"We need more social connection than ever."
A conversation about "pandemic parenting" with trauma researcher, psychologist and mom, Dr. Amanda Zelechoski
My partner and I have just wrapped up our seven thousandth, six hundred and eighty-third conversation about whether we should send our Kindergartner back to school in person.
“Dealing with her education is harder than being unemployed,” he said. (He’s been unemployed since March 2020). We’ve been so lucky: No one’s gotten sick, and we’ve been able to stay afloat financially, but the daily pressures of dealing with a kid at home have taken their toll.
I’ve had dozens of these kinds of conversations with friends and coworkers over the past several months: about job loss, protecting our health and that of our families, struggles over schooling, and working with kids with special needs.
Now that we’ve turned the one-year mark, we wanted to know more about the emotional and psychological impacts of the pandemic.
Dr. Amanda Zelechoski co-created Pandemic Parenting, a website that is packed with evidenced-based research about the impacts of the pandemic on children and families. Zelechoski is an attorney and a clinical and forensic psychologist specializing in trauma, based at Valparaiso University in Indiana. When the pandemic hit, she collaborated with another scholar and parent, Dr. Lindsay Malloy, to launch Pandemic Parenting.
“It’s really been interesting to watch this as an outsider and a scholar in this area, and to be in it,” Dr. Zelechoski told me. “I'm a stressed-out parent, too. I'm exhausted too. I'm just as pissed and stressed as you are.”
Dr. Zelechoski and Dr. Malloy launched Pandemic Parenting after they discovered that they were both conducting studies about the impacts of the pandemic on families. Zelechoski’s study followed about 450 families in the U.S. for the first three months of the pandemic and is now in the process of collecting one-year, follow-up data. Her study looks at parents’ general stress, parent-related stress, and children’s emotional and behavioral well-being right before the nationwide lockdowns, and over several intervals during the first year of the pandemic. She’s also looking into parents’ level of “decision fatigue” at the one-year mark.
Since she specializes in trauma research, I asked Dr. Zelechoski how she would characterize the pandemic in terms of trauma. She said that she would classify the pandemic as a collective trauma, which is a traumatic event that impacts an entire group or society. But for some folks, the resulting domino effects of the pandemic have become a “chronic trauma”: trauma that is ongoing or lasts over a long period of time.
I talked to her about decision-making in parenting, how to deal with older and younger kids in the pandemic, how kids really are resilient and how schools are the heart of our communities, in ways that we don’t always see.
At the end of this post, I’ve highlighted three of Pandemic Parenting’s webinars that I found particularly useful. They cover a range of topics, from being a single parent through the pandemic to practicing anti-racist parenting. So definitely scroll down to dig into those.
Here’s our conversation, which was conducted via Zoom and over email, and edited for length and clarity.
Allison Lichter: We're a year in. The vaccine rollout is underway, so there's a sense of things shifting. How have you seen things change from where you started with your research to where we are now, in terms of impacts of the pandemic?
In the beginning of our study, we found evidence of resilience in those early months. None of us thought this was going to go on this long. So it was sort of like, “Well, we can do anything for a couple weeks. We'll get creative, this will be fun. We'll have a family summer camp at home.” We just had all these ideas, which I think is amazing about the human spirit. We're resilient like that. We'll figure it out; we can be creative and resourceful.
We started to see towards the end of the summer a lot of studies coming out around how people's depression, anxiety, suicidality got worse around the six-month mark.
That initial burst of “We can be resilient, we can be creative,” well, we can do that for a limited period of time. But when we're operating at this level of crisis, you hit a point of exhaustion. You lose your ability to generate creative solutions to things, partly because you don't know when it's going to end.
So around this one year mark, I think it really hit people hard. It hit me a lot harder than I thought it would, and the same with colleagues, friends, and other parents in our work that we've been talking to. We're now starting to hit those moments: “This is the second of my kid's birthdays that we're not able to do XYZ. This is another graduation season that the students won't have.”
With this one-year mark, we've been seeing some pretty significant declines, because there's something about anniversaries and grief, and realizing we're still at this, and we still don't know when it's going to end.
I do think there's some hope in there. We're starting to see vaccine rollouts. There is positive news. But as far as people's day-to-day lives, I don't know that many of us feel that that's changed in a material way yet.
What are the impacts of that uncertainty on our mental and emotional health? Is there a way to describe what living with that kind of uncertainty does to us?
I've been thinking about it a lot, related to the concept in psychological science known as decision fatigue. That's a big piece of what's happening for people. These decisions we've had to make in this constant, ongoing way, especially in the beginning -- sometimes it was hour to hour -- it was just relentless. Is it safe to do this? Can I do this? And much of it was around safety and health.
Those are pretty big, heavy decisions to be making with no clear answers. We're navigating this without a roadmap, and we're trying to make decisions for ourselves and for our families to keep us safe, which in many cases felt like life or death decisions.
