How to look after your mental health while homeschooling
Alex (not her real name) is exhausted. She’s a full-time mum of three boys, homeschooling her elder two while also trying to keep a toddler entertained.
‘Things are really hard at the moment,’ she says. ‘I’m anxious all the time, cry at the drop of the hat, and lie awake at night worrying for hours. I’m irritable with the children and my husband: it’s all too much.’
Alex is far from alone in finding lockdown three tough. A recent survey by Mumsnet found that 76% of mothers feel the pandemic has affected their mental health, and with uncertainty about how long it might be before children are able to return to school, the stress of homeschooling is likely to continue for some time.
‘Parenting often feels like a succession of challenges, many of which you can never really anticipate: a feeling that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic,’ says Kirsty Lilley, mental health specialist at CABA, the wellbeing charity.
‘The Covid-19 pandemic and consequent lockdowns have posed challenges for every one of us, and for those of us with children, homeschooling may well be overwhelming at times.’
Why is homeschooling affecting our mental health?
We all have different triggers for stress, and different thresholds, but at this time of extended lockdown and homeschooling, it’s easy to feel you’re fighting a losing battle – and chances are lockdown three is feeling harder to bear than the previous two.
‘Generally, when stressful experiences repeat themselves, they feel more difficult each time,’ explains psychotherapist Noel McDermott. ‘The pandemic has now been going on for a long time, and it wears down our resilience.’
This time round, many of us are feeling under greater pressure to keep our children on track with home learning, with the amount of time they should be spending on schoolwork being set out by the government (three hours a day for KS1, and four hours a day for KS2).
Some of us, especially those with young children who struggle to study independently, may be finding the juggling act between supervising homeschooling and doing our own work nearly impossible; others feel guilty for leaving their children to work on their own and feel they should be providing more input.
‘As a working parent, the most important thing to me is to ensure my family’s wellbeing, but prolonged screen time, disruption to our daily routine, frequent arguments and lack of exercise have all been contributing factors to our mental health,’ says mum Mahida Sajid.
On top of this, many of us are dealing with wider issues, such as being furloughed or out of work, recovering from Covid ourselves, or even mourning a friend or relative who succumbed to coronavirus adding to the already heavy burden of having our children at home 24/7.
‘Many parents are also frontline workers, who feel the stress of potentially being exposed to infection at work, putting their own health and their loved ones at risk,’ Noel adds.
Even parents who aren’t working can feel weighed down by the demands of homeschooling: helping children when they get stuck, trying to stop them getting distracted, solving problems with technology, and coping with tears and shouting can be extremely wearing.
You may also be feeling guilty about not loving every minute with your children, or for finding lockdown harder than you did before.
‘We underestimate the emotional impact, because we feel we have done this before and should be able to cope better,’ says Noel.
All of these factors can contribute to feeling generally stressed and low, and can trigger depression and anxiety.
Homeschooling lows: how you might be feeling as a parent
Mental illnesses manifest in many different ways, but there are certain symptoms that indicate that you may be suffering from depression or anxiety.
Depression: psychological symptoms
- Feeling constantly low in mood
- Feeling hopeless and helpless
- Lacking self-esteem
- Feeling guilty
- Irritability and lack of tolerance
- Lacking motivation and interest in things you usually enjoy
- Difficulty making decisions
- Feeling anxious or worried
Depression: physical symptoms
- Moving or speaking more slowly than usual
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Lack of energy
- Low sex drive
- Changes to your menstrual cycle
- Disturbed sleep
Anxiety: psychological symptoms
- A feeling of dread
- Feeling constantly on edge
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling irritable
Anxiety: physical symptoms
- Aching, tense muscles
- Dry mouth
- Feeling short of breath
- Stomach aches and/or nausea
- Pins and needles
Lockdown mental health stresses: 13 things you can do today
Although there may not be an immediate way out of lockdown mental health stresses, there are things you can do to ease the strain on yourself and lift your mood.
