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Coronavirus and Political Uncertainty Has American Parents Struggling With Stress and Frustration

The pandemic has fundamanetally changed American parenthood. Where do we go from here?

On June 26 at 1 PM, Marc Brackett and Robin Stern, director and associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, will host a free webinar for Fatherly readers. The hour-long program will provide parents with coping strategies suited to a difficult moment in history. Brackett, author of Permission to Feel: Unlock the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive, and Stern will take questions and discuss how to create a positive emotional environment at a negative time. Register for the free webinar here

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the experience of American parenthood. Locked down with their children and each other, mothers and fathers are struggling to meet the demands of the moment. To be fair, it’s a uniquely demanding moment. For those lucky enough to be able to keep working, multitasking is the new normal as caregiving and education are in-sourced. For the many millions now among the unemployed, financial considerations, and the ambiguity of the current situation — when will it end? — keep nights sleepless and days long.

In an effort to understand how parents are coping, or not, Fatherly partnered with Marc Brackett and Robin Stern of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, to survey a broad swathe of American parents. Spoiler: Parents are struggling. But in understanding the specific ways in which they are struggling, there’s the opportunity to eliminate the loneliness of that struggle and, perhaps, to introduce some solutions.

Among the 750 parents surveyed, the top five self-reported emotions were:

Fatherly IQ
  1. Are you and your family playing more board games in recent months?
    Not really We've always been a board game family.
    No, we don't really play board games.
    Yes, we play at least once a week.
    Yes, we play as often as we can.
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  1. Anxiety
  2. Overwhelmed
  3. Frustrated
  4. Fear
  5. Stressed

The parents reported that the top five reasons for these emotions were:

  1. Work
  2. Spouse
  3. Multitasking
  4. Fear of Illness
  5. Finances

Though the sources of unpleasant feelings are somewhat varied, lack of clarity on the COVID-19 endgame and on the disrupted state of American politics has clearly led to issues with self-regulation. As one survey respondent wrote: “My husband and I have very short fuses with our kids lately. We’re yelling at them when we normally wouldn’t. Our berating is hurting them and they’re angry and feel like they’re always doing something wrong.”

These sorts of situations were described by many survey respondents, who Brackett believes are struggling not only with an increased emotional load, but with their feelings about those feelings.

When you’re depleted of your resources, your worse self is likely to come out. This is particularly true for parents. We have shorter fuses and less patience. We’re irritable and unsupportive. We become bad role models for emotional regulation,” Bracket explains. “And people have feelings about their feelings. They feel anxious because they’re overwhelmed or embarrassed because they’re angry. This exacerbates Mal-adaptive behaviors. We isolate and engage in negative self-talk.”

Bracket, an expert in emotional regulation, is concerned that American parents are berating their kids in part because they don’t know how to stop berating themselves.

“It’s less effortful to engage in negative self-talk then positive self-talk,” he explains. “We learn early in life to make negative self talk the default. We’re not good enough. We learn that. It takes a lot of effort to get to the point where you say, I can get through this. My argument is that we don’t teach self-empathy and that it can really turn things around.”

The problem right now is that self-empathy and catastrophic thinking, the illogical negativity born of known unknowns, don’t often coexist peacefully. And many American parents seem to remain in fight or flight mode, which leaves little room for higher-order or meta-emotional thinking. What parents need, Bracket says, is a new narrative for themselves and for their kids who are, understandably, struggling with boredom, frustration, and sadness.

“What do you do to support your kid? This is where we have to see boredom as an opportunity,” Brackett explains. “Have them do a project. Have them learn how to read critically. Have them use the pandemic or acts of racism to learn history. We tend to teach at kids instead of helping kids create learning experiences for themselves so we’re poorly positioned to cope.”

Brackett recommends that parents try to get kids to engage productively with the issues of the moment by reading critically or doing research on racism. By taking control of kids’ time, parents can start to take back control of their own circumstances and look ahead. Sure, the future is hard to imagine in the context of the stormy present, but it’s still there if parents squint hard enough. This is no small ask, but it represents a way forward and a way out of the cycles of catastrophic thinking and negative self-talk that have sent American parents tumbling toward unhappiness and stress.

Join Marc Brackett on June 26 at 1 PM for further discussion of coping strategies for parents during this difficult moment in history. Register for the free webinar here