With COVID-19 (and now summer break) keeping kids home from school and many parents either required to work from home or out of work altogether, families throughout our community—and, indeed, all over the world—are experiencing a degree of stress that most have never encountered before. Many are struggling to cope with this “new normal,” and it’s having a significant impact on family dynamics.
According to Michele Knox, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the University of Toledo Medical Center and author of Clinician’s Toolkit for Children’s Behavioral Health*, research conducted in the early weeks of the pandemic found an increase in the rate of negative parent-child interactions, higher levels of parenting stress, as well as higher rates of harsh discipline such as yelling at and hitting children. “Now, weeks and weeks have passed with no end in sight, so the situation is likely to get worse,” she adds.
Dr. Knox explains that several factors are contributing to this stressful situation. For many parents, the biggest challenge is the greater degree of multitasking—the multiple responsibilities they now have to fulfill in addition to normal parenting. While grappling with financial uncertainty, figuring out how to get groceries, and handling all the other aspects of daily living in the midst of a pandemic, parents have suddenly found themselves thrust into unexpected roles such as teacher, behavior manager, and remote employee. Some also have to worry about keeping a sick or vulnerable family member isolated from others. “Parents are finding they’re more frustrated and having more negative interactions, not just with younger kids, but also with teenagers. Many who are now working at home report that they’re highly distracted, especially by the constant demands and interruptions of young children, and feel they are less-productive employees as a result,” she says.
Furthermore, stay-at-home orders and social distancing mean that parents can’t necessarily turn to grandparents, babysitters, daycare workers, or other individuals for assistance with childcare responsibilities. Spending more time in isolation with children with no opportunity for respite while fretting about the economic future adds stress on top of stress for parents.
Of course, kids are grappling with confusing new feelings as well. Dr. Knox states that loneliness and boredom are the emotions kids most commonly report. Many of them are also stressed and frustrated at having to use different teleconferencing platforms for schoolwork as well as being unable to understand assignments yet having limited access to their teachers for clarification. Plus, little kids tend to pick up on the stress level exhibited by their parents.
Quarantine can be especially challenging for teenagers, who are essentially being forced to ignore their social and biological imperatives. “Teens are genuinely compelled to be with peers at this point in their lives so they can begin to develop vital social skills and build relationships,” Dr. Knox says. “It can be extremely difficult for them to be prevented from doing what their instincts are urging them to do. Keeping them at home when they’re experiencing that pull to interact with peers can lead to or intensify negative interactions between teens and their parents.”
During this challenging time, Dr. Knox reminds parents that it’s important to take care of themselves and learn to recognize the signs of stress, such as increased heart rate, muscle tension, and headaches. It’s also essential for parents to find opportunities to relax and get away from stressful situations with their kids, which can be a simple as going into another room, sitting or lying down, and taking deep breaths. She also emphasizes that with the advent of telehealth technology, it’s now possible to connect with a therapist right from the comfort of your own home. “Everyone needs a therapist at some point in their lives, so I encourage parents to reach out for help if they feel they need it and before a crisis arises. Mental health resource providers are often very well versed in parenting support and helping with behavior management,” she says.
In addition to telepsychology and outpatient counseling services, there are numerous other resources to help reduce parenting stress. One is the ACT Raising Safe Kids program developed by the American Psychological Association and focused on parents and caregivers of children from birth to age 10. Parents in the program learn to increase their own nurturing behaviors, set developmentally appropriate expectations for their children’s behavior, manage and understand their own anger, help their children learn to manage their anger, and use nonviolent discipline and positive conflict resolution.
ACT programs are offered locally at the Family and Child Abuse Prevention Center at 2460 Cherry Street in Toledo (419-292-2927) and the Children’s Resource Center at 1045 Klotz Road in Bowling Green (crcwoodcounty.org, 419-352-7588). A third ACT group is offered specifically for parents in the Toledo Public Schools (419-671-0834).
Dr. Knox also notes that grandparents or other relatives who are rearing children in their extended family might benefit from the Kinship Navigator Program through the Area Office on Aging of Northwest Ohio, which offers training on the technology that kids must use to complete their schoolwork while in quarantine. The program can be reached at 419-382-0624.
If there is violence or abuse in your household, or you are struggling to cope with stress or your emotions, Dr. Knox urges you to consider these resources: the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline (all calls are confidential): 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453), and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). A crisis counselor can also be reached by texting CONNECT to 741741.
Parents struggling with child/teen behavior problems can call the UTMC Department of Psychiatry Child Division. Outpatient services include evaluation, medication management, counseling, and parental guidance. Inpatient services for teens in mental health crisis are also available at UTMC’s Kobacker Center. To make a referral, call 419-383-3815.
*Clinician’s Toolkit for Children’s Behavioral Health provides evidence-based advice for health and mental health care providers about common childhood and adolescent problems that are commonly addressed at patient appointments, such as media use and screen time, tantrums and behavior problems, sleep problems, potty training, overweight/obesity, discipline and punishment, typical and atypical sexual behaviors, bullying, education/school problems, working with parents, etc.