1. Take some personal time
Time to yourself may be in short supply at the moment, but try to carve out moments away from the pressure of homeschooling.
‘All parents need some alone time, so if there are other adults in the house, enabling each other to have personal time is a huge gift you can give each other,’ explains Kirsty.
What we can do in this free time is limited, but going for a walk alone, shutting yourself in your room to read a couple of chapters of a book, or even just having a WhatsApp chat with a friend will give you a break from the pressure of homeschooling.
If you don’t have a partner to give you this time, you could consider forming a childcare bubble with a friend, grandparent or other relative so you can have some time out. This is an arrangement where you can join with one other family to provide informal childcare, as long as you have at least one child under the age of 14.
2. Get some exercise
Exercise is one of the few reasons we’re permitted to leave home, and it’s also a powerful natural antidepressant: in fact, it’s one of the first things GPs recommend for mild to moderate mental health problems.
You can combine it with getting your child out of the house for a walk, bike ride or game of Frisbee in the park, which will also lessen the feelings of guilt about them spending too much time on screens.
3. Try not to drown your sorrows
When everything feels too much, it’s tempting to numb your feelings with alcohol: indeed, the proliferation of tongue-in-cheek memes about drinking gin at 9am acknowledge that many of us are using drink as a crutch to get through lockdown.
But while it may make you feel better at the time, alcohol actually lowers your mood, and can also affect your sleep, sex drive and patience: all characteristics of depression. So try to drink only in moderation, and make sure you have several drink-free days every week.
4. Keep in touch with friends and family
When we’re struggling mentally, it’s tempting to withdraw from social contact, and this is a particular problem at the moment, when we’re not able to meet up as we usually would.
While it’s not the same as getting together in person, staying in touch with your friends and family by phone, messages or video calls will lift your spirits and help you feel less alone.
‘Organise social and group activities online with friends and family that stimulate and develop social interaction: for example, arranging a Zoom games evening can provide immeasurable benefits if you’re feeling lonely or isolated,’ says Noel.
5. Set expectations for your child
Working from home while also supervising home learning can be extremely stressful, so if your child is old enough, explain that sometimes, you need to focus on your own work.
‘It’s unlikely that they can stay silent for a whole working day, but they might be able to let you take a call or answer an email without interruption,’ says Kirsty.
‘Be specific: saying, “I need 20 minutes for this call, then I can help you” is easier for them to understand than, “Sorry, I can't help, I need to work.”’
6. Give yourself a reality check
It’s easy to think that everyone is coping better than you, but people tend to only share the good times on social media. You can almost guarantee that for every photo of smiling kids on a family walk, there will also be a tearful tantrum over spellings or times tables.
Take what you see on Facebook or Instagram with a pinch of salt, and remind yourself that times are tough for almost everyone right now. If you can, give a close friend a ring: they’ll probably be more than willing to have a joint rant.
7. Try mindfulness
If you’re constantly ruminating over how you snapped at your child yesterday, or panicking about how you’re going to handle homeschooling tomorrow, your stress levels can easily spiral.
Some people find mindfulness – a technique that involves consciously paying attention to what is happening in the present moment, such as the sound of a clock ticking, the comforting feel of your pyjamas, or the exact taste of your cup of tea – grounds them in the here and now, rather than worrying about the past or future.
There are lots of apps (for example, headspace) and online tutorials that can coach you in mindfulness. Why not try this free mindful breathing exercise from the NHS Every Mind Matters campaign?
8. Talk to your child’s school
Although this time round, schools have to provide more structured home learning, teachers also recognise the importance of pupils’ and parents’ wellbeing, so if the amount of work or level of difficulty is feeling unmanageable and causing you and your child distress, it’s important to talk to their teacher.
The vast majority understand the pressure of homeschooling, and will be happy to work out a plan that suits your family, even if that means you don’t get through every piece of work.
