As I get ready for “back-to-school” week with my kindergartner, I cannot ignore the knots in my stomach. I try to tune in to the somatic sensation, as I often tell my clients to do, and notice what my body is trying to tell me. The core feeling I tap into is anxiety mixed with sadness. Anxiety about the immense uncertainty of the school situation and sadness that this is how my 5-year-old will begin her educational journey.
A client with a 3-year-old shared how she is unable to focus on work, or as she called it “being in a state of flow”, while having a toddler screaming in the background. These are just examples, but how has all of the transition been affecting parents all over the country?
Let’s look at the data
In 2019, two-fifths of all families in the US included children under 18 years of age—that’s 33.4 million families. This pandemic has put these families under immense stress of juggling work, childcare and becoming a teacher for their children overnight.
A recent Two Chairs survey of parents in the Los Angeles area showed that most parents are stressed about the uncertainty around their child’s education for the upcoming school year.
Parents are worried about children falling behind academically, the impact of remote learning on their socio-emotional development and children/families possibly contracting COVID-19. These worries are exacerbated by the lack of a consistent approach towards reopening schools with schools varying between in-person, hybrid, and online-only models. Parents are understandably confused and struggling to figure out what is best for their children.
With increasing rates of unemployment and related financial challenges, many parents cannot afford to step away from their jobs while working from home to provide childcare. Due to financial constraints, many parents do not have the option of joining a “pod” (a group of children put together by the parents with a hired teacher/nanny).
Further, if there is a high-risk individual in the family, parents cannot take the chance of letting their children interact with other children from the school or neighborhood in “social bubbles”.
These increased stress levels in parents are leading to an exponential rise in mental health issues. A published 2020 study on the mental health status of parents showed that stress, social support, marital satisfaction, family conflicts, child’s learning stage as well as parents’ history of mental illness had significant effects on parents’ anxiety and depression during COVID-19.
These chronic levels of stress in parents with no end in sight has led to what is called “toxic stress”. According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, toxic stress is the kind of stress which doesn’t let up, and feels like you have no support to get through it. This stress can put one in a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze, which is the feeling of being on edge.
When toxic stress is related to things we cannot control such as racism, the pandemic, and natural disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes, parents’ day-to-day lives can feel especially challenging.