For a year, the COVID-19 pandemic has required millions of American parents to do the impossible.
They’ve been asked to work and parent full time. They’ve been forced out of the workforce, but expected to somehow support their families. They’ve been tasked with keeping their kids safe at home, while also finding ways to support their mental health as children struggle with loneliness.
And a comprehensive new report from the American Psychological Association shows the considerable toll those pressures — and others — have taken on the mental and physical health of parents with children under the age of 18 at home.
Seventy-five percent would have liked more emotional support than they were offered in 2020, according to the study. And parents were more likely than non-parents to be diagnosed with a mental health disorder during the pandemic.
The survey, which included more than 3,000 participants, also found that parents whose children were still learning remotely were among those suffering the most emotionally.
Roughly half of mothers whose children are still learning at home reported their mental health has worsened since the pandemic began, while 30% of fathers whose children are still learning at home said the same. (One possible explanation for the discrepancy: Moms are more likely than dads to have taken a primary role in overseeing remote learning over the past year.)
“Since March 2020, life has changed radically for parents of children under 18,” the report’s authors write. “Not only have they had to deal with the universal pandemic disruptions on their work and social lives, but also grapple with the pandemic’s impact on their children.”
The daily stress of pandemic parenting appears to have changed Americans’ habits, and not necessarily for the better.
“Since March 2020, life has changed radically for parents of children under 18.”
– The American Psychological Association
Eighty-seven percent of fathers and 77% of mothers said they’ve been sleeping either more or less than they want to since the pandemic began. And 55% of dads and 47% of moms say they’ve gained weight since the pandemic began, with an average of about 45 pounds for fathers and 27 pounds for mothers.
Furthermore, just under half of dads in the survey said they were drinking more alcohol to cope with the pandemic, while about 30% of mothers said the same.
The APA did not highlight those types of changes in daily habits in an attempt to shame parents for how they’ve tried to cope with the challenges and trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, but because they could lead to lasting physical and psychological effects.
The group offered some practical tips for weary parents as the virus begins to recede, pointing to the importance of self-care and urging parents to take 15- to 30-minute breaks throughout the day. Take a short walk, call a friend or watch a funny TV show, the APA suggests.
But the group also acknowledges the profound limits of self-care, which on its own is not enough to support parents in the way they need.
Parents can emotionally “scaffold” themselves, but may not be able to manage their exhaustion or self-destructive habits without professional help from a therapist (virtual or otherwise).
The APA is among many mental health groups campaigning for Medicare reimbursement for telemedicine, greater funding of community behavioral health clinics, and other measures that would broadly support mental health at the system level.
“We must do more to support communities of color, essential workers and parents,” APA President Jennifer Kelly said, “as they continue to cope with the demands of the pandemic and start to show the physical consequences of prolonged stress.”
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