Parental Stress During the Pandemic

Dr. Leslie Roos studies family wellness during COVID-19

As all Manitobans adjust to the new normal, one group that has seen some of the biggest changes to their daily lives due to COVID-19 are parents of young children. More than 50% of Manitoba families have reported significant levels of mental health concerns during the pandemic, says Dr. Leslie E. Roos, assistant professor at the University of Manitoba and clinical psychology candidate.

From trying to keep their kids entertained without playdates or trips to museums and play centres to balancing work, caregiver duties and homeschooling, the burden on parents is “a real concern,” says Roos, who says 40% of families had unmet childcare needs in the spring and summer months of the pandemic.

More than 50% of Manitoba families have reported significant levels of mental health concerns during the pandemic

Dr. Leslie Roos

The Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba (CHRIM) investigator began the Parenting During the Pandemic study, which is surveying Canadian families with children up to eight years of age about the pandemic. This rapid-response study was designed to better understand the impacts of COVID-19 on family wellness and included bringing together six faculty members and 20 students to collect data from 1,000 families in 12 weeks. This study aims to identify the degree that COVID-19 is affecting families of young children and whether the needs of these families are being met. The long-term goal is to inform the development of programs to promote intergenerational mental health and improve long-term well-being for stress-exposed children and families.

To date, the study has shown that parents of children, ages 1.5 to 8 years, are experiencing psychosocial distress increases three to five fold. This includes clinically significant symptoms of depression in 64.2% of mothers and 37.5% of fathers, as well as elevated anxiety. In addition to the challenges of parenting during the pandemic, the study has also shown that 43% of the parents surveyed have reported negative impacts on their employment and 17% have reported job loss. The biggest concerns are balancing time between work and childcare, and managing stress and mental health.

Despite more than half of parents experiencing mental health concerns, they are still working hard to keep their children happy and entertained, says Roos, the principal investigator of the study. Many parents are appreciating the opportunity to be at home with their kids more and how this time has given their children the ability to be more creative and let kids be kids and not worry as much about everything else.

At the same time, parental depression is associated with increased parenting stress and negative parent-child interactions. And with winter coming and COVID-19 numbers rising, Roos is concerned that mental health issues will only get worse as more restrictions are put in place, childcare needs are not met and the ability to go outside is hampered by the colder weather and shorter days. 

“Families are facing high, unprecedented stress right now and this can have a profound effect on everyone in the house,” says Roos. “Untreated parent psychological distress, particularly when it’s persistent and severe, can contribute to family health impairments. We want to better understand the nature of needs to support families right now and reduce the long-term impacts of this stressful time.”

To help alleviate the burden on parents and kids, Roos encourages families, especially those with younger children, to explore outside more, and for parents to get down to the kids level to play, which can make interactions more enjoyable for everyone. Sometimes this includes letting go of how you might ‘want’ things to be, and rolling with the reality of life right now. In her own life parenting two young kiddos, this includes getting excited to see grandparents on distanced walks or FaceTime story time, instead of the weekly sleepovers that everyone loves. She also recommends developing routines when possible, because structure helps children manage anxiety and provides a sense of control when other things have changed. Other suggestions include:

  • being generous with affection (which helps reduce stress)
  • focusing on what’s going well
  • taking a step back when you’re feeling overwhelmed
  • taking note of your emotions before responding.

Get more tips from Dr. Roos on reducing parenting stress here

Dr. Roos emphasizes “It’s also important to remember that feelings of burnout, sadness and frustration are expected right now. If you have a bad day, it’s okay to reset, reach out to your community of support and try again tomorrow,” says Roos, who recommends stepping back to take some deep breaths, a short break and coping thoughts like “What I do need to do to get through this moment?” when things get hectic. Focusing on small tasks can be helpful when your coping resources are low or you find your mind elsewhere.  

Moving forwards, Dr. Roos is leading a cross-Canada team to develop a mobile health app to address the mental health and parenting needs in families of young children. Funded by Research Manitoba and CHRIM, she expects the first participants will be enrolled in winter 2020/2021, with up to 500 families participating in the clinical trial over the next year. This program was inspired by a conversation with the Hearts and Minds Lab’s parent advisory board, who described wanted to have a safe space to connect with other parents and evidence-based family health information, which is harder now that many agencies are closed to drop-in visits.

It’s also important to remember that feelings of burnout, sadness and frustration are expected right now. If you have a bad day, it’s okay to reset, reach out to your community of support and try again tomorrow

Dr. Leslie Roos

Out of all the clinical research programming Dr. Roos does, she finds work directly with clients and the Hearts and Minds Lab to be particularly motivating. As one member emphasizes: “I believe this work is very important because there’s such a great need for more supports. The opportunity to be around other mothers with similar challenges is comforting and empowering; I’m not alone. We are learning together; becoming a stronger community.”