As the country reopens and summer begins, each family faces new and difficult decisions about how to stay safe. Is day camp too risky? Can we visit the grandparents? Should our teenagers be trusted to socialize safely? Plus, there are still huge uncertainties about the future. What will school look like in the fall? Will jobs come back?
With no clear road map and so many difficult and confusing choices to make, even parents who’ve been able to manage anxiety in the past may be struggling now.
“There’s a myth that because everybody is having a hard time, your stress doesn’t count,” says Rachel Busman, PsyD, head of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. “But that’s not true.”
Figuring out how to manage anxiety and tolerate uncertainty are important skills for everyone, but for parents, they’re even more essential. Among other things, anxiety typically causes us to lose our cool more frequently. And with our kids close by 24/7, they’re watching, and often copying, our every move.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for anxiety, but there are some general strategies you can customize to manage your specific challenges.
Focus on what you can control
“Uncertainty is really uncomfortable,” says Dr. Busman. “Uncertainty and this situation are not good friends, but they’re forced to cohabitate.” The impulse to try to force things to be more certain is strong but, she says, in the end it’s a waste of energy. “It’s very exhausting and ultimately, you’re not going win.”
Instead, Dr. Busman suggests practicing acceptance. There will be practical solutions to some problems, but others, such as how to prepare your child for school in the fall, are impossible to solve because no one knows what school will actually look like. “Acknowledge that you wish you knew what the future holds, but the reality is that you don’t. So you can’t make a decision right now. You’ll make it when you have all of the information you need.”
Likewise, Dr. Busman suggests avoiding catastrophic thinking by talking yourself down from worst-case scenarios. Taking a very rational approach, she says, can be a big help when you are feeling powerless against anxiety.
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Use skills to assess risks
It can feel like there’s never been a harder time to be a parent, but the day-to-day work of raising children means many of us actually have a head start on building skills to manage anxiety. Parents are constantly assessing risks before making decisions, notes Janine Domingues, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.
It not only enables us to make those day-to-day choices, it also lowers anxiety. Many of the stressful decisions we’re facing now can be handled the same way you are used to, even if the stakes feel higher.
“Parents already have the skills to take a step back and look at things from a practical perspective,” she says. And those skills can make it easier to navigate important decisions with a clear head. For example, if your child is desperate to see friends, gather as much information as you can. Are all kids willing to wear masks? Is there a safe place for them to meet outdoors? Has anyone been ill? This will allow you to weigh the pros (happy kid) and cons (possibility of getting sick) and make a reasonable, informed decision.
In times of extreme stress, people who have solid social support are less likely to feel traumatized and overwhelmed. So if you’ve been disconnected from your social circle, it’s time to reconnect. You don’t need to recreate the full social life you had prior to the pandemic, just select a few people. Reach out (virtually — or cautiously) to close friends who will listen and support you, as well as people who can make you laugh and take your mind off of the angst in your life.
“When we look at long-term outcomes, we know that people who fare best are those who feel supported and connected to others,” Dr. Busman explains. “So while you’re trying to navigate through everything, do the best you can to connect with others.”
Make a plan to stay in touch with people you enjoy, but be realistic. If the thought of another family Zoom call is too overwhelming, or if you’re just not up to that virtual book club you signed up for, that’s okay. Instead, aim for a few chats with friends, family or colleagues who can help you relax — and maybe even laugh — after an exhausting or especially stressful day.
Be transparent about ground rules
If you’re worried about seeing friends in person because they may not have the same opinion on social distancing or masks, the best way to get over your anxiety is to take the conversational leap.
“Don’t assume you know what the other person is thinking,” Dr. Domingues recommends. “Instead, throw it out there and open up the conversation.”
She advises being clear and concise by saying something like, “We really want to see you, and this is what we’re thinking. What are your thoughts?”
Practice setting boundaries, even when it feels uncomfortable. For example, if friends aren’t practicing the same level of caution, explain that you won’t be able to see them until you feel confident there’s no risk of infection. Similarly, if somebody gets too close when you’re outside, it’s totally okay to politely ask them to step back. Consider it a new social norm.
Take breaks when you need them
Untreated anxiety can make you feel irritable and overwhelmed. If your child is bombarding you with questions during the middle of an important work assignment or at the end of a long day, you may find yourself snapping at them.
It can help to take a step back, and a breath, before responding.
“Tell your child you need a few minutes and go into your bedroom,” Dr. Busman advises. She suggests using mindfulness techniques, like deep breathing, to help yourself calm down.
“Take five deep breaths and then consider the cause of your stress,” she recommends. “Are you actually feeling overwhelmed by their questions, or are you too busy or exhausted to manage their request? Ask yourself if there is something you can do right now — is the anxiety within your control or out of your control? Do you have the bandwidth to help your child right now? Maybe you need to finish your work or eat dinner first.”
Explain that you’re overwhelmed (or use the words “feeling big emotions” for younger children) and you need to take some deep breaths, complete your work or relax before you can help them. Assure them this isn’t their fault. Not only will you feel less stressed, but you’re also modeling the right way to manage anxiety and convey your feelings to others.
If you did yell at your kids, Dr. Domingues says not to worry — it happens to everyone. Instead, model how to repair the problem. Tell your child how you were feeling, say what you should have done instead — like take deep breaths — and emphasize that you’re sorry.
Don’t hesitate to seek help
“Even though this is a very stressful time for most people, it doesn’t mean that you don’t need help if you’re struggling,” says Dr. Busman. If you’ve tried informal strategies and they aren’t working, she recommends finding a professional. Many are seeing patients through either telehealth or in-person sessions with precautions.
“If you’re having persistent sleep, mood or appetite changes, withdrawing from others or constantly ruminating over the same thoughts, then it might be an indication that you need some outside help,” she adds. “You don’t have to suffer unnecessarily, and treatment for anxiety can be very solution-focused.”
Anxiety is common, but it doesn’t have to be a part of your new normal.