A parent works at home on his laptop with his child tugging at his tie.
At-home setups for work and school have been a stressor for parents and children alike—but parents can help set the tone by laying out realistic expectations. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

How can I do my job and also help my kids with virtual school?

How can I protect my family from getting COVID-19?

Are my kids doing OK emotionally in the face of all the changes in their lives?

The global COVID-19 pandemic has loaded extra stress on everyone, regardless of their place in life.

The negative mental health effects of COVID-19 will be serious and long-lasting—but American parents of teenagers and young children are feeling significantly higher levels of stress than adults without children, according to the American Psychological Association.

Their pandemic worries are generally related to education, meeting their family’s basic needs, access to health care services and missing out on major milestones.

And to make it worse—kids notice.

“They pick up on our stress,” said Melanie Grube, a licensed social worker with Spectrum Health Medical Group Psychiatry & Behavioral Medicine. “Generally, if the parents are managing well, the kids are managing well. And if parents are stressed and overwhelmed, the kids are stressed and overwhelmed.”

But as a parent of young children herself, Grube knows quite well that conversations about stress management can sometimes have the unintended effect of actually stressing parents out even more.

“It’s a hard time to be a parent right now,” Grube said.

She’s here to offer helpful tips to parents as they weather these difficult times.

Take care of yourself first

It might feel impossible with all the pressure on parents’ time and attention right now, but Grube said it’s imperative for them to take time for themselves.

“It could be taking a bubble bath and shutting the door and not letting anyone in,” she said.

Find the thing that allows you to relax and restores your energy and make time for it on a regular basis, she said. Maybe it’s exercise, time to read, watching a favorite show—something to allow you to disconnect from your kids for a little while.

“There are going to be goals you’re not going to reach because you just can’t right now,” Grube said. “It might be more important to sit down and watch Netflix or do whatever it is that puts you in your happy place.”

Find what works for you—and don’t apologize for that.

“Know what self-care looks like for you,” she said. “It’s not the same for everyone and, as long as it’s not hurting you, it’s not a bad thing.”

Set realistic standards

Grube said parents might need to give up on some expectations of what they should be doing for their families.

Early on in the pandemic, some parents had high hopes for what they were going to accomplish with their kids at home, Grube said. But now, 10 months in, it’s time to be realistic.

“That’s out the window now,” Grube said. “Tell yourself that it’s not going to all get done and it’s not going to be perfect. Accept the fact that things are a mess right now.”

Manage expectations

Accept what you can’t change and take control where you can.

Many parents feel burdened by all the things they cannot control right now—disrupted school schedules, canceled plans and more, Grube said.

Accepting the fact that we cannot control a lot of factors can in fact give us more power over situations, she said.

We can control how we react to things, for instance, or how we choose to spend an evening at home with our children.

“Even the choice over whether I make pasta or sandwiches tonight,” Grube said. “It’s not a lot of control, but it’s something.”

Communicate openly

It’s important to find age-appropriate ways to communicate with your children about the struggles you, and they, face right now, Grube said.

“You can tell them, ‘Yes, this is a really difficult situation and we’re all doing our best,’” she said. “Keep that communication open.”

If they are disappointed about canceled plans or missed milestones, acknowledge that and help them process their feelings.

“Maybe say, ‘It’s disappointing that things did not go the way we wanted, but we have to do the best with what we have. It is stressful and it’s OK to be stressed. But how can we manage it, accept it and find a way to move forward?’” Grube said.

Teach your kids it’s OK to be sad and to struggle. Teach them they don’t have to stuff those feelings.

“Being resilient doesn’t mean it’s not going to be hard,” she said.

Get help where you can

Grube urged parents to not try to go it alone.

“You have to rely on other people as much as you can in a pandemic,” she said.

Try to find support in a safe way, perhaps from a spouse or co-parent, or another family member or close friend.

And remember it’s OK to turn to a mental health professional for help.

“I think almost anyone could benefit from therapy at this time,” Grube said. “Anyone would qualify for having an adjustment disorder right now because they’re in the middle of a global pandemic.”

An adjustment disorder refers to a person having a difficult reaction, triggered by a stressful life event or a change in one’s life, she said.

No matter what, the message Grube wants parents to hear loud and clear right now: “Don’t be too hard on yourself.”