Professional artist Amanda Gomes knew her emotions were stretched to the limit when she faced off with her 12-year-old son with a genetic anomaly over an art project he refused to complete. "Art is my passion," Gomes explains, "and we've had fun doing it together since he was a little boy." But this project was different. Gomes found herself not in the role of a mother sharing a passion with her son, but a de-facto teacher struggling with an uncooperative student to produce an assigned outcome with a looming deadline. She fought back tears of anger and frustration. "It surprised me that I got so upset," Gomes says. "It felt like one more thing COVID took from us. It sucked the joy right of me."
As scenes like this play out, families with disabilities are experiencing more emotional strain than ever. With homes that turned into classrooms, in-person connections going virtual, and resources more difficult to access than ever, parents have found themselves in a perfect storm for emotions like frustration, anger, sadness, fear and loneliness.
If you're struggling to manage your emotions, you're not alone.
According to a U.S.-based SPARK survey of the impact of COVID-19 on families and children with Autism, 97 percent of parents or caregivers report feeling stressed or overwhelmed due to disruptions in Autism-specific services or therapies, and 95 percent of parents indicate that the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health.
As restrictions and concerns continue to impact how families live and learn, parents are riding a wave of emotions while wrestling with circumstances beyond their control. Here's how to manage your emotions and guard your mental health in turbulent times.
Tune in to feelings. Cultivating good mental health starts with raising awareness of your internal thoughts and emotions. Take time to check in with yourself daily—both mentally and physically. Reflect on how you're feeling by thinking about the highs and lows of your day, what you're thankful for, and where you'd like to make changes. Keep a journal or talk with a trusted friend, partner or therapist. Even a few minutes of daily reflection is helpful to gain insight and perspective.
Dr. Dana McNeil, licensed therapist and founder of The Relationship Place in San Diego, encourages parents to tune in to physical reactions to stress. Is your breathing shallow? Your pulse racing? Are you having difficulty thinking clearly? "This is your body telling you that your brain is being highjacked by cortisol and adrenaline," says McNeil. "Frustration has impacted your ability to be present and make good decisions. Let these physical responses serve as a signal that it's best to step away and take a break."
Prioritize self-care. Some parents feel guilty doing things for themselves when there are so many needs and tasks they could be doing for their children. Dr. McNeil stresses that parents must prioritize self-care, even when they feel like they don't have time. "If you don't," she says, "you're much more susceptible to being run down, short-tempered, less resilient, and not fully present when your children need you most."
Instead of thinking of self-care as long periods to relax, start small. Step outside for some fresh air, move your body, eat nourishing foods and aim for eight hours of sleep every night. Consider using a meditation app such as Unwinding Anxiety.
Grow your support system. A healthy support system is a powerful force against isolation, one of the leading causes of depression and anxiety. Friends, family, support groups and parenting classes are uplifting and serve as a reminder that you're doing something incredible.
"Being able to communicate with others who understand is especially helpful on days when we struggle to keep it together," says licensed psychologist Sara deLeon of Hope Comprehensive Center for Development. "We need community because we can't do this alone. We need reinforcement from other parents."
Don't overlook the support of a spouse or parenting partner. Marriage takes a hit when stressed-out parents focus only on the never-ending tasks of raising a family. Work together, support each other and schedule time alone. You'll grow closer and model healthy relationship habits for your kids.
Ask for help. Prolonged exposure to situational stress or negative emotions can lead to depression. Call your doctor or mental health professional if you find that what started as a typical reaction to difficult circumstances has turned into a daily struggle that has you feeling overwhelmed.
Mental Health America (MHA) offers free and confidential online screening tools to help individuals learn more about their mental health condition. While self-assessment should never take the place of professional evaluation, these tools can help guide your next steps in seeking assistance.
Safeguard the kids. Children are only as emotionally healthy as their parents because how parents react in times of stress impacts a child’s ability for self-control, self-regulation and overall emotional health. When parents react from anger or frustration, children often respond with greater distress, and emotions escalate for everyone.
"It's good to remember that if you need a break, your kids could probably use one, too," deLeon says. "Parents don't have to reinforce behaviors 24/7."
Handle hard emotions with care. Awareness and action help keep your family emotionally healthy. But don't try to do so much that more stress is created. Do what works best for you and your family, and practice kindness toward yourself.
The next time you face a wave of emotion, Dr. McNeil says to remember you're human, and kids don't come with an operating manual. Tell yourself, "When I get upset, I have a reason to be upset, but I want to respond (versus react) better because I love my kids, and I know they love me. I'm having a hard time right now, but this is temporary."
Jody Lee Cates is a local mom and award-winning writer who blogs about healthy relationships at www.jodyleecates.com.
Unwinding Anxiety is an evidence-based app offering daily guidance for anyone suffering from anxiety. www.unwindinganxiety.com
SPARK for Autism is working to advance understanding of Autism to help improve lives. www.sparkforautism.org
Hope Comprehensive Center for Development takes a naturalistic and play-based approach to deliver a variety of therapies and services. www.hopeccd.com
Mental Health America (MHA) offers a collection of free online screening tools to help individuals learn more about their mental health condition. https://screening.mhanational.org/screening-tools
The Relationship Place offers specialized counseling for parents. www.sdrelationshipplace.com