This post is part of a series that I am writing in response to reader requests on what topics will help them through this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic. You can find other posts in the series here.
I know from my interactions with readers and from what I read online that COVID-19 is causing stress for many families. I want to help as many families as possible with the best advice so I reached out to Dr Bron Harman is a families expert. Dr Bron has written on the blog before – you can check out her uber-popular post 10 Myths of Motherhood.
Dr Bron is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology, a consultant trained in community psychology, a mum and Doctor of Psychology. She has a unique combination of research informed and practice based knowledge of resilience, how people can build it, and how they can maintain it over the life course. I hope her excellent post below can help you if you are feeling stressed at the moment.
Nobody will deny that 2020 has been a very strange year. It seems that it was only a few months ago that we were exalting the arrival of a shiny new decade, full of promise. That all came crashing down in March as the realization of the gravity of COVID19 became apparent. This is the first time that most people have been faced with a global pandemic, and the anxiety is palpable.
Firstly, though, not everyone experiences the same levels of stress, because not everyone is faced with the same situation. While we are all experiencing a whole new world – pre-2020 or BV (Before Virus) versus 2020 onwards or AV (After Virus) – we all have different things to be stressed about, and different COVID conditions. For example, Victoria is experiencing total lockdowns due to increased numbers of infections and deaths, whereas there are very few restrictions in Western Australia, which has fewer active cases.
However, people in Western Australia might have family in Victoria, so while they are less concerned with their personal health, they are stressed about the health of others. Similarly, some people might not be stressed about the effects on young children (because they don’t have any), but they may be concerned for elderly parents.
Here are some things you might be stressing about, and suggestions for what you can do.
1. Your paid employment levels have changed (more/less)
One of the more obvious and immediate impacts of the pandemic is the sudden loss of employment as lockdowns are enforced. The lockdowns have meant many people in traditionally large areas of employment and consumer spending – hospitality, retail and travel – are not only earning less, they are spending less. Even people who have a steady income are spending less because services are no longer available, all leading to a slowing economy. While the Australian government has responded with payments such as increased Jobseeker and introduced Jobkeeper, people are not sure how long these monies will be accessible, so while the immediate stress is alleviated, the long term stress is not.
Conversely, others are seeing a huge increase in their paid employment hours, such as doctors, emergency response staff (nurses, paramedics, firefighters, and police, for example), and academics. People are loathe to complain (“at least I have a job”), yet the increased hours lead to increased stress. For example, I personally know some people who worked 12 to 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 4 months, with only two or three days off. This is not sustainable and contributes to stress.
What can you do? Please note that I am not a financial adviser. If you are experiencing financial hardship, please seek advice. In this situation, I would contact creditors, such as banks, energy providers, and telecommunication companies to see if you can enter into a financial arrangement. I am loathe to suggest that you look for ways to reduce expenditure, as many people already had little wriggle room prior to the pandemic, and belts can only be tightened so far.
Some suggestions that might work for you, though, are considering making more food from scratch (hence the recent phenomenon of the rise in the number of people who bake their own bread), grow vegetables, enter a bartering system with friends and neighbours, or joining with friends to buy groceries in bulk (and therefore spend less). If you are in the other camp of working increased and unrealistic hours, you need to stop and look at your own well-being. Exhausted doctors, for example, are more likely to make mistakes. Take time every day for you (this applies to everyone). What is it that makes you happy? Reading a book? Lighting a candle? Sitting in your garden? Do that.
2. Home schooling
One of the fallout responses from isolating is that many schools closed down face-to-face teaching and students became home schooled. This led to a huge number of parents who suddenly had to juggle not only their own commitments (such as working from home), but also their child’s schooling. First of all, HUGE shout out to all the teachers out there who virtually ditched everything they planned in February and turned it into online resources so quickly. Teachers are awesome! Which brings me to the point of asking why parents think they can become formal educators overnight, just because home schooling has been enforced (unless they are actual teachers, of course). Teaching requires several years of university training; teachers don’t get their awesomeness overnight.
