Skip to main content

Mental Health

What to Expect While Parenting in a Pandemic

Lori Raible

Reprinted from the "COVID-19" issue of Visions Journal, 2020, 16 (2), pp. 13-15

stock photo

In 2002, I began my parenting journey with the popular book What to Expect When You’re Expecting displayed prominently on my nightstand. As the years have gone on, I have read hundreds of articles, sifting through chapters on toddler nutrition, op-eds on age-appropriate bedtimes and research on emotions during the adolescent years.

In all that reading, I have never seen a blog on how to parent during a pandemic. In fact, none of the COVID-19 “new normal” ever even crossed my mind before March 2020, when we were told to “stay home and save lives.” One minute I was packing for a family trip, and the next moment I was at the grocer’s, looking at empty shelves and wondering if I would ever find toilet paper again.

Many families, like mine, have had difficult years before. For example, my eldest son has struggled with anxiety and depression throughout his childhood. But dealing with this challenge during the pandemic is different. In the past, we were supported by compassionate counsellors, caring school staff and family nearby. This is the first time I have had to develop a care plan in isolation. In other years when my child was struggling, I could invite one of his friends to come over and play and I could ask a grandparent to offer me some reprieve. We would sit and have coffee and watch the kids play on the carpet. That change of scene would carry my son and me through to the end of the week. Today, our family tackles challenges like this day in and day out, on our own, without a clear understanding of when all of this will end.

Although mental health issues have received more attention during the pandemic, the topic is still not widely discussed. In my work as a FamilySmart Parent in Residence, I have spoken to many families who are facing mental health challenges for the very first time. The pandemic places them on even shakier ground, as resources and services that might normally be offered are harder to access or simply not available. For many of these families, anxiety now occupies much of their days.

When we become parents, we are encouraged by health care practitioners to monitor our children’s height and weight, but we aren’t usually told to check their mental health. And because talking about mental health still carries stigma, it is often difficult to bring up the topic in conversation. As parents of a child who struggles with mental health issues, we found that most people around us were simply not aware of the challenges we faced. Over the years, we have gained the skills we needed to carry us through darker times and help create healthy boundaries and routines. I now find myself clinging to those tools to help me cope with daily stresses and protect the mental health of all three of my children.

I know there are many families who, like us, have battled ups and downs through the years. I thought it would be helpful here to share some of my feelings and experiences and the tools I have used to cope with them.

I have felt anxiety. How long will the pandemic last? What will school look like? It seems that every outing requires discernment: Who are you going with? What is the plan? Can you please wear a mask? Many families I support are single-parent families, and for these parents, all the answers and the planning rest solely on their shoulders. When my children were small, their questions were correspondingly light: Why do crickets make that sound? Can I have more crackers? Now the questions are heavy, and I am often without answers. When I feel a wave of anxiety, I have found it helpful to examine what little aspects I can control, and make changes that help calm me, and then consciously let go of the things I cannot control.

I have felt loneliness. Before the public health emergency, our family was non-stop, from school activities to sports and back again. Dinner in the car and on to the next activity. While we were busy, we were embedded in the surrounding community. Now, we don’t have that sense of community connection. And although I crave that contact, by the end of the day I lack the energy to pick up the phone and call a friend. I often wonder if our friends are feeling that way, too. Now, I focus on valuing each time I do visit a friend or receive a text. Each interaction has taken on new meaning. My children, too, are so appreciative every time they get to see a friend in the park.

I have felt disappointment. My son has worked through significant mental health challenges to reach high-school graduation and all the celebrations that go with it. I mourn that he will never experience that rite of passage in the way that he—and I—wanted him to be able to experience it. In this case, we were able to talk together and name our feelings. We both allowed ourselves the time to work through them and supported each other.

I have felt exhaustion. Like many families, we have continued working during the pandemic. It has been hard to gather the energy to be productive and positive. But I know that others have experienced exhaustion in a different way. Others have spent evenings at the kitchen table trying to manage how to pay their bills while receiving the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). The pandemic has further highlighted the income disparity in our country. Mental health care is not covered in our Medical Services Plan. Many of the parents I work with are asking themselves how they can look after their own mental health when they can’t even afford to continue paying for counselling for their own children. When I feel this way, I have found it is very important to be protective of my time; I have learned to say “no,” without feeling guilt and without judging myself.

I have felt overwhelmed. I have had to learn new skills in order to facilitate home learning. My work days now include technology battles for WiFi signals and scheduling of classroom Zoom calls. Have you responded to your teacher? Have you handed in that science project? How many hours have you been on your screen? Can you please try to get out of bed and shower? What have you eaten today? I feel a sense of urgency trying to keep the kids in a routine of healthy habits to ensure that they, too, don’t slip into this abyss of feeling overwhelmed. As a family, we have found it helps to get more sleep each night and to begin our morning with a little bit of movement or activity.

I have felt grief. I lost my aunt to COVID-19. We haven’t been able to hug Grandma in months. For some of the families I’ve worked with, the pandemic has been more than they could bear: some individuals have died by illness, suicide or accidental overdose. Family members and loved ones left behind have had to mourn largely alone, without the ceremonies that, in the past, have played such a powerful role in helping us through our grief. In my role as a FamilySmart Parent in Residence, I have found that one of the best ways to support someone is simply to listen—to let them go through their grief at their own pace.

I have felt guilt. I have awakened to the systemic racial injustice embedded in our communities. Not all of us have experienced this pandemic in the same way. Why didn’t I know? What could I have done? What can I do now? How do I begin to teach my children to see and act differently?

I have also found that during the pandemic, perhaps even more than at other times, it is important to acknowledge and celebrate what is good in our lives.

I have felt resilience. The losses and changes of the pandemic have been difficult, but I continue to put one foot in front of the other. I am inspired by the stories of youth now working to contribute to their household income. I am in awe of my own sons learning to cook. And, after several failed attempts over the years, I have now started to exercise consistently. We are all forging new ways.

I have felt connection. My family has been able to reconnect with each other. With the calendar cleared, family dinners around the dining-room table have returned. In fact, so have breakfasts and lunches. And late-night popcorn bowls and movie nights. As a family, we have done puzzles, played board games and even started to colour.

I have felt kindness. I have made time for self-care. I have forgiven myself for not completing that to-do list. I have allowed myself to sit down and read.

I have felt hope. I am hopeful about the lessons that will come from this experience. What will the world look like when the pandemic is over? I hope that mental health and substance use will no longer be stigmatized. I hope that we will all be kinder and gentler with each other, more understanding of our differences.  

Parenting in a pandemic is largely unpredictable, and much of the experience is out of our control. Our expectations—of ourselves, our children, even our daily routines—have to change. There will be some days when you can’t lift yourself out of bed or bother to change out of pajamas. There will be other days when you are the sourdough queen or the pillow-fort maven. We are all parenting on unstable ground, trying to find our footing. What I do know is that my lived experience as a parent of a child with mental health challenges has given me tools that I can adapt to help me parent in this new environment. Using those tools—which make the most of my natural strengths and acknowledge my vulnerabilities—reminds me that sometimes it is okay to not be okay, and it encourages me to reach out and connect with others.

About the author

Lori is mom to three boys, ages 18, 15 and 12. She lives, works and plays on the unceded traditional territories of the Syilx People of the Okanagan First Nation. As a FamilySmart Parent in Residence, she supports parents and caregivers with children who are struggling with their mental health

Stay Connected

Sign up for our various e-newsletters featuring mental health and substance use resources.