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June 16, 2020
Many people wish they could spend more time with their loved ones, but the COVID-19 crisis has pushed the concept of togetherness to new, often stressful, extremes.
Just a few short months ago, many parents and caregivers were able to strike a healthy balance between their work lives and their home lives. Many had put plans in place to find time for job tasks and the responsibilities related to raising children or helping aging family members. Many could find much-needed time for social activities or alone time. Now, normal routines have been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Suddenly being forced to stay at home is a major stressor,” said Christopher M. Palmer, MD, director of the Department of Postgraduate and Continuing Education at McLean Hospital. “For a lot of people, trying to transition from spending part of the day at work to staying at home all the time is difficult. When you add on top of it the responsibility of taking care of all these people in the house, it gets even more difficult.”
For those working at home, distractions are a major cause of stress. “It can be difficult to make the transition to working at home, but it can be even more difficult when children make noise or interrupt with a question,” Palmer said. “People find that they’re less productive.”
Did you miss Dr. Coyne’s recent webinar on tips for parents to help prevent burnout? Watch now on demand.
With the added distractions and increased responsibilities, many parents and caregivers are feeling like they are not living up to expectations, either as employees, caregivers, or both. “Most human beings are capable of doing a full-time job, staying productive for eight hours a day,” said Palmer. “But running a school and a day care center or helping a parent on top of that is more than people can handle. At the end of the day, it’s an unreasonable amount of responsibility.”
This can produce “a sense of being on this never-ending, rapidly running treadmill and still being disappointed in yourself every day because you’re not quite living up to anybody’s expectations,” he said. “People start to think they are not quite getting everything done that they’re supposed to be getting done or that they’re letting down their children or the other people that are depending on them.” This, Palmer said, “leads to this kind of chronic sense of frustration and lack of achievement.”
These feelings are even more pronounced in parents and caregivers who have had their work hours cut back or have lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic. “If I have four kids to take care of and I’ve been laid off and can’t pay my rent, I’m facing a different level of stress and with very different consequences than what’s facing a busy professional who’s now working from home.”
Even though “everyone is in a different boat these days,” Palmer said that all stress must be taken seriously. Parents and caregivers need to take steps to make sure they are doing right by their children, their loved ones, and themselves.
Here are some tips for parents and caregivers dealing with daily, ongoing stress.
Some people feel overwhelmed for good reasons, and they believe that the only way to manage it is to wait for things to go back to normal. If this is the case, the first step is to recognize that things may not go back to normal for a long time and feeling overwhelmed can make things worse. Ways to cope with these feelings include deep breathing, taking short breaks to clear your mind, meditating, and practicing mindfulness. Those who want something more active can try to distract themselves with another activity. “Personally, I’m a big fan of vigorous exercise when feeling overwhelmed,” said Palmer. “It gives me an outlet for my pent-up frustration and anxiety, and afterwards, I usually feel much better.”
Talk with others in the house about your need for some alone time. Then come up with a plan to achieve it. It might mean taking a walk or simply sitting out on the patio or balcony. If possible, you might be able to go to another room in the house to decompress, with clear instructions to everyone else that you are taking your break so that they know not to interrupt you. Talking about the need for self-care is important because you need the cooperation of everyone else in the house. You’re also modeling good coping strategies for your family and permitting them to talk about what they need.
Some parents want to protect their children and try to do everything. Unfortunately, this is a good way to burn out and become resentful of the other people in the home. Try to foster a team approach to running your home. Surprisingly, the other people in the home often do want to pitch in. In many ways, you’re doing them a favor by asking for their help. Everyone should feel like they are contributing to the household chores and tasks.
For caregivers, there are many virtual support groups available. For parents, the best supports are friends and family. If possible, ask people for help so that you can take a break or get things done. Recognize that taking care of yourself will make you better and more resilient, so let go of any guilt you might feel about asking for help.
In this time, it can be hard for kids, parents, and caretakers to feel safe. We’ve rounded up tips for both children and adults to deal with stress caused by the pandemic.
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