Older children will pretty much monitor their own teaching requirements, so it is the younger ones who need watching. Remember that your child doesn’t have to be sitting in front of a computer to be learning. I’m a huge advocate for learning through play and allowing children to be bored, because boredom stimulates their imaginations and they learn independence. If parents are always entertaining children, how do they learn to entertain themselves? Some things you can do instead of sitting your child in front of a computer screen include planting seeds or seedlings, cooking cakes/baking bread, or going on a (socially distanced appropriate) walk (if that is permitted in the lockdown guidelines in your area). Get the junk mail out of the letterbox and make collages (cutting and pasting help develop motor skills) let your child help plan meals, put on music and dance.
Of course, parents are worried that children will miss out on academic skills because of home schooling. Firstly, this affects a whole cohort, not just your child. That is, it is likely that everyone is going to be equally disadvantaged. Secondly, I know people who do not know the difference between a noun and a verb, do not know their times tables, or have never read Hamlet, and they manage to function as adults (and function well as adults). Conversely, I know people who can tell you the difference between past tense and past participle (I see you all googling), can do long division in their heads, and have read all of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets (even the boring ones) and have no idea how to adult at all.
3. Children’s social development
With lockdowns and isolation, of course, come lack of social events for children, such as playdates with friends, or sleepovers, or attending day care or school, all of which help with children’s socialization. It is through these activities that children learn “rules” such as sharing or turn-taking. Parents, rightly, are concerned about the child’s lack of social development. One way around that is to have a Zoom buddy. Let your child “play” with friends via Zoom. It is not the same thing, but at least it allows your child to maintain friendships to some degree.
But wait! Isn’t too much screen time bad? No!! This is one of the great parenting myths. Screen time is only bad if it is replacing activities that would normally be undertaken, not if it is used as a facilitator for activities. Let’s use social activities as an example. Screen time in this instance would be bad if your child substituted playing a video game solo to avoid attending a social event such as a birthday party. If your child was watching mindless television, staring blankly at the screen, rather than playing outside, that would be bad screen time. In the example I gave – using Zoom to connect with friends – the screen isn’t being used to substitute an activity, it is being used to facilitate an activity that cannot be conducted face-to-face.
4. Anxiety in children
As the COVID conditions drag on, children are becoming more aware that something is amiss, that previously normal routines have fallen by the wayside. Older children might be hearing half-truths from their friends, as is so often the case, or snippets of the news, and might not fully grasp what is happening, whereas even older children may understand exactly what is happening and be stressed. In any case, it is our job as parents to help reduce anxiety in our children when we can.
I am a proponent for telling children the truth, but it should be an age appropriate truth. For example, you might tell a young child (5 years old): “There are some nasty bugs making people sick. We don’t know where the bugs are coming from, so we can’t see granny/play with your friends/go shopping until it is figured out, to make sure everyone stays safe”. With an older child (10 years old), you might say “We don’t know how the virus is spreading, so we are keeping everyone safe by staying home and not spreading it”. An even older child (15 years old) might be told: “I know it’s horrible being confined to home, but we need to keep people safe, and the best way to reduce infections is maintaining social distances, wearing a mask, and washing our hands”. In all cases, keep calm and do not make your child more anxious.
FOMO or fear of missing out, usually refers to missing out on something others are experiencing, but in this instance, I mean missing out on past experiences or cultural conventions that we normally follow. For example, we may be missing big things due to COVID restrictions, such as weddings, funerals, or the birth of close family members. If you are planning a wedding, consider postponing, or maybe get married and celebrate with a big party later, when restrictions are lifted. The problem with that, of course, is that we don’t know when that might be, so you might have to face the prospect of having guests join in via Zoom, having fewer people in attendance, and/or postponing indefinitely.
Of course, you can’t postpone deaths or births indefinitely, so you need to think of other options. Maybe you could do something to celebrate the life – whether that is a death or a birth – such as planting a tree. Perhaps you can utilize technology, such as attending a virtual funeral via Zoom or talking to grandchildren via Facetime. Neither of these activities are as good as the real life options, but there is very little choice when there are lockdowns.
