Endemic Parenting Stress
COVID-19 is becoming endemic. It will not go away, but we will learn to live with and manage it. What does this mean for the parenting stress that has settled in among families—and grabbed headlines—for the past two years during the COVID-19 pandemic? Will that pressure also wanes but not entirely disappear? Will we finally begin to address parenting stress as a complex and dynamic system of interacting factors?
Pandemic or no pandemic, parenting is challenging. Even as going to school, working in offices, socializing, and participating in activities resumes, a majority of parents, 55%, say their heightened stress continues.
Dads significantly recognize what they psychologically need from parenting for their well-being. In a 2021 survey, the American Psychological Association found that more dads (82%) said they could have used additional emotional support during the pandemic than mothers (68%). Also, more dads in the survey received with mental health disorders (29% vs. 19%).
Factors influencing parental stress
As a dynamic system, parenting stress is insufficiently understood when viewed through a lens of blame or praise for an individual. Emotional situations and contexts and an array of intertwined factors shape parenting stress and their coping strategies.
Parenting stress occurs when the demands of child-rearing outweigh your capacities and overwhelm any rewards you may otherwise feel like a mom or dad.
But meeting these demands is not a test of your character. Instead, your responses to requests are based on a slew of interwoven factors that include but are not limited to cultural pressures, work demands, community support, financial security, and your child’s behavior.
To be sure, these factors have solid social and structural components. A team of experts from the Council on Contemporary Families found that out of 22 developed countries, the U.S. has the most significant gap in happiness between people who are parents and those who are not. Parents are significantly more unhappy than their counterparts who do not have children. And the reason is societal. Of all 22 countries in the study, the U.S. has the fewest and weakest social policies allowing parents to combine better-paid work with family obligations. Countries with strong social policies do not have this happiness gap.
Policies, hopefully, will be forthcoming. In the meantime, it’s essential to keep the dynamic factors affecting stress in balance.
Learning to recognize and understand these factors can help. So can consulting with mental health professionals, and they have deep knowledge about these factors and ways to personalize coping strategies to specific situations.
When it comes to cultural pressures affecting stress, the elephant in the room is “intensive parenting” — the prevailing child-rearing norm. Now almost equally shared among all socio-economic groups alike, it may tacitly drive you to give 24/7 attention and resources to your children’s free time, emotions and behavior. The belief is that with this kind of help, the children will have a fighting chance (or better) to succeed academically, developmentally, financially, and professionally.
This norm fits the insecurity and disparities of our cultural times. But as one family consultant told The Washington Post, “We’re giving so much of ourselves to these tiny humans that we end up crashing and burning, and anxiety spikes, and then we can’t show up as our full selves.” Parents can get caught in and exhausted by this frantic pace and sharp focus on activities, enrichments, extracurriculars, oversight, and worries. The result is that they forget they have a choice about what mindset to apply to child-rearing.
What you may consider doing: You might consider other mindsets, such as natural growth parenting approaches or some blend of natural growth and intensive parenting.
With these approaches, you would say: Let children have time to themselves and make decisions independently. Let them have space to feel things like frustration and disappointment. Let them figure out and put together their toolboxes for coping. Let them deal with free time without you orchestrating regular play dates.
Disengaging in these ways is bold because it runs counter to cultural pressures. It takes a lot of planning and self-control, and it brings clarity about what you’ll be in charge of and what you’ll delegate – really delegate! – to others with a clean conscience.
But on the upside, it fosters independence in children, and it ratchets down parenting stress.
Not surprisingly, experts see more moms and dads turn toward such lower monitoring
Work-family conflicts are a huge stressor. In the U. S. today, 70% of mothers and 93% of fathers who have children under 18 are in the workforce. When work and family demands conflict, your risk spikes for experiencing distress, marital/partner discord, and negative impacts on children.
It boils down to time: Having enough time for both work and children. It means having reliable and desirable child care arrangements and a predictable daily structure – at work and at home - that fits your needs for convenience, price, quality, and well-being.
Disruptions exacerbate stress. And, as mentioned earlier, with our society’s dearth of social policies, moms and dads themselves must take on much of the burden of balancing work and home. That means fending for oneself in the face of workplace regulations and inflexibilities in scheduling, economic insecurity, or elusive resources for help.
You may consider doing this: The good news is that feeling rewarded for correctly parenting affects performance at work, and feeling good about the quality of work positively impacts home life and reduces stress.
