Stress Relief Advice for Parents During Flu Season

If the all-caps notices from daycare stress you out every flu season, you're not alone. Here's how to calm your nerves and quiet your mind so you can focus on caring for your kids.

lady stressed looking at computer with tea
Photo: Illustrations by Bijou Karman

When my kids were little, it felt like they were constantly sick. Night after night, someone would crawl into my bed and press their feverish little feet up against me. Morning after morning, my husband and I struggled through the impossible algorithms of work and child care.

I forced myself to take deep breaths while I combed lice from the children's hair, scrubbed barf from my own, and Googled imaginary catastrophes. I bought hand sanitizer, replaced toothbrushes after bouts of strep, and fed everyone optimistic probiotics and fish oil. And I sat and sat in the pediatrician's office under an unwell little somebody whose weight grounded me there because where else could I be? Nowhere.

These days my kids are older and need me less when they feel unwell. Still, when I asked my young parent friends about their sick-season worries, they shared fears about germy shopping carts, escalators, airplanes, and those "Mucus Together" classes where everyone blows into the same instruments. And with all those daily news alerts about the current illness hitting everyone, it's easy to panic that your child's fever and cough could turn into the latest Doomsday viral bug everyone is talking about. The truth is, parenting during the sick season can feel insurmountably stressful.

Here's some help to keep things in perspective and not fall down that rabbit hole during the sick season.

Worry Gets You Nowhere

A parent's stress can range from mild concern to heart-thudding panic. You might feel like your kids are always sick, and you'll be eternally passing germs back and forth like a baton in some nightmarish relay. That's why Google and social media can fuel your anxiety inferno, so it's best to avoid those and stick to reliable sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

The truth is, doing research online makes us feel like we're doing something productive—when we're just fretting. As Susan Orsillo, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and coauthor of The Mindful Way Through Anxiety, says, "One of the most challenging things about worry is that we can get pretty far in the process and still feel like we're problem-solving."

Having a family member with a chronic condition such as asthma or an immune-system disorder can make you even more nervous about sickness coming into your home. And for parents already struggling with an anxiety disorder, worries about their child getting sick can be debilitating, says Dr. Salcedo. "They might not let their kids go to friends' houses or on any outing that would require using public facilities." If you're so anxious about your kids getting sick that you're keeping them at home, you're likely missing out on the company of friends who could lend you an ear and talk you down.

Plan the Logistics

Beyond close-to-the-heart fears about our children's well-being, we also have more practical worries. One mother told me, "As a single mom of three, I worry that once one kid gets sick, we're all going down. Which means missing work and losing pay while I stay home with them." Another friend explained, "A sick kid I can take care of, but who does all my mothering work when I'm laid up? And who takes care of me?" Young parents often live far away from extended family who would have been able to pitch in.

Even when your kid is feeling better, school rules may mean they must stay home for 24 hours after their fever drops. For working parents,

A survey from C. S. Mott Children's Hospital, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, found that more than a quarter of the parents had to miss work three or more times to care for a sick child, and one third worried about not getting paid or losing their job because of staying home with a sick kid. After all, only 13% of private-industry workers have access to paid family leave, according to a Pew Research Center survey, and no federal law requires it.

Combine that with the fact that center-based child care for two kids costs young parents more than half of their median annual salary on average and you're looking at a perfect financial storm. Many of us can't afford day care as it is, our kids can't go to day care if they're sick, and we can't afford to miss work when our kids are home.

Putting a plan in place can help set your mind at ease—even if it's just having a candid talk with your boss now, when everyone is healthy. Consider friends you could call for backup if necessary. Whenever you have a hunch that your kid might be getting sick, Dr. Orsillo suggests saying to your partner, "Hey, what's your week like?" so you can strategize about staying home from work.

Find Your Calm

Karen Kleiman, author of Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts, reminded me that anxiety is "adaptive and instinctive." That means you can't help it, and that over generations and generations, it has helped protect our kids. We are genetically predisposed to be anxious because it keeps the species alive.

As with many situations in life, you have to remind yourself to look at the big picture: Pinkeye and lice may be inconveniences, but they're surely not disasters. If you feel anxious thoughts brewing, Kleiman recommends repeating these four soothing mantras to yourself:

  1. Germs are unavoidable. Just because my child is exposed to germs, it doesn't mean she will get sick.
  2. My child is exposed to germs all the time, even when I don't think about it, and he has not gotten sick—or, if he has gotten sick, he has recovered.
  3. My child is healthy and has a strong immune system that will protect her.
  4. Even if my child does get sick, he can go to the doctor and nothing terrible will happen.

Also consider what you're teaching your child about the world when he sees you reacting to the news that a friend is sick—and that you seem more worried about catching her germs than about how she's feeling, says Dr. Orsillo. He might not learn, for example, that compassion is the proper reaction to someone else's suffering.

"We can't actually help our first response—it's automatic," says Dr. Orsillo. "But we can stop and say to ourselves, 'That's not the person I want to be.' We can practice mindfulness by noticing a worrisome thought and just letting it be."

You can also consider the silver linings of sickness. For one, your child's immune system needs to encounter these illnesses in order to learn how to protect her from them. As my brother, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist, used to tell me, "Kids who are sick a lot when they're young are less sick when they're older." Although this felt very pie-in-the-sky at the time, it turned out to be true.

For another, if you're stuck at home with a sick child, well then, that's time you can spend with your child. Because even though you're freaking out and calling HR and the pediatrician and the pharmacy and cursing the childproof caps and mopping up spilled cough medicine, there's a sweet little sick person who needs comfort. This is still your real, precious life, even if you have to spend it waiting for an X-ray technician to diagnose pneumonia. This is still your child's life.

So go ahead and mother him, because it will soothe both of you. Make him a warm drink, read to him, give him placebo cures like cinnamon toast or a drop of lavender oil on a warm washcloth. Enjoy the fact that you're not having to pack a lunch or be at work. Love the warm body in your lap at the pediatrician's office, turning pages for you while you read him a book with your chin pressed against his sweaty, beautiful head.

Appreciate the phenomenon of the sick kid who gets better. Honestly? This is the only thing that ever really helped me. Remembering that you can't control their health or the future. You can only be here now.

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