As COVID conditions have already been imposed for around six months, you have probably already missed celebrating important events such as birthdays, anniversaries and Mother’s Day in the way you would have previously celebrated. I know a lot of people who sacrificed years of their lives to get a degree who are now unable to celebrate at a formal graduation ceremony. And heads up, Christmas is just months away, and we will probably have to rethink how that will be celebrated this year. Instead of lamenting what we cannot do, however, look at this as an opportunity to start new traditions.
6. Additional stress relief strategies
One thing you might need to consider is what to do when normal stress relief tactics are not available. You need to decide whether you find another way to pursue that activity, or you might have to adopt another stress relief strategy. For example, you might alleviate stress by doing some long distance running. If lockdown conditions prevent this, you need to consider whether doing 100 laps of your driveway or 300 laps of your balcony will have the same stress relieving effect. If you cannot attend your normal yoga class, will attending a virtual class be a good substitute? Some alternative stress relief ideas include bread making (pummeling the dough is very therapeutic), lighting scented candles (especially lavender), buying and using a boxing bag and/or weights, meditation, and reading for pleasure.
7. Explaining everything to grandparents
Some grandparents are finding the home isolation thing really difficult. They don’t understand why they can’t hug the children, or why you don’t visit. This is exacerbated if the grandparent has underlying health issues such as dementia, or if visits were frequent prior to COVID. Grandparents often play an important role in the lives of grandchildren, so you might need to think of alternative strategies. Examples include: having a grandparent read a bedtime story via Zoom; waving from the bottom of the driveway; sending an old fashioned letter via snail mail; covering a photo in clear contact and cutting it into jigsaw pieces; and, making cake or muffins and leaving them on the doorstep.
8. Working from home
Working from home was fun for some people at the beginning – no early morning commute, no need to brush your hair, no need to wear pants – but the novelty has worn thin. For others, it was never fun as parents had to juggle the roles of paid employment, parenting, and formal educator. Parenting has never been a 24/7 job. Even before the advent of day care and formal schooling, children were co-parented informally by the community through playdates, visiting grandparents, or roaming the neighbourhood unsupervised. With COVID conditions, parenting has suddenly become an endless constant task, so it’s no wonder parents are stressed.
The other issue around working from home is that there is an increasingly blurred line between home and work, where the two areas are less distinct. This means that we are never quite free from work and we find it hard to switch off. Ultimately, this affects our home life as we increasingly feel the need to be always on call. Some tips to avoid this include: maintaining office hours; take your breaks, such as a half hour for lunch, or an hour if that’s what you would do at the office; don’t take phone calls out of hours (including your lunch break); and, have a distinct work area set up, separate from your “home” area.
From Nic – you can find some of my strategies on working from home with the kids here – Managing working from home and home learning with the kids.
9. Maintaining “good” parenting
Parents are socialized to believe there is a “right” way to parent, and by default, there is a “wrong” way to parent. Effectively, we are led to believe in “good’ parents and “bad” parents. We are ‘taught’ how to parent from a few sources, mostly our family and peers, professionals, society, and social media.
As our face-to-face interactions decrease as isolation increases, we come to rely more on social media for cues on “good” parenting. Remember though, that people on social media only let you see what they want you to see. The people in Instagramworld, Facebookland, and the Twitterverse are not real, and they encourage and maintain unrealistic parenting goals and expectations. It’s difficult, but trust your own parenting abilities and decisions about your child.
10. The Great Unknown: how long will it last?
We have no idea how long the pandemic will last, and that is stressful in itself. We are at the mercy of the great unknown. We don’t know when we will be in total lockdown, when there will be a vaccine, if there will be a vaccine, when we will see loved ones again. The feeling of being out of control of our own lives, our own immediate future, is a great source of stress. I often hear people say “when things get back to normal”, and my bad news is that I believe we wont ever get back to “normal”. This is the new ‘normal”. I question whether we really want to go back to the old normal, anyway, that’s what got us to where we are.
Remember, it’s not all bad! There is anecdotal evidence that families are talking more and bonding more, there are increased enrolments in online courses as people upskill, people are eating better, and the earth is healing. Try to look at the good, not focus on the bad.
Dr Bron Harman is a families expert, whose passion is to convince parents that they are awesome. Online workshops are available on request – www.drbronharman.com. Follow her antics on Twitter @DrBron.