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The COVID backslide: How parents can cope, according to experts

Feel like you may lose your mind all over again? Here’s how you can cope with the current COVID surge.

Mom and three rambunctious children on messy bed stuck at home

The start to 2022 has been a bust for many families. Instead of shifting back into a semi-normal school routine after the (mostly cancelled) holidays, moms and dads across the country are finding themselves reliving some very familiar pandemic chaos. Some parents had to scramble to find child care and/or rearrange their workdays after last-minute emails from their school proclaimed: “Just kidding! Your kids aren’t returning to school this week. We’ll be virtual.” And parents whose kids did go back to school in person were left panicking and bombarded by a barrage of “COVID Close Contact” notices, as cases of the super-contagious omicron variant climbed higher than ever. Outside school, too, parents are once again finding themselves in the god-awful position of debating between canceling playdates, extracurricular activities and birthday parties and letting their kids live carefree(ish) lives (with a side of panic).

Needless to say, this is not what anyone was expecting as we enter year three of the pandemic; and parents — if they have the energy — are losing their minds all over again. 

“With the onset of this new COVID wave, many parents are describing flashbacks to Spring 2020 and much of early 2021,” says Dr. Vivian Mougios, a clinical psychologist and author of “Action Potential: The Secrets of Successful Learners.” “The thought of dealing with school closures, loss of child care and putting their children back into remote learning has left many feeling numb and almost incapable of decision making. They’re anxious, losing sleep and downright depressed by the current loss of control that has upended an already upended situation.”

“The thought of dealing with school closures, loss of child care and putting their children back into remote learning has left many feeling numb and almost incapable of decision making.”

— VIVIAN MOUGIOS, CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST

Wondering how you’re going to make it through what feels like 2020, Part Deux? Read on for expert advice and signs it’s time to get help. 

What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and am I experiencing it?

While the current COVID backslide has caused “PTSD” to enter many parents’ vernacular, technically speaking, that may not be what you’re experiencing. According to Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, a clinical psychologist, parenting coach and author of “The Tantrum Survival Guide,” PTSD is a “psychiatric disorder that may occur in individuals or groups who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event.” 

Hershberg and Mougios explain that the PTSD diagnosis is characterized by a range of symptoms, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • Anxiety.
  • Depressed mood.
  • Nightmares.
  • Unwanted/intrusive memories. 
  • Startling easily.
  • Being fearful. 
  • Feeling distant. 
  • Sleep problems.  

“Whether individuals technically meet criteria for PTSD in the face of COVID is a question that needs to be addressed on a case-by-case basis,” Hershberg says. “However, it is clear that, as a society, to differing levels, we are all experiencing a continuing collective trauma; the impact of which can be seen in many of our physical and emotional reactions to ongoing events.”

“As a society, to differing levels, we are all experiencing a continuing collective trauma; the impact of which can be seen in many of our physical and emotional reactions to ongoing events.”

— REBECCA SCHRAG HERSHBERG, CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST

“PTSD can be profoundly debilitating and often requires various treatments to manage,” Mougios adds. “The pandemic no doubt has elicited variations of symptoms related to PTSD, though most parents have likely experienced acute stress reactions that are not necessarily at the threshold of a clinical PTSD, but still debilitating nonetheless.”  

Put another way: What you’re feeling is horrible, but it may not be true PTSD. (That said, that doesn’t minimize it.)

How the current surge may be showing up for you emotionally

Dr. Christine Crawford, psychiatrist and associate medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), explains that for some parents, the COVID backslide may trigger some trauma-related symptoms, which often can be “difficult to recognize at first glance.” The above, PTSD symptoms may be signs you’re being triggered, as well as the following:

  • Irritability and anger. 
  • Avoidant behavior. 

“During these stressful times, some people may take their frustration out on their children and may have intense reactions that are out of proportion to the trigger,” Crawford says. “This misdirected anger or frustration does not feel good to the parent and can negatively impact relationship dynamics within the home.”

“Some people may engage in avoidant behavior,” she continues. “This can be failing to keep up with the changing school requirements or to assist their children with their remote work that brings up negative feelings associated with the prolonged virtual learning period.”

