Life with MS

Parenting During Times of Stress

By Darbi Haynes-Lawrence
The pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns, the need for social distancing and the very real misunderstanding and labeling of this public health issue as a political one, clearly caused an amazing amount of stress on families across the world. People lost their jobs and their homes. Food insecurity is at an all-time high. Women are disproportionately affected by the pandemic more than men; where their unpaid work has increased (e.g., cooking, cleaning, caring for the children), their paid work has decreased; this is greatly affecting relationships and the economy.

In sum, stress has been an unwelcome, hefty side-effect of the pandemic for all of us – children and adults alike. Stress is not unusual. Pandemic or not, all of us experience stress. There is good stress and bad stress. Eustress, to put it simply, is the good kind of stress. It is what gets us up and out of bed. Gets us moving, helps us accomplish tasks, go to work and so on. Distress – the bad kind – is the stress that is so overwhelming it affects all facets of our lives: how we think, how we feel, how we cope. Distress happens, and having coping strategies helps us get through these times.

What do we do during these times of stress? I teach a few stress theories at the university. One of them is Hill’s ABCX theory of stress. It is an oldie-but-a-goodie. Hill developed this theory in the 1950s. The theory consists of:
A – the event
B – the resources available to the family
C – the definition of the event
X – the likelihood that a crisis will occur or will not occur.

According to this theory, when a stressful event happens, what determines the likelihood that a crisis will occur? How the family defines or views the stress, and the resources available to the family. For example, imagine you experience a stressful event, (A) such as a small car accident. But you have resources, (B) such as auto insurance or savings to help cover the damages. Because you have resources that are to be used in such situations, you would define this situation as tolerable (C).

Thus, there is no crisis (X). Continue imagining this same scenario. Car accident (A) but no insurance to cover the damage to the car. The family would define this as scary because how will the car be fixed so you can drive to work? Because there are no resources to pay for repairs to the car (B), and that affects getting to and from work and is very scary (C), that results in the family being in crisis (X). An idea behind Hill’s theory is preparation for crisis situations. If we have resources in place, that changes how we define events, and alters whether a crisis occurs or not.

However, we cannot plan for every single crisis, such as those the pandemic has created. While Hill’s is a basic stress theory, McCubbin and Patterson developed the double AaBbCc X model. This model refers to stress as having ‘pile-up’ effects. Stress does not occur in a linear fashion, where we have one stressor, handle it, and move on to another. Of course not! If stress worked in that fashion, we most likely would not have the phrase “When it rains, it pours!”

With the AaBbCc X theory, I liken it to a nesting doll. Imagine you are the tiniest of the dolls; the one found deepest inside the set. As stressors pile-up on us one after the other, another doll, and then another doll, is added to the set. Before you know it, one giant nesting doll is what is observed to the outside world, with layers upon layers of stressors inside that doll, ruminating and rustling about, causing increased health issues, strain on our mental health, and so on.

We know this pandemic has caused major stress on families, but we may have overlooked the affect on our teenagers. I have written before about the effect that MS and disability has on my daughter. I have had MS since she was 4. I was not disabled from the disease until she was 10. She is now 16. From that time, she has carried such a burden related to me and my disease.

I hate that about this disease – the burdens. I would carry all of them; what I have never wanted is for those burdens to be put on her – yet here we are. Where she could have made a choice to attend school during the 2020-2021 academic year, she chose virtual learning to protect me. We discussed this decision repeatedly, and every time she said with affirmation, “I will not expose you to COVID. If I go to school, I risk being exposed. If I am exposed, you are exposed. I will not make you sick. If I stay home, you are safe.”

After further probing, she was terrified she would make me sick, and I would die. I’ve watched her closely this year because of the stressors the pandemic has caused. Our children, no matter their age, absorb and internalize our stress. We might see them act out more, or we might see less of them as they withdraw to their rooms for longer periods of time. We might see the outgoing personalities diminish and their grades decrease. Their ‘nesting dolls’ are filled with layer upon layer of stressors. What do we do?


We kept tabs on the stressors we were feeling, and we asked Sami about hers. All the time. We checked in frequently throughout the day, addressed any issues that might have popped up, and, trust me, with virtual learning that was new to her and her high school teachers, plenty of issues occurred. As I reflect on the past year, I realized we often had the same conversations over and over. Sami needed our encouragement, and reminders that she was okay, everything was going to turn out okay. We used the phrase, “one foot in front of the other,” a lot.

It was our way of moving through the issues that presented, and reminding ourselves we were going to make it through if we just kept putting one foot in front of the other. We did not ignore things that reared their heads (see toxic positivity below); we addressed any issue that arose.


We knew when issues arose, that flexibility was key to addressing and resolving them. Thankfully, our high school knew that the virtual learning wasn’t optimal, but doable, and flexibility was important. If the Wi-Fi went down, as it did one day smack in the middle of a big chemistry test, the teachers worked with Sami to make other arrangements. We see parenting as a flexible role. Things change, and while we have our boundaries, rules, and expectations, we also understand the importance of being flexible with our teenager.

Support Network / Resources:

In everything we do, a support network and resources are key in helping us be successful. This is true for adults and children. With the stress theories, resources are what help us define the events we are experiencing. We can define them as crisis situations, or we can define them as difficult, but we can persevere. Resources for adults might be a bit different than those for adolescents, but many are the same. We (her parents) were a huge resource for Sami.

She knows we are always there for her, she can come to us with the scariest of worries, and we will guide her through them. That’s the relationship we established with Sami. Next, we knew where we needed other resources to help her. For example, a therapist. Our therapist has been an extraordinary support person during this pandemic. We have always felt adolescents need a therapist, whether a mental health issue is at the forefront or not. Our therapist is as important to us as our primary care physician and dentist.


Because we were at home, we quickly felt cabin fever. Movement is healing, and so we made sure to keep our bodies moving. Some days they were things as simple as a walk around the neighborhood; other days we were able to play golf (I watched). Thankfully golf is a social-distancing style of sport. Other things that Sami did to take breaks were paint, read, journal - all things that were helpful to her.

Avoid Toxic Positivity: 

Finally, you might have heard about toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is when we minimize, deny, or invalidate a person’s emotional experiences by asking them to be happy all the time. It is a bit more in-depth than that. Asking a young person to overgeneralize positivity in the face of a difficult time is diminishing the emotional experiences that person is facing. When we do that with our adolescents, we are setting them up to question the emotions they are feeling.

For example, are they right to be upset that a friend just lied to them? Or, with toxic positivity, should they be thankful they have friends at all? Instead of overgeneralizing positivity, utilize active listening when talking with your adolescents, address what they are feeling, acknowledge their emotions. These lessons learned during the time of the pandemic are important ones at any time.

By communicating with our kids, being flexible, utilizing our support networks, helping them stay active, and avoiding toxic positivity, we can help our children during any time of stress including the stresses brought on by MS.