We are all feeling profound stress during the coronavirus outbreak. But parents feel that stress in a particular way, because they are stuck at home in close quarters with their children. Parents have the difficult task of managing their own anxiety while being calm for their children. 

Parents are stressed out while COVID-19 keeps them at home with their kids.

A recent study from the University of Michigan shows that the stress of COVID-19 is really getting to parents, “There is no doubt that many parents are more stressed out than ever before. For a large number of parents, financial concerns, other worries, social isolation, loneliness and sadness are getting in the way of parenting.” In the online survey of 562 parents, 52% said that the self-isolation and worry about finances where getting in the way of their parenting.

Among the parents, 83% reported that their children’s schools were closed. For better or for worse, the parents were spending more time on parent-child activities, something today’s U.S. parents were already doing more than any prior generation.

Parents did report feeling close to their children. They were hugging more and playing more games together. 81% of parents were noticing and saying positive things to their kids more, and 88% reported that they and their kids were showing love to each other.

But that same closeness also brought difficulty. Being with their children all the time wears on parents, and tempers can flare. Indeed, 61% of parents said they had yelled, shouted or screamed at their kids during the last two weeks at home. This was an increase from parents’ usual behavior.

Closeness is the problem, but it is also the solution. 

Emotional regulation has been an area of intense study over the past few decades. As understanding of how our nervous system works has grown, an initial emphasis on self-regulation has shifted to one on co-regulation. What is co-regulation? It’s the way humans track each other’s physiologic states, as in a mother who soothes a baby’s frustration with a toy through her voice, her facial expression and her touch. In other words, the way we get each other worked up or calmed down.

Have you ever noticed that a soothing voice will move your child back into cooperation when a stern rebuke will flare them into anger? Or how about the way your pleasant mood suddenly shifts to irritability after your child yells at you? 

All humans affect each others’ state of regulation, but parents and children do it more intensely than just about anyone else. No one knows how to push our buttons like our family. It is in the nature of the relationship, and is one of the many reasons why parents are typically the most influential people in a child’s life. 

If things are getting heated at home, a parent yelling will only raise the temperature. But if that parent can use a gentle or sing-song voice, even while holding a limit, the temperature cools.

A child who is acting up is more like a puppy than a sophisticated moral agent. Approaching that child like we would a puppy, will help us hold that limit far more effectively. And if our child then responds with social engagement, our own nervous system will calm down as we co-regulate with our child. 

So do we need space or closeness? The answer is both. When parents feel themselves growing frustrated, taking a moment to breath or going to a different room can be crucial. Try building time to do something just for yourself into the family schedule. Later, when parents are more self-regulated, they can show calmer leadership by helping kids get to a better state of regulation. 

But kids have a way of helping parents too. Parents who are anxious or irritated may suddenly find their own feelings relaxing when their child says something understanding or climbs up on their lap for a hug. Affection goes both ways when we co-regulate.

The closeness of being homebound during the coronavirus outbreak has a way of causing cabin fever. But it is also an asset as we treasure our family relationships.