Student Stress and Pandemic Parenting: Coping with the thoughts and emotions

How to cope and balance life during the pandemic

07 July 2020

loveDear Maddi,
I am a mature student with young children at home.  Now that all my classes are online, I have no quiet place to do my studies.  Also, I am trying to homeschool my children.  Help!

Signed, Overwhelmed

Dear Overwhelmed,

This is a difficult time for most students, but some face additional challenges.  Trying to balance academic demands with the stresses of parenting is a balancing act at the best of time… let alone trying to figure out how to do so in the midst of a global pandemic!

Although there are lots of tips out there on how to best homeschool your children and create household routines, I would like to take this opportunity to speak to what you can do to manage the emotions which may come up, and also how to challenge thoughts which may be increasing your distress during this time of personal, academic and global chaos.

Emotions are running high for many people during the stress of social isolation and the worries that come with hearing about the impacts of COVID-19.  One thing to be aware of is that there is no “right” way to feel right now.  Anger, sadness, shock and anxiety are totally normal, as you process what it means to have your life up-ended.  Alternatively, you might feel relief or comfort to be spending extra time with your children at home.  We don’t get to pick and choose which emotions we will experience at this turbulent time…  The feelings just show up, often in confusing combinations of positive and negative!  That’s okay.  Know that the feelings will come, shift, and eventually go.  Trust that you don’t have to rush away or block out the negative emotions, and you also don’t have to feel guilty for having some positive feelings.  Give yourself permission to be human right now.  If you don’t notice any emotions, you may be in a stage of numbness.  This is how some minds cope with the initial shock of the crisis.  Be patient with yourself, and you will gradually notice some emotions returning.

Just as you are likely having some strong or confusing feelings, your children are in the same boat!  Having to suddenly leave school without saying goodbye to teachers and friends can bring about lots of emotions for young children, and again, the feelings could be positive, negative or (more likely) mixed.  You can give your children the message that it’s okay to have different emotions, and also let them know “no feeling is final.”  This means that even if they feel sad, upset, angry or lonely, their emotions will eventually change, and they will feel some happier feelings again.  This is a time to have extra understanding for emotional outbursts from your children.  They will have experienced many hurts, disappointments and losses, and sometimes regressive behaviour, limit-testing and tantrums can happen.  This is not a sign that you are doing anything wrong as a parent…  And there is nothing wrong with your child, either!  Everyone is coping the best they can, and it’s normal to feel out of sync sometimes, as you may be feeling different from those closest to you at times.

Just as emotions can vary widely and shift rapidly, so your thoughts and the thoughts of your children may be affected by the uncertainty of the current situation.  The following is a list of common thoughts which children and adults experience during tough times, and how to challenge the thoughts to make them more balanced and realistic.

“It is hopeless.”  This is a scary thought to have, and it will likely increase your anxiety.  It may also make you feel less motivated to try and improve your situation.  When you have this thought, try challenging it.  Consider if you can find any small sign of hope, no matter how tiny.  Think about how you have coped with previous challenges and come through them.  When you find yourself thinking it’s hopeless, see if you can replace it with a more balanced thought.  An example could be, “No one knows exactly what could happen.  If I can’t handle looking into the future, I can make my present better by taking a small step forward.”  When your children make hopeless comments, see if you can help them replace the thought with a more balanced perspective.

“This isn’t fair.”  This is a difficult thought to challenge… because it’s very true!  Nothing about the pandemic is fair.  No one wanted this, and we are all facing varying degrees of inconvenience, fear, and outright suffering.  So how can we cope with this true thought?  It may be helpful to consider how unfair many aspects of life are and to think about how we have approached unfair circumstances in the past. When you have thoughts about the injustice of the pandemic, try acknowledging the thought, while also seeing if you can find a way to cope with it.  For example, reminding yourself, “COVID-19 is unfair to me, and also to everyone in the world coping with it.  I’m not alone.”  Tell your children, “The virus isn’t fair, but we can still do things to make our lives better every day.”

“I can’t stand this.”  Although this thought often comes up for being during times of suffering, it is not generally reflective of reality.  You and your children have coped with difficulties in the past, and you are still here today.  Try replacing the thought with a more realistic and truthful statement, such as, “I hate this situation, but I am coping with it as well as I can.  I don’t have to like it in order to survive it.”

The final tip for coping is to be gentle with yourself and your children.  Remember that the whole world has been thrown into chaos.  You may need to temporarily lower your standards, in order to give yourself a break and avoid unnecessary family conflict.  It’s okay if the vacuuming gets done a few days late if the children are allowed more screen time than usual, if there are a few meals which are not perfectly balanced or if you can’t get done your course readings with your usual speed and level of concentration.  We must all focus on our main priority, which is keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe and healthy.  The other matters can be attended to in good time. 

Be understanding with yourself, and with others, as much as you can, and use a compassionate lens when looking at your family in these difficult days.  Now go and hug your kids… you could all use it!