Care and Feeding

Coronanxiety

My mom’s become a monster worrying about the coronavirus. How do I handle her excessive anxiety?

A mother and teen daughter sitting away from each other on a couch, the daughter crossing her arms and looking displeased.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by JackF/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a 17-year-old girl who lives with my mom and 7-year-old brother. There are currently four cases of the coronavirus in my city. I have been cautious of what I touch and make sure to wash my hands regularly, and up until recently, I wasn’t too worried about it since most people who got it said it was mild. But my mom—who is an overprotective germaphobe—began panicking, and now all she talks about is the coronavirus and how we’re going to get it.

Now, if it just stopped there, I would understand. However, my mom has gone a bit off the deep end. She talks about how we’re all going to die and will freak out if someone coughs or sneezes. We aren’t going out of the house that often, and if we do it’s not for long, so I wasn’t too worried at first. Now my anxiety has skyrocketed and all I can do is obsess over news articles about the virus. Most nights, I can’t even sleep because I’m too scared!

I know this isn’t healthy for our family, so I tried to talk to my mom about maybe scaling down on talking about it so we could calm down. This resulted in her calling me a selfish brat because I’m “not thinking about the safety of our family.” This whole thing has turned her into a monster. She yells at me for accidentally breathing on her and regularly calls me names. I’m honestly at a loss about what to do. I can’t get outside help because my mom would NEVER forgive me for “risking” getting my brother taken away (and yes, he is her favorite), and I don’t trust that a therapist wouldn’t share whatever I told them with anyone else. If I try to leave, I know my mom will hunt me down and force me to come back.

My 18th birthday is in about two months. Should I just suck it up and deal with it for a little bit longer?

—Trying My Best

Dear TMB,

It sounds like you’re dealing with a lot at home and that this may have been the case before the coronavirus made your living situation even more stressful. I’m sorry that you are having a rough time with your family, and I want to salute you for being so thoughtful and caring about your own mental health and your mother’s, as well as your younger brother’s well-being. It sounds like they are both lucky to have you, even if that doesn’t seem super obvious to either of them right now.

I’m also glad you recognize that your mother is experiencing major anxiety right now, instead of simply regarding her as overprotective or irrational. If she (and/or you) deals with anxiety on a regular basis when there isn’t a scary pandemic looming about, then it comes as little surprise that she’d be easily triggered right about now, especially if the safety of her children is one of the topics that causes her to have those feelings. She’s far from alone in being “unreasonably” upset and emotional right now. Of course, that does not excuse her name-calling or being nasty toward you.

Navigating that part is tricky. She’s the parent; you live in her home and are beholden to her rules. Even a polite and seemingly reasonable challenge to that authority, such as raising concerns about her behavior, may be viewed as insubordination or disrespect. However, as a near-adult and as a young lady who seems to be mature, clear on the issues at hand, and concerned for your mother, I think you owe it to the three of you to attempt a difficult conversation with her about how her actions as of late have affected your family.

Ask if you can talk one on one. Identify a time during which the two of you are able to give each other your undivided attention under the most peaceful circumstances possible (so, not after watching a news report about the coronavirus, nor as she’s recovering from a rough battle to put your brother to bed). Let her know you appreciate how serious she is about keeping the family safe, that you share her concerns, and that you are willing to do everything possible to reduce the risk of exposure for your household. However, some of the language she has been using and her reactions when someone has coughed, touched their face, or done anything that may feel “risky” at this moment have left you feeling even more upset and scared than the mere news about the virus itself has.

Here’s some language for a script:

“Mom, first I want to say how much I appreciate you and how much you do for ‘Timmy’ and me. You work hard to take care of us, and if I haven’t done the best job of letting you know what that means to me, I hope you understand now that it means a lot. I’m also very grateful that you are taking the coronavirus so seriously and doing everything you can to keep us safe. I know not all of my friends’ parents understand how dangerous it is, so while I may have rolled my eyes or complained at first, I now understand how lucky we are to have you right now.

“That said, I don’t want you to think I’m not also serious about staying healthy and helping you and Timmy to do the same when I say this, but … I feel like the amount of time we spend reading and watching news reports and obsessing over the coronavirus may not be good for us. I think it is making us more anxious and more scared. I’m going to make a point to check the news throughout the day without spending all day watching every update, and respectfully, I feel like that may help you to feel better as well. We know the best steps to take right now: staying indoors, not having company, washing our hands constantly, and keeping an eye out for symptoms. I don’t think keeping up with minute-by-minute reporting is doing anything for us except make us feel more frightened.

“Finally, it hurts my feelings when you call me names. I know you are scared—I’m scared too. But we have to try to get through this together. I will do whatever I can to make things easier for you right now, and I just hope that you can understand where I am coming from. I mean no disrespect or harm. I love you and I just want us to get along better. Can we talk about how we can make that happen?”

If her behavior escalates or continues to be harmful, you will have the option of finding another place to live once your 18th birthday rolls around. Considering how difficult that can be for someone of any age, I ask that you continually check in with your gut and answer these questions for yourself: Am I safer here than I would be elsewhere? Is my mother’s behavior dangerous to me, emotionally or physically? Can I tolerate this until I have a reasonable plan to move somewhere that is stable and comfortable? Then you can decide your next steps. Wishing the three of you all the best.

—Jamilah