Dr. Paul on struggles with parenthood during the pandemic

It’s especially challenging if you have kids with special needs, you’re single or are out of work.

In the pandemic, parents are taking a beating. I know my daughters are struggling. Both have two kids, each one with a preschool-age child and a baby.

My older daughter has been home with both children for months because of COVID-19. Playgrounds were closed and kid activities were shut down. She’s been unable to work, partly due to lack of access to childcare during the pandemic. My younger daughter’s 3-year-old has some developmental delays and hasn’t had access to physical therapy or speech therapy during the pandemic. My granddaughter has been home for the last year without being able to attend preschool due to COVID-19.

They’re not the only ones feeling the stress. “Mary” and “Bill” both work outside of their home. Their 14-year-old daughter, “Jill,” diagnosed with ADHD, is home learning remotely — or is she? Most of the time, she doesn’t complete any of her assignments, spends most of her time on screens or eating junk food.

Jill’s parents have made huge efforts to keep her on track, but when Mary and Bill get home, they’re faced with a kitchen that’s a complete mess and blank pages for homework assignments. Everyone feels worn down.

It’s not surprising that there’s growing national pressure to bring children back to their classrooms. Parents of kids with special needs, single parents, and parents who are struggling with job loss and financial insecurity are feeling especially challenged.

Mothers and fathers of teens are hurting, too. Adolescents are social beings that need contact with peers to develop normally. For a lot of teens, school is an important social opportunity. Remote learning doesn’t create opportunities to sit in the lunchroom with school buddies, bump into friends in the halls or make new friends through school activities.

To make matters worse, many parents are working from home. Too much togetherness between parents and adolescents makes for tension that’s likely to ignite short fuses. The results aren’t pretty.

While working from home does eliminate commuting time, it also results in more time cooking, more dishes in the sink and more mess around the house. The net effect is much more housework for parents to do. Add a few teenagers or toddlers into the mix, and you have a lot of cleaning up to do.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, four times as many women as men have left the workforce as a result of COVID-19. More women are at home keeping the kids busy while their husbands are working. At the same time, parents are less able to release pressure by visiting friends and relatives, going to the gym (they’ve been mostly closed), or simply going out for a cup of coffee.

It was much easier to get outside during the summer and fall. With winter in full bloom, it’s a recipe for increased stress.

So how can we cope?

Nurture realistic expectations. For many kids, this is not going to be a stellar school year. Kids are going to be spending more time playing video games or watching TV than during pre-pandemic years. We are all living together 24/7 — our homes are going to be messier than we might ordinarily like. We have to accept that we’re all making the best of a very difficult situation, and we can’t expect that we will excel. Our job is to get through it the best we can. We have to cut everyone, especially ourselves, some slack.

Take a time out. When you are feeling stressed, take a time out before you blow your cork. Take a walk around the block, turn on some loud music and have everyone take a dance break, sing, throw cold water on your face, do jumping jacks, make popcorn or roll on the floor. Get the tension out of your system!

Be patient. Be hopeful. Don’t sweat the small stuff. This too shall pass. At the end of the day, we will be stronger and tougher. We will look back on this time and recognize that we learned a lot about ourselves.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.

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