Remember that this isn’t elective home education: it’s emergency homeschooling. You didn’t choose to do this, and it’s incredibly hard. All children will need help to catch up when they go back to school, so don’t beat yourself up about your child falling behind. Their teacher is the expert and will know what they need to do to get them on track.
9. Try not to ‘doom scroll’
Right now, it’s hard to think positively, especially when the news is so bleak, and it’s easy to fall into an internet rabbit hole where we ‘doom scroll’ for hours and end up even more depressed and anxious.
Although it’s hard to resist the headlines, you could try to make a policy that you only look at the news once a day, or that you only visit one trusted media outlet rather than flipping between several, all with a different perspective on upsetting world events.
Try, too, to find the positives amidst the negativity. ‘It’s important to remind ourselves that we’re on the final straight now, with the vaccination programme well underway,’ says Noel. ‘School closures are temporary, and we’ll soon be able to see people again, so tell yourself this positive news.’
10. Use your ‘village’
It’s often said that it takes a village to raise a child, and that’s especially true just now, so use the people around you to give you a break from the stress of homeschooling.
Perhaps there’s a housebound grandparent who’d love nothing more than hearing your child read over Zoom, or maybe you have a friend who has a skill like speaking a foreign language who could give your child a weekly remote lesson. Or what about asking a nearby relative to do some 'PE' with them, by taking them for a run or bike ride?
Your ‘village’ doesn’t have to just be people you know: there’s a lot your child can learn from educational live streams and good quality YouTube videos and tutorials, so accept that usual screen time rules are suspended and let them watch and learn without you having to be directly involved.
11. Speak to your employer
If homeschooling and working from home are feeling incompatible, talk to your employer about the situation, if you feel able to. Chances are they may have children themselves, and understand exactly how you’re feeling.
You may be able to agree to temporary changes that will help relieve some of the pressure, such as doing some of your hours in the evening rather than during the working (and schooling) day, or delegating some of your tasks to another employee. It may even be possible to be furloughed.
If you don’t feel comfortable approaching your boss directly, consider speaking to your HR department if you have one: they have a duty to look after staff wellbeing and may be able to make changes to how you work.
12. Ask about school places
This depends very much on your child’s school and how much spare capacity they have, but if you’re really struggling, they may be able to offer them a place in the classroom as a ‘vulnerable child’. This doesn’t mean that they think your child is in danger: just that you need some help to get through this tough period.
13. Focus on being ‘good enough’
‘”Good enough” parents recognise that perfect parenting is unachievable,’ says Kirsty. ‘They strive to understand and empathise with their children, knowing that their parenting endeavours won’t always be successful, and forgiving themselves for that.
‘These are very challenging times, in which parents will have multiple responsibilities with work, family and keeping everyone well and safe. It’s important not to add pressure by having impractical expectations of yourself.
‘If, at the end of the day, your child is warm, fed and loved, you’re getting it right. Remember that “good enough” is enough!’
When to get help
Although the NHS is under extreme pressure, it’s important that you’re able to ask for help from your GP or mental health team.
If you’ve been feeling depressed or anxious for most of the day, every day, for two weeks, it’s time to seek help. This is especially important if your symptoms are not improving, if they’re affecting your work, relationships and interests, or if you’re having thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
GPs are able to offer telephone appointments rather than face-to-face consultations, and although waiting lists are long, you can also refer yourself for talking therapy through the IAPT scheme without needing to see a doctor.
Need mental health help now?
If you're having suicidal thoughts that you think you might act on or have seriously harmed yourself, go to A&E or phone 999 for an ambulance.
NHS 111: if you need urgent advice about your mental health (24 hours)
Samaritans: 116 223 (24 hours)
SHOUT: text 85258 (24 hours)
C.A.L.L.: 0800 132737 or text 81006 (Wales only, 24 hours)
SANEline: 0300 304 7000 or leave a message on 07984 967708 (4.30pm-10.30pm)
Papyrus (for under 35s): 0800 068 4141 (9am-midnight)
CALM (for people who identify as male): 0800 585858 or webchat (5pm-midnight)