When you carry that weight of decisions, at that constant level of hyper-vigilance, that's exhausting, and so taxing on our systems, physiologically, but also emotionally. That is our core survival brain kicking in. I think that's been a big part of why the uncertainty, layered on top of the weight of the decisions we've had to be making, has just been brutal.
My partner and I hit this incredibly intense conflict around whether to make Valentine's Day cards for my kid’s Kindergarten class. It seems so lightweight compared to the real physical health issues, but you just don't know what is going to break you.
Yeah, exactly. Those are the fights in the homes right now, between the parents. It isn't the big things. It's these little things every day. I'm trying to carry on like it's normal, and nothing's normal.
How are parents of young children responding to or being impacted differently than parents who have older children? And, also, how are kids and parents handling this experience differently?
In our study, which I think has been pretty consistent with a number of other colleagues I've talked to who have done similar studies, we found that parenting stress was much higher for parents of younger kids, so kindergarten through fifth grade. Which makes sense; they need a lot more supervision. We had to round-the-clock help them with remote learning. It doesn't mean that there aren't challenges for parents with older kids too. But we were seeing the stress look different. Older kids could fend for themselves a little bit more, and that was helpful.
We also saw differences between the kinds of the types of impact on kids. Younger kids seem to be showing more externalizing issues: aggression, tantrums, fights, really disruptive behaviors. For older kids, we saw more trends related to internalizing issues, things like withdrawal, isolation, depressive symptoms, just retreating into themselves, not being interested in a lot of activities or friendships as they used to be. Both of those manifestations are concerning, it's just that they look different for kids at different stages.
You asked about the difference between parents and kids, too. A lot of Pandemic Parenting is to help parents understand this is going to show up differently, probably, in each of your kids. And it's going to look different in your kids than it does in you. So things like siblings fighting. They're just craving some sort of connection. They need attention. All they have is each other in these homes that they're locked in, and they don't have their usual social connections. Even older kids are not going to be able to articulate, “You know, Mom, I'm just really sad that I'm not getting to do this activity, or I lost my baseball season.” They're not going to necessarily know where this is coming from either.
One of the things I emphasize in parent trainings a lot is this idea of getting curious, not furious. You can't do it in the moment. A lot of times this happens in that post-game analysis, like when I've calmed down, and you've calmed down, and I can really think about, “Where's this coming from? What's really underneath that? Okay, he's craving connection, but it's playing out in this way where he's biting my head off, because I asked him to pick up the socks.”
I wanted to go a little deeper into the differences between kids of different kinds of contexts. You work with at-risk youth and young people involved with the criminal justice system. Can you talk about how this is affecting kids with higher risk factors, then say, frankly, my relatively privileged and safe child?
There was a really great quote from [writer] Damian Barr fairly early in the pandemic essentially, like, we’re all in the same storm, but we're not in the same boat. You know, some people are in yachts. Some people have just one oar.
That's actually what made me launch the study just about a year ago, as a child maltreatment-focused person, particularly the juvenile justice system. I started to understand what was going to happen. We're going to have kids locked in homes with parents that are going to be increasingly stressed. And in crisis, this is going to get really, really bad from a child maltreatment perspective.
In my oldest son's class in October, one of his classmates died in one of the most horrific child abuse cases I have heard about in my career. He had switched to remote learning. Teachers always knew he was at risk and always gave him extra attention. And then they lost it. They couldn't track him. He barely logged on. That was why I did this research. It was this crisis point for us, in the Pandemic Parenting work, which felt like we're not reaching [at-risk families]. We were reaching other resource-privileged moms like us. And so it's forced us in good ways to start thinking about other ways to make the stuff more accessible to the most vulnerable families.
That's why so much of [Pandemic Parenting’s] messaging has tried to be around giving yourself some grace. Everybody needs help right now. The most vulnerable families have lost their usual support system, their village can't step in. They're elderly, and they're at-risk. Or technology isn't as accessible as it is in other communities. We're seeing the trends show that the gaps that were already there are just being widened and spotlighted.
A big piece of that is affordable quality child care. And so it's been encouraging to me to see policymakers paying more attention, recognizing that this pandemic has eviscerated the progress of working moms. If I don't feel like there's a safe place, I can send my kids right now, something's got to give. And so that's where we're really seeing at-risk families struggle.
What I've seen in other families is, you have a lot of siblings, and the oldest kids have had to step in and essentially be the parents, because the single parent is an essential worker and doesn't have the option to work from home and has to pay the bills. So you have these high school kids, or maybe college age kids who've come home, that are really having to step in and manage the family. And what is that doing to them?
Where is the structural support most needed? And, I want to just say too, I am just so sorry to hear about your son’s classmate.
