May 31, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Parents aren't all right

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Kevin Dietsch, Chandan Khanna/AFP, Jordan Vonderhaar, Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg, Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Parenting is hard. Parenting in a pandemic that has taken 1 million American lives, through an unpredictable economy, in a country where school shootings aren’t rare, baby formula is hard to come by and classrooms are political battlegrounds can feel borderline impossible.

Why it matters: There are 63 million parents in the U.S. with kids younger than 18 at home. They work; they volunteer; they’re raising the next generation of Americans — and stress and strain are hindering them from doing all of those things.

“There’s almost not a word to express the stress parents are under right now,” says Gloria DeGaetano, a parenting expert and founder of the Parent Coaching Institute. “‘Overwhelmed’ doesn’t cut it. It’s beyond anything we’ve ever experienced.”

What’s happening: Too much.

  • The rising cost of gas, groceries and other daily expenses — due to inflation, supply chain issues, global uncertainty, the war in Ukraine and Russia’s possible responses with cyberattacks or nuclear attacks — topped the list of stressors reported by Americans in a March poll by the American Psychological Association (APA) and The Harris Poll.
  • Children have questions about the world’s wars, sadness about the relationships and opportunities the pandemic is robbing from them, and fear and anger about the planet warming.
  • On top of their kids’ stress, parents have their own worries: 62% of parents said they feared their children could be victims of a mass shooting, according to a 2019 poll by the APA.
  • BlackLatino and Asian parents are uniquely stressed about racismbullying and violence their kids may encounter.

Another pressure on parents: feeling like they have to have all the answers for their children.

  • But it is important that parents know “it is OK not to know everything, OK not to have all the answers, OK to say, "I don't know but let's see if we can find someone who does," says Kay Schrader, a family counselor in Indianapolis.

Between the lines: COVID, clashes over teaching about racism and U.S. history and a renewed debate over gun control have put issues affecting kids and parents at the center of American politics.

  • Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia governor's race in large part by arguing that parents don't have enough control over what happens in the classroom. Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.) lost her son to gun violence, and has made gun control the centerpiece of her campaign.

But the struggles themselves are universal.

  • "As a parent, you like to tell yourself that you can that you control everything that could be dangerous or harm your child, but these events keep happening," Emily Parcell, a Democratic strategist in the Des Moines area, told Axios.
  • “I’m blessed to be in a good school district, but I feel nervous thinking about what could happen to my kids. That sends a new level of fear,” said Patrice Onwuka, director of the right-leaning Center for Economic Opportunity at the Independent Women’s Forum.

There are resources, including therapists, counselors and coaches for parents, some of whom offer free or relatively inexpensive services for those who need help.

  • And many parents find comfort in peer support groups, in their local communities or online. “Those can be quite powerful,” DeGaetano says.

Yes, but: These resources aren’t available to everyone and while receiving help with mental health concerns or relationships is becoming more publicly discussed, there is a particular stigma around getting help with parenting.

  • “The cultural expectation is that you’re a parent, and you love your child, and everything ought to come naturally,” DeGaetano says. “But that’s ignoring the changes in our society, and how that’s impacting parenting.”

The silver lining: Hard times can be opportunities to strengthen relationships.

  • Parents reported becoming closer with their kids during the COVID lockdowns, per Census data. Parents of younger children said they read to their kids more often, and families said they ate more meals together.

The bottom line: Many of us are parents, and those of us who aren’t, know parents. Let’s help them take care of themselves so they can help take care of others.

Editors' note: This story has been updated to include data about Latino parents' concerns about bullying and racism.

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