Parent stress, in general, runs high these days. We are several months into a global pandemic, and parents have a lot to worry about: Health and finances. Job losses or working from home (while juggling another round of distance learning). Wondering when life will feel normal again.

It makes sense that parents don’t want to pass their stress to their children, and that a good way to avoid that might be to reassure their children that everything is okay. But recent research involving school-aged children shows that when parents attempt to hide stress, it can actually transmit to their children so strongly that they have a physical response. What’s more, researchers found that when parents pretend everything is okay when it’s not, it interferes with parent-child connection and communication.

On the other hand, parents showing the true colors of their fear, worry or anxiety can transfer to their children, too. So, what’s a stressed-out parent to do?

First, Breathe

Before we explore ways to communicate with your child about stress (yours or theirs), it’s important to point out that if your stress is persistent or overwhelming, seeking help is a good idea. Therapy and support groups (both of which you can access online) can be immensely helpful. Remember, too that daily habits are powerful when it comes to managing mood. A few tried and true tips:

  • Follow a daily routine that creates structure and allows for flexibility.
  • Eat regular, nutrient-dense meals.
  • Avoid overdoing caffeine or alcohol.
  • Spend some time outside.
  • Carve out time to connect with your family.
  • Try to get enough sleep.
  • Monitor news intake.
  • Practice deep breathing when heightened emotion kicks in.

Communicating with Your Child About Your Stress

Earlier we talked about how trying to hide your stress from your children not only doesn’t work, it may actually spark significant stress in them – and disrupt connection and communication between you. We also pointed out that letting your emotions loose may negatively impact your child, too. A good middle ground? First acknowledge that you’re experiencing a tricky emotion, and then model coping with it.

It’s okay, for example, to say: “You know what, I’m starting to feel cooped-up. Let’s go for a walk.” This not only acknowledges that you’re feeling stress, but also that you’re being proactive about managing it. It’s an opportunity to get yourself and your child into nature (a proven mood booster), and to connect with each other while doing it.

Or, if your child senses that you feel worried and asks if you’re okay, you can say, “You know what, I’m really missing Grandma. It’s hard for me to go so long without seeing her. Let’s try calling her and see if she can do a video chat.”

Communicating with Your Child About Their Stress

It’s equally important to avoid over-reassurance when your child expresses stress. Acknowledging and coping works well when addressing their emotions, too.

If your child finishes an online class, throws their notebook on the floor and yells, “I hate this!” it might be tempting to tell them that this is temporary and everything is going to be okay. But that can be a missed opportunity to acknowledge: “I see you’re frustrated. This is hard. I would feel frustrated, too.” And cope: “Let’s take a break together.”

Finally, Just Do Your Best

Parenting during a pandemic is perhaps one of the most challenging things you will do. You won’t always manage your stress (or your child’s) perfectly, and that’s okay. Just trying to remain open, honest, and connected will go a long way.