Over the course of the pandemic, the biggest 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. “We thought early on that fear of getting sick would be the biggest source of stress,” he said, but as time went on, it was clear that parents struggling to meet their children’s basic needs were feeling the greatest ongoing emotional turmoil. Over 60 percent of caregivers who are experiencing extreme financial problems reported emotional distress, compared with just over 30 percent of caregivers who have no financial issues.
So what can parents do to help bolster their mental health in this time of difficulty? 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? The old coping mechanisms you had may not be available any time soon, so if you can even take a tiny break for yourself every day, that’s 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.
“Traditional therapy is fantastic,” but it’s not realistic or accessible for everybody, she added. Rimalower said asynchronous options like therapy apps that allow you to message therapists, rather than have a 50-minute video session, may be helpful for parents strapped for time.
Research shows that exercise (like that five-minute yoga video) and emotional connection (that simple text exchange) are also helpful in reducing stress. The RAPID-EC study found that high levels of emotional support, particularly from local sources, can help mitigate stress levels for families up and down the socioeconomic ladder, and that parents are finding a great deal of solace in their partners, parents and even their own 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.
Despite everything going on in the world, I can personally attest to the blissed-out feelings you can get from an unexpected midday snuggle with your sweet preschooler, who isn’t really thinking about anything except kittens and fighting with her sister right now.
Dr. Lakshmin encourages her patients to tap into new sources of meaning as a parent, whether that’s discovering pandemic-friendly ways to connect with your children, like early-morning bike rides, or creating moments to look forward to. “Little activities to plan can really break up the time,” she said, and be psychologically nourishing. I set up an at-home nail salon for my girls last weekend and it was so intimate and fun for all three of us.