Working parents are living through not merely a global pandemic but a new version of the work/life balance conundrum. Parents of school-age children all over the country are trying to manage distance learning for their kids while also keeping up with work obligations and maintaining their sanity. As psychologist Heather Beckett puts it, we’re amid a COVID-induced work/life muddle that is unlike anything we’ve experienced before.
The American Psychological Association acknowledges this crisis creates “extreme stress” and highlights that parents are reporting significantly higher stress levels than their nonparent counterparts. Recent data suggests that Google searches have shifted away from concerns around COVID itself at the beginning of the pandemic to how we can deal with everything else that comes with it.
All working parents know this is hard, but what can we actually do to make ourselves feel better? Popular go-to stress management approaches encourage us to take up meditation, start doing more yoga, or peacefully inhale a few deep breaths to recenter ourselves. Yet when the pressure is mounting, the to-do list is never-ending, and you have a child in the background playing a recorder poorly during an online music class, being encouraged to take a deep breath or stretch it out does not feel useful. It’s like telling an enraged human to calm down—it’s unlikely to be received well. Practical approaches that make a noticeable difference are what we’re all craving.
During my training as a psychologist, I focused my research on stress management and well-being. I have since coached and trained thousands of individuals on how they can proactively manage the demands in their lives, and avoid falling into a pit of overwhelm and despair when the pressure comes on. Knowing the theory is great, but in reality, application matters more. During this bizarre year, I’ve had to personally apply my expertise to cope with the extra stressors, as I’ve navigated increasing client loads while also being the primary caregiver to 6- and 8-year-old boys.
As a working parent during COVID, these are the three areas I have focused on to help increase my self-awareness, build my resilience, and maintain my focus.
Making a plan
When we’re experiencing high pressure levels, our first go-to should always be to manage, mitigate, or reduce that pressure directly. This is referred to as problem-focused coping. These are active strategies that deal directly with the demands we face and focus on what we are actually going to do about it.
A little forethought into schedules and preparing for upcoming demands reduces the high-stress moments that can otherwise send us around the bend. Planning might look like taking a glance at your week before you launch in and mapping out where you will likely fit in key-work blocks. Or a simple stress-relieving hack is to create a weekly dinner plan, so that you aren’t on the back foot at the end of the day, scurrying around, trying to work out what to eat.
Planning helps you psychologically prepare for the demands you’re facing and put a strategy in place to know what it will take to get it done or identify where you might need help. It keeps you on your front foot and minimizes the risk that you’ll end up in the stressful predicament of trying to play catch up further down the road.
Avoiding bad habits
Not all coping strategies are made equal. Some are adaptive, while others are maladaptive. When we cannot control the pressure we’re experiencing directly, we have to draw from our emotional energy stores and simply cope with it. This is called emotion-focused coping.
Self-care and social connection are positive and adaptive methods that restore our emotional energy. They fill us up and give us the energy to deal with another day. And while I’m all for refilling our cups, research from early in the pandemic suggests that people are using more maladaptive coping strategies, such as numbing and avoidance, than adaptive strategies to deal with the COVID-19 pressures.
As humans, when we can’t escape the pressure, we will naturally find a way to deal with it. When we’re feeling taxed, we often turn toward quick relievers that make us feel good in the short-term but undermine our emotional energy in the longer run. Examples of such maladaptive strategies may include drinking alcohol or abusing other substances, numbing out on social media, or overeating. They make us feel good in the moment, but ultimately harm us and erode our resilience in the longer term. Being conscious and honest about our coping habits helps us turn away from the strategies that will likely only bring us further down and towards those which are nourishing.
Mindset plays a crucial role in our ability to resist stress. How we perceive the pressure we are experiencing impacts how we cope with it. Recent research indicates that how difficult a parent perceives quarantine to be is a crucial factor that impacts both parent’s and children’s well-being. Simply put, if we are continually evaluating a situation as too much, or something we hate or don’t want, we won’t deal with it as well. We’re too busy using up our emotional strength on resisting what merely is and are more likely to end up stressed and overwhelmed.
One of the greatest hacks to our perception that is also associated with our overall well-being is gratitude. While more recently, the positive psychology movement has highlighted the power of gratitude, our wisdom and spiritual traditions have always valued it. When we intentionally shift our focus to what we still have to be thankful for, we pull the energy away from all the things we’re not happy about or wish were different. Then we feel happier in our hearts, minds, and spirits. It shifts the lens through which we are viewing our situation and enables us to cope better.
A simple way to do this is to foster a daily practice of bringing to mind what you are grateful for. It can sound like a chore, but three minutes when you first sit at your desk and open your computer can shift your perspective for hours to come. While a quick and dirty “10 things you’re grateful for” list can help as an emergency perception shifter when you really need to refocus, it is even better if you make it a daily practice and weave it into your routine.
Kate Snowise (MS Psychology) is an executive coach and stress management expert, who helps leaders create balanced and fulfilling careers. To find out more, head to www.thrive.how.