As counselors in the age of COVID-19, we have seen a lot. We have been on the front lines of treating a new wave of counseling crises, from broad-reaching trauma symptoms to an increase in panic attacks.
One such example is related to parental anxiety. This is a term that stems from an increase in parental stress and accompanying anxiety related to the reopening of states, businesses and schools.
COVID-19 has changed the day-to-day lives of many parents and caregivers. These individuals have been forced to make adjustments in major areas of life, including child care, schooling for children, work dynamics and social supports. These changes create deeper concerns and uncertainties for many adults.
To best help clients effectively manage parental anxiety, we need to understand this phenomenon, who is at risk, what contributes to higher risks, how to effectively cope with these issues, and how to maintain overall health as the pandemic continues.
What is parental anxiety?
Clinically, parental anxiety is comparable to separation anxiety. It includes a high level of anxiety around opening up schools, day cares and related activities in which parents leave their children in the care of others. It has added components of stress and worry that derive from our ongoing transition to a new normal.
For some parents, this leads to increased panic attacks, decreased stress tolerance, sleeplessness, irritability, head and body aches, and exhaustion. It can also lead to increases in family conflict or parental conflict, largely based on disagreements about parenting in a pandemic. Conflicts about transitioning back into school, work or social situations can create tension and magnify existing areas of disagreement.
Who is at risk?
Any parent or caregiver is at risk for parental anxiety. From full-time working parents to stay-at-home parents, any caregiver can develop symptoms of this condition.
Parents who have been keeping their children at home and are preparing to transition children back into child care or school settings outside of the home are at higher risk. Parents and caregivers are also at risk for parental anxiety if they are preparing to return to the office themselves and transition children out of the home.
Any additional stressors or traumatic events can further complicate this condition. For example, if clients have lost a loved one during the pandemic or known someone with COIVD-19, their symptoms of parental anxiety may become stronger. In addition, Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) may be at increased risk for parental anxiety because civil rights violations and racial trauma from current events have a layered impact on the effects of the pandemic.
What creates these risks?
Collectively, we have all experienced a crisis. This has been described using many terms, including “collective grief” and “collective traumatization.” As we look at how individualized coping is in general, it is no surprise that during major societal shifts and global-scale issues, there is no one way to manage all that is being thrown at us. Even those with higher supports and increased levels of stress tolerance can struggle with parental anxiety.
For this reason, counselors need to be attentive to clients who appear to be doing well despite the circumstances as we transition to normalcy. As with other types of trauma and toxic stress, it is common for people to release feelings when they are in a safe space. With the transition back to routines and schedules, some parents and caregivers may feel increased stability and become able to release deeply suppressed feelings related to the collective grief and traumatization from recent events.
Clients may have been put in positions in which they had to push through difficulties to continue working, parenting and performing in the various roles they played. Even parents and caregivers who report being ready to return to work or to have children return to school can experience this unexpected flood of traumatic symptoms.
How can we help parents manage these symptoms?
In one sentence, healing from collective trauma requires collective compassion. It is important to promote connection and healthy attachments to recover from the negative impacts of compounded events and societal issues.
We can provide a safe space for clients to unload difficult emotions and worries by being empathic, demonstrating patience and providing psychoeducation about trauma. Counselors can also assist clients with increasing their awareness of feelings related to these issues and provide them with stress-reduction interventions.
Additionally, empowering clients to talk to their employers, child care providers and children’s schools about transition plans can help to alleviate fear of the unknown. This also assists parents and caregivers in making informed choices that will best work for meeting their needs and the needs of their families. With education on transition plans and safety precautions in place, parents and caregivers can focus on areas that they can control.
In response to the array of physical, psychological and sensory impacts from this symptomology, integrated psycho-sensory therapy may be beneficial. This therapeutic model includes using aspects of physical wellness such as recommending and referring clients to engage in yoga, exercise classes and related supportive services (e.g., physical therapy/occupational therapy, chiropractic care, massage therapy). It includes aspects of psychological wellness (the theoretical model of choice). Then it adds sensory considerations based on the client’s needs. These considerations may be related to lighting and colors (low lights, wearing and having a background with calming colors or nature), gentle music, and the presence of calming smells (lavender, lemongrass, etc.). See the visual (below) for model components. The diversity of each component added to the next assists clients in minimizing the impacts of how trauma is felt in the body and how it affects our functioning.
Even with telehealth sessions, counselors should consider creative ways to engage clients by giving them options to move around throughout sessions.
For many clients, feeling prepared and having a plan can help to eliminate some of their added stress and anxiety. However, it is crucial that counselors continue to help clients maintain flexible thinking and increase adaptability because much about life today is unpredictable.
On a final note, counselors have experienced this pandemic too. We have also taken on the brunt of addressing mental health needs in a time unlike any other. Furthermore, many counselors are also parents or caregivers. It is vital that we take care of ourselves and commit to our own overall wellness. We must embody the level of integrative and holistic self-care that we communicate to our clients.
One thing I have encouraged others to do in these times is to give grace — to themselves and to others. We must have grace as we navigate these challenges so that we can rise above our circumstances and emerge resilient.
Rebekah Lemmons strives to improve outcomes for children, emerging adults and families. For the past decade, her practice and research primarily has been based in the nonprofit sector, with an emphasis on program evaluation, teaching, service leadership, consulting and providing supervision to clinicians. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.