Therefore, recasting your attention to focus intensely on rewards from your work and family can ramp up that positive vibe for both. At home, for example, you might increase rewards by making your relationships with your partner a priority or by engaging in special family activities.
Also, sometimes even a small change in the distribution of tasks at home alleviates stress considerably - perhaps changing role expectations with your partner or giving children chores.
In addition, to offset the personal burden of managing home and work, it helps to communicate openly with your manager at work about your needs and accommodations.
Finally, try to take “should-be” out of your vocabulary, as in: “I should be spending more time with my children (or my work).” In part, try to reassess how the cultural norm of intensive parenting may be driving these should-be’s.
It’s easy to take your neighborhood and geographic context for granted. But neighborhood groups, parent groups, local daycares, playgrounds, recreation facilities, and religious organizations are crucial in holding parenting stress at bay. Research shows that for moms with children under six (more so than for dads), these community supports help relieve the work-family conflicts that trigger parental stress.
When community resources are scarce or missing, moms are more depressed, anxious, and stressed about parenting. Rebecca McCloskey and Fei Pei, two-family experts at The Ohio State University, strongly advise, “Bolster neighborhood social cohesion [to] improve maternal mental health outcomes.”
What you may consider doing: Just recognizing how vital a neighborhood is or can be to your mental well-being is a huge step. It is essential to parenting well-being – something to be valued, actively engaged in, and nurtured. It is something to hang onto when it is good, not move away from it. Even if you take a small step to become more of a part of your neighborhood, it might reap significant benefits.
Relieving stressors often depends on social and personal investments of time and money. But many families are economically strained. Disproportionately, low-income households are more at risk for depression and parenting stress.
Scores of studies are beginning to examine similar correlations between parenting stress and minority and immigration status.
When a lack of economic resources presents daily hassles, stress spills over into parenting. Hassles seem to be everywhere. You may get stressed, for example, when your child isn’t putting away toys, seeing it as a willful act to annoy you with yet one more hassle.
What you may consider doing: Financial security requires policy reform. Still, in your sphere of influence, it might help to know that, in studies, many moms and dads with financial strains find ways to reduce their anxieties about money, which allows them to become more emotionally positive and responsive to their children.
Despite financial strains, displaying warmth and affection and keeping track of children’s whereabouts alleviates stress and improves children’s behaviors.
Child behaviors and special needs
We cannot ignore the role of children in parenting stress. A child’s acting-out behavior can trigger parenting stress big time.
This type of stress is widespread when acting-out behaviors are tied to autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Down’s syndrome, and mood disorders. The highest parenting stress level comes from children with an autism spectrum disorder among these conditions.
Until the 21st century, little, if anything, was known about most of these disorders or their effects on family life. Thankfully, today more strategies and support exist.
What you may consider doing: Today, family and school experts offer many behavioral interventions and “safe spaces” with proven track records for reducing problematic behaviors and enhancing children’s mental health. Evidence shows that such child-centered approaches are often all moms and dads need to decrease stress.
For some complicated challenges, parents too may need “interventions.” For example, by becoming more connected to each other, moms and dads find their levels of stress decline dramatically.
Finally, mindfulness about your responses to challenges can make a difference. Mental health experts advise that the best way to avoid depression from parenting is to recognize your emotions; set them aside; respond to your child in a problem-solving mode, reappraise your responses and accept those emotions were intense. It is also helpful to reframe the stressful event to find some positive in it, find diversions in meaningful tasks, or immerse socially with others. There is no perfect parenting, no fixed measure of what constitutes “doing enough.” Ruminating with guilt about past emotionally-charged encounters with a child or judging yourself as inadequate as a parent keeps you in a state of suffering and deters you from moving forward.
Fortunately, parenting distress has entered our public conversation. Child-rearing has continuous challenges, with or without a pandemic. Stress from it is a function of a system of factors, not a test of character. If parenting stress is left to fester, it can negatively impact family life and jeopardize children’s well-being. With this growing awareness, moms and dads are freeing themselves from ignoring or denying the stress they feel and instead of seeking ways to cope with the challenges of raising children.
A first step toward relieving parenting stress is recognizing the dynamics of its underlying factors. Some factors are cultural (intensive parenting mindsets); others are economic (work demands and financial strains); still, other factors are social (community support) and developmental (behavior disorders). After recognizing these dynamics, parents can communicate openly, try various coping strategies, and turn to mental health professionals for help.