COVID-19 (coronavirus) Featured Mental health

Helping parents manage their mental health and why it matters

Written by Lindsay Smith

It’s been a year like no other for families. Work, school, extracurricular activities, playdates, vacations: the COVID-19 pandemic has changed all of that. It’s all taken a toll on parents’ and caregivers’ mental health. Dr. Karen Wang, an adolescent psychiatrist at Sunnybrook, talks about how parents can manage their mental health in the pandemic’s second summer, and how they can improve family communication and relationships at the same time.

Start with personal awareness

First, Dr. Wang says it’s important for parents and caregivers to be aware of their emotional state and learn preventative approaches to managing their own stress levels.

“If you’re already at the stage of burnout and you’re taking your frustration out at your children, that’s too late,” she says. “You need to be aware of where you are in the stress continuum and have specific strategies to reduce the emotional tone in the home.”

Those strategies will vary for each person, but Dr. Wang recommends having several go-to de-stressing activities, and she says it would be helpful to write them down.

“When you’re stressed, you can’t think properly,” she says. “Your amygdala is activated and the stress hormones begin to affect your ability to plan, organize and reason.”

Read: Tips for creating healthy self-care habits in stressful times »

Managing guilt and expectations

Caregivers might also be struggling with feelings of guilt at how the pandemic has affected their parenting and their children. Dr. Wang says she thinks part of the guilt comes from the belief that, without a pandemic, children could have achieved so much more, or they could have done more together as a family.  Many parents set unrealistic expectations of themselves during these difficult times, adding to the ongoing emotional burdens.

“What I constantly remind [parents] of is, yes, you could be doing more and yet you’re still trying your best right now,” she says, adding it’s more important to focus on making small changes that will ultimately lead to a greater goal.

Family mental health challenge

One of the small changes families could make is to participate in the family mental health challenge that Dr. Wang started with the help of fellow psychiatrists and some local high school students. After receiving suggestions for non-screen family activities from some of her Toronto and GTA colleagues, several Toronto high school students created some graphics with suggestions for how families could spend more quality time together.

There was a cookbook with food-related options for families to choose from: putting a new twist on a family recipe, an outdoor BBQ, cooking a meal together. There were also suggestions such as family karaoke nights or planning a family trip for 2022.

Dr. Wang says it’s a way to help parents and caregivers think creatively during a stressful time about fun activities they can do with their children that don’t involve technology.

She also says participating in these kinds of family activities could help parents with their own mental health because it’s a way to “recapture that sense of joy and play, which is so important for all of us.”

Managing your mental health matters for your kids

When parents and caregivers invest in their mental health, their families benefit. Dr. Wang says particularly for young children, seeing their parents demonstrate healthy coping skills is important.

“The way [parents and caregivers cope], the way they problem solve, can have tremendous impact in shaping how a child views the world,” says Dr. Wang. “Learning how to cope with emotions is an important developmental task.”

More mental health resources for coping during COVID-19 »

If you need help in an emergency, please call 911 or visit your local emergency department.

If you’re feeling like you’re in crisis or need somebody to talk to, please know that help is also available through community resources:

About the author

Lindsay Smith