometimes, even just a few minutes can make all the difference.

Depending on the age of your child, you can also explain that you need to walk away and calm down and will be back in a few minutes.

If you know you are going to lose it and there is no way for you to get away, then some strategic and limited screen time for the kids right here might be a good way to go—that way you can get some time to yourself to calm down. Just remember that screen use can sometimes make children’s behavior worse once you turn the screen off, so if you have other activities you can have them do (such as art) that might be better. But if you just have to get away for a few minutes sometimes the screens are all you can emotionally do.

Ask for help
If you have a spouse, partner or another family member in the home with you, ask them to help you and let them know you’re about to blow. Again, it is much more helpful if you have talked with them beforehand about how times like this might happen so they know what to do or are at least a bit more prepared to help you.

Turn on calming music
This coupled with taking a break or asking for help could help to calm you down, and if you do it almost every time you get to your breaking point, it can serve as a reminder or trigger to your children that “Mom/Dad needs a break”.

If you are feeling completely overwhelmed and are wondering whether life is worth living anymore, please reach out for help through the Parkview Behavioral Health HelpLine at 260-373-7500 or 800-284-8439, anytime 24 hours a day, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or your employer’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP).


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