“Some people may engage in avoidant behavior. This can be failing to keep up with the changing school requirements or to assist their children with their remote work that brings up negative feelings associated with the prolonged virtual learning period.”

— DR. CHRISTINE CRAWFORD, PSYCHIATRIST

“When the kids first went virtual, I tried to be organized and stay positive,” says mom of three Amy O’Neil of East Brunswick, New Jersey. “Now, I feel so burnt out that we’re still doing this. I feel like I’m putting in minimal effort.” 

Dr. Jeff R. Temple, psychologist and professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch, adds that how “close” you are or were to the trauma may also impact your symptoms and the severity of them. “Someone who lost a loved one or they or their child was severely ill will likely be more anxious during this new wave of COVID, compared to someone who did not know anyone with COVID,” he explains. 

How can parents cope during the latest COVID surge?

There are no two ways about it. Parents are having a rough go right now. But there are healthy ways of coping that may alleviate stress and anxiety. Here’s what the experts suggest:

1. Seek professional help 

First and foremost, if you’re experiencing symptoms consistent with PTSD, it is important to talk to a professional, according to Crawford. “Such symptoms can interfere with your ability to maintain positive and healthy relationships with your children, as well as get in the way of your ability to work and take care of yourself,” she says, adding that talking to a primary care provider is a good first step to take. “Your primary care provider can make recommendations for who you can see in your area, as well as make recommendations for medications, if need be.”

2. Make a COVID plan and try to stick to it 

“Focus on what you can control and accept that there are aspects of COVID that are out of your hands,” Welsh says. “More specifically, identify your own level of risk and precautions you are comfortable with, do your best to follow that plan, and then accept that some parts are still out of your control.”

3. Have the flexibility to adapt and gain some control 

Easier said than done, right? But how … HOW do we gain control? 

One trick: “You have to name it to tame it!” Mougois says. “Concretely name what you can and cannot control. Ask yourself daily: What can I control today and what feels out of my hands? You’ll be surprised at how much better you feel and how much better you can parent when you’ve vetted the environment to feel less daunting.”

According to Mougios, developing these coping skills can not only provide balance for yourself, but they can also be stabilizing when modeled for children.  

4. Limit the bad, increase the good 

“It’s OK to not be OK, but it’s not OK to not do something about it,” says Temple. “In addition to surrounding yourself with people who are supportive, take care of yourself. Eat right, exercise and force yourself to do the things you used to enjoy. At the same time, limit your alcohol consumption and limit your news intake to just a few minutes per day. 

5. Try 4-4-4 breathing 

According to Dr. Matthew Welsh, a clinical psychologist who specializes in PTSD, anxiety and depression, the 4-4-4 breathing technique can be helpful for reducing anxiety and stress. “This consists of breathing in for a count of four, holding your breath for a count of four, and then exhaling for a count of four,” he explains.  

6. Go easy on yourself 

“While there may be steps to take on an individual level, they cannot replace the steps society should be making to address this trauma and its fallout,” says Hershberg. “Of course, I recommend the usual — sleep, exercise, meditation, healthy eating, social support — but these may not be possible for many right now, and it’s important that that doesn’t feel like a personal shortcoming. Perhaps, to the extent there’s any magic ‘cure’, it’s working to internalize deeply that this is not your fault, that you are doing the best you can, that your children are lucky to have you.”

Now, for a bit of good news

Omicron is pervasive right now, but according to Dr. Larry Kociolek, attending physician in the division of infectious diseases and medical director of infection prevention and control at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, the current surge “will improve within the next several weeks.” 

That said, COVID will remain in our communities. “We will likely see intermittent bumps in activity for the foreseeable future, and those bumps may eventually become seasonal and be predictable,” Kociolek says. “We have a lot more to learn about the trajectory, but as time goes on, we hope the number of infections and hospitalizations and deaths will be less than prior with improving vaccination and booster rates. Fortunately,” he adds, “vaccine rates are increasing, which signals a brighter future.”