I'm Parenting an Anxious Child During the Pandemic and I'm Overwhelmed—Please Help
Illustration: Chelsea Beck
For many families, the deeper we get into this pandemic, the harder it gets. We like to talk about our “new normal,” but the idea that any of this is close to “normal” can also feel like some kind of cruel joke. Parents are still working and taking care of multiple children (some of whom have extra needs) and they’re depleted—mentally, emotionally and financially depleted. One such mom wrote in to us to ask for help:
I’ve got four kids, and three of them are teenagers. This is challenging at any time, and the state of the world certainly isn’t making things any easier. In the past few months, my 13-year-old daughter (I’ll call her A) has been dealing with serious anxiety. We’ve consulted with experts and hopefully found her the care she needs—but she’s still struggling, and I find myself worried and stressed all the time. Although she is performing at school and on her soccer team, it seems to take all of her energy. She doesn’t think therapy is doing anything, she has trouble sleeping, she is on her phone A LOT, and she eats mostly ice cream and macaroni and cheese.
I understand that I shouldn’t sweat the small things when my kid has been diagnosed with anxiety during a pandemic, but I feel like all of our household rules are out the window and it is impacting everybody. Also, she wants to spend a lot of time together. I am so grateful that she is letting me in and love being with her, but my husband and I both work full time and have three other kids (and the youngest is 6 years old). I feel guilty for the times I can’t focus on her, worried sick about her, and absolutely exhausted.
I worry that there’s more we could be doing for A, but now I’m also realizing that I need help. I can’t, however, pay for more therapy. What can I do to feel better?
The strange thing about living and parenting during this pandemic is that it’s so easy to feel isolated, and yet... there are loads of parents reading your letter right now and seeing something of themselves and their own families in it. Of course you’re worried, and of course you’re exhausted: You and your husband are both working full-time and you’ve got a six-year-old and three teenagers, one of whom is really struggling right now. Plus, pandemic and politics and everything else. It’s a lot, to say the absolute least.
I was struck by your letter because although the stress you feel over your daughter’s mental health and well-being is palpable throughout, your realization that you also need help is so important. And yet, the two are interconnected: It’s hard for parents to put themselves first (or even near the top of the list) when so many other fires are burning at the same time.
I reached out to clinical psychologist Dr. Barbara Greenberg about your letter, and one of the first things she pointed out to me was that she sees your daughter exhibiting what she calls “proximity seeking”—that is, wanting to be around you so often. If a child is always wanting to be with a parent, your first thought might be that they need the reassurance, Greenberg says. But your daughter may actually be worried about and checking up on you.
“My guess is the mother has a lot of anxiety, and moods and anxiety are very contagious,” she says. “I think the kid is picking up on her mother’s anxiety.”
So how do you break a cycle of anxiety in the midst of a pandemic and the natural breakdown of structure, which—as you say—is impacting everyone in the home?
Start by reclaiming structure
It might be counterintuitive to think that what the family needs right now is more structure during a time when it feels easier (or kinder) to be lax on rules and routines. But a breakdown in household structure is something Greenberg says she is seeing with a lot of the families she works with right now, and it can become problematic.
“Where there’s perceived chaos, there’s an increase in anxiety,” Greenberg says. “What really has helped a number of families [I work with] is setting up household rules, expectations and structure—even writing it down and putting the schedule on the refrigerator. Because structure is so important; it’s calming.”
You can start, if you haven’t already, by sitting down with your husband one-on-one and discussing what type of schedule needs to be put in place based on your family’s work, school and childcare requirements. Then, call a family meeting and bring the kids into the conversation. Let them have input into how you schedule your day, the routines you set into place and the responsibilities of everyone in the family (because it’s good for everyone—even your six-year-old—to take ownership of some jobs within the home).
As you create this schedule or routine, you can also block off individual one-on-one time to spend with your daughter, and your other children and time to be alone by yourself. This is a tall order for a working parent of four kids, but it doesn’t have to be hourlong blocks of time. It could be that you play a board game with your youngest during the lunch hour one day, and you take a walk with one of your teenagers the next day (and your husband does the same).
Work whatever activities you like to do with each child into the schedule so that you’re not spread quite so thin. Stop trying to give yourself to everyone all at once, and make sure they know they will get your undivided attention tonight or tomorrow, if not right this second.
And then, get that help you need
You mentioned that you cannot afford more therapy on top of the therapy you’re already providing for your daughter. To have to choose who in the family receives therapy when more than one person is in need is a truly heartbreaking position that so many families are in right now. But there may be a way to get you both the help you need and deserve.
The first place I’d start in seeking help for yourself is by talking with your daughter’s therapist about her treatment plan and how effective they feel it has been. You wrote that your daughter doesn’t think the therapy is helping, although it may be too soon to tell. Or it may be helping, but not as quickly as she would like. It might make sense to reduce or alter her sessions in some way in order to make room in the budget for you to be able to get therapy, too, without compromising her care. If her therapist understands this is a priority, they may have suggestions for how to make that work.
If you all feel it’s best to stay the course on your daughter’s treatment plan, though—and that may very well be the case—her therapist might have some ideas for other options. Those options could include locating a clinic in your area that provides services on a sliding scale and/or a clinic where you could speak with graduate students in the field. There may be other local support groups or services in your area, as well. If you come up short when you talk with your daughter’s therapist, try asking your own physician or your kids’ pediatrician for suggestions on local options available to you.
And finally, remember that the fact that you’re seeking to tackle this problem at all is a great first step.
“I really do love that she said, ‘What can I do to feel better?’” Greenberg says. “We should commend her for asking that question; more people should be should be asking that question.”
This information is not intended to be used as a substitute for one-on-one consultation with a professional psychologist or other professional health or medical provider.
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