I just felt such personal guilt. These are exactly the families and the kids I was worried about six months ago. This happened right in my backyard, right in my kid’s class. It was happening everywhere. If we just use that kid as an example, or that family, there were so many generations of abuse. This family's been known in our criminal justice system. It wasn't a surprise to anyone, right? But to me, this is because this kid wasn't in school. That was the issue. It is those structural supports. It's all the layers of a community that have hands on the kid, eyes and hands and touch this kid's life. All of that was taken away. He was being bounced from family member to family member’s home. These are why we have things like truancy policy, not to be punitive, but to make sure this kid is okay. And the teachers involved with him knew if he was showing up to school, and we could have eyes on this kid each day. We could be a part of the solution and keep him safe. It was the one place every day he got positive unconditional support and attention.
So the structural piece is not just the childcare. It's also what's happening in our schools and our education system, and teachers feeling like they have the support they need. They're seeing the family stress through that screen, and there's nothing they can do about it.
What we have asked of teachers this year is unbelievable. And yet in most places we're not prioritizing them. So that's a place where, if someone was going to think about where they could be putting pressure on their local governance, this would be an issue they might raise. What kind of protections are in place in our community for our teachers or our social service providers?
What we usually are doing for people as part of trauma treatment is trying to build connections for them. This year has been the opposite. We're in trauma, and we're saying no, pull back. We call it social distancing, instead of physical distancing. We need more social connection than ever.
Are there other specific issues related to the most at-risk families that you think folks should know about?
I think a glaring issue for many already vulnerable families is the added layers of racial trauma and civil and political unrest that have been layered on top of the disproportionate grief and loss caused by COVID-19 for BIPOC communities. The already-concerning disparities for marginalized communities have only been further exacerbated, especially related to less access to high-quality, affordable child care, higher unemployment rates, inadequate health care, and decreased educational and recreational opportunities for kids.
Vulnerable families don’t have the luxury of worrying about potential academic regression in their kids, when they aren’t sure whether they are going to be able to feed their families or be evicted next week.
They also might not have the time or cognitive or emotional bandwidth to figure out how to access those community organizations who are ready and willing to provide support in many forms.
I wanted to make sure that I captured your highest level recommendations for families.
I really do think people need to pay attention to this decision fatigue. I do think people are underestimating how much that is playing into their general cognitive load. We are so overtaxed. It isn't just decision making for families. It's in our work, for those of us who are working: What do I prioritize? I have one hour, uninterrupted, while the kid is watching a movie. What do I need? We're just doing that constantly.
I have found, weirdly, it's the easiest decisions that have paralyzed me. Like: What are we going to have for dinner tonight? Do we really need to do this every night? So whatever you can do to try to lessen the decisions that you're making. Instituting things like Friday is always pizza night, Tuesday is always Taco Tuesday. That's two days I don't have to think about it.
Another thing: Bring your village in. People want to help. They just don't know how. We had COVID, several members of my family. I had awful symptoms, really bad for two weeks. Friends found out and just didn't ask. They just started bringing food. They're like, “We left it on the doorstep, there's a casserole.” And it was such a relief, to just not have to make a decision, and to not have you text me to say, How can I help? Because I don't know. And I can't make any more decisions or suggestions. I was so deeply grateful for people just stepping up.
This is our first pandemic. No one knows what they're doing. And so you're not a bad mom. You're not a bad partner. You're not a bad employee.
You’re saying that the pressures of decision making and trying to get things right, let's just drop that all together, post-pandemic.
Absolutely. Having worked with a lot of trauma, there are very few decisions I can think of that are the one decision that forever traumatizes this child. It's a pattern. It's a chronic issue. And so I have to remind myself this a lot. We get do-overs. Of course I'm irritable and short with my kids, or I say something terrible. And then the next morning, we talk about it, and say, “You know, Mommy was really frustrated last night. I should not have taken that out on you. So let's talk about it. How did that feel for you? Was that scary for you?” And we work on it, and I apologize, and we move on. And that's actually teaching my kids conflict resolution. Parents aren't perfect. I'm modeling for them how to apologize and have accountability when you make a mistake.
The other thing, as you said, beyond the pandemic, is to adjust our expectations. I've seen a lot of people trying to hold themselves and their kids to the standards of who they were before the pandemic. But I'm not the same person I was a year ago, and nor can I expect that of my kids.
Here are links to a few of Pandemic Parenting’s webinars that I thought were particularly great:
This interview is just excellent. It focuses both on some of the bigger structural issues at play for mothers (including mothers in two-mom households), as well as some practical guidance for lessening the burden of the pandemic juggle.
This interview answers questions about navigating decisions about health and safety when parents aren’t on the same page, and how single parents can help address kids’ fears about what would happen if the parent got sick. It really gets at the complexity of different kinds of family structures.
Dr. Malloy and Dr. Zelechoski describe their own work around raising anti-racist children. “Parents of children of color don’t have the luxury of stepping in and out of this conversation,” Dr. Zelechoski says in this webinar. As white parents of white kids, “we are committed to staying in that arena.” Their guests address ways to model anti-racism, describe the ways parenting during the pandemic has been harder for families of color, and offer tools for white parents for becoming better allies.