Parenting in the Face of the COVID-19 Pandemic (& How To Do It)

Updated: Apr 14, 2020

By Dr. Sarah Haas *



Parents, please first read this validation piece here: https://www.centerforactiveminds.com/post/parenting-in-the-face-of-covid-19-you-are-not-failing-your-children


So, you may be thinking that you're ready to change your mindset, but how do you change your mindset regarding your parenting, and how do I talk to my kids about what's happening? Here are some suggestions:


1. It’s OK To Reduce The Expectations You Have For Yourself.

Contrary to what some articles are suggesting, NO, you do NOT need to use this as a time to pick up a new hobby or learn a new skill. If you’re in a place where you’re bored and you and your family’s basic needs are being met, by all means learn a new language! If you’re not bored and/or you feel like every day is a new test of survival, then please, do yourself a favor and focus on meeting you and your family’s basic needs as your one (and only) priority. Let's explore why this reduction in expectations may be helpful...


Remember those goals you set for yourself in January 2020? Remember how you were planning on learning a new skill or taking up a new hobby or challenging yourself to learn different parenting skills? Remember how last month you had the thought that you were going to spend more one-on-one time with your child than you have in the past? Well, those goals may change for right now and THAT IS OK.

You set those goals for yourself when you were at a very different place than now. Just like you don’t have the same goals for yourself now as you did when you were 20, you can’t expect to have the same goals now as you did prior to the pandemic.

Right now, 80% of your Jenga® structure has fallen over, and you are being forced to figure out how to rebuild it from the 20% still standing. But remember that you were not able to set those goals until the base of the structure was built and secure. So now your goal is to rebuild the structure in a stable manner (see the previous post for some context about this: https://www.centerforactiveminds.com/post/parenting-in-the-face-of-covid-19-you-are-not-failing-your-children)

Thus, holding yourself to the goals or expectations you had for yourself is unrealistic at this time and is really just setting you up for failure and more parenting guilt. You didn’t get your child to bed on time today? That’s OK. Your child really wanted to play with you but you had to get your work done? That’s also OK. You gave your children frozen meals and cereal today? That’s OK. You forgot to have your children brush their teeth today? You didn’t read them their bedtime story? You feel like you gave them too much screen time today? Guess what…that is all also OK.

Recognizing that you are being asked to do the impossible during a very stressful time when you also need to reconfigure your coping skills may help you forgive yourself for not feeling like you are at your best parenting. Refocusing on the fact that your children are able to eat & are healthy may be an important positive reframe. You cannot hold yourself to standards that you had pre-COVID. Right now, achieving the basics needed to support your children means you are doing an amazing job as a parent. Recognize these changes are temporary but may be necessary for you to rebuilt your Jenga structure at this time.


This leads me to another important & related point…

2. Make The Effort To De-personalize Changes And Negative Mood States

Are you feeling like you’re on an emotional rollercoaster? Does it feel like you’ve got a handle on things one minute, but then an hour later you feel overwhelmed with all that you need to do? Are you unable to focus well, or are making careless mistakes, or are forgetting things more than usual? Are you not usually someone who experiences a range of emotions across a day or a week? Or, are you simply experiencing more negative mood states that you normally do?


Well…this isn’t a “normal” time. Often times when we feel our emotions or our behaviors are not what we define as what is typical for us, this may lead us to think there is something internally wrong with us. It can be easy to identify our mood changes or frequent negative moods we are experiencing at this time as us a stable, character flaw – it must mean I am disorganized, poor at time management, or a bad parent, or simply not good enough. Some people are less likely to identify these changes for what they are—temporary and normal responses during a time of trauma. That is, they are a direct result of the larger pandemic and say very little about your character as a person. But when we personalize these negative characteristic of ourselves, it can further decrease our energy, motivation, and positive attitude, which often helps us remain focused on the important things during a time of crisis. Also, it is normal to have behavior and mood changes during a time of trauma. So your “not normal” may in fact be a normal response.

Repeat after me: You are not unraveling. You are not a bad parent. You are stressed. You are being pushed to your limits. AND you are still making it work.


Similarly, your children may be feeling many emotions and may not be able to articulate what they are feeling or what they need right now. Oftentimes children who cannot effectively express themselves verbally will act out behaviorally. Children may also act out behaviorally in response to change (like, not going to school anymore or not seeing friends), or in response to feeling like they have no control over various aspects of their lives. Conversely, some children, particularly those who may be feeling anxious and may not feel close to others or feel comfortable talking about how they feel may be behaving better than usual. They may not be acting out behaviorally, and parents may view this as a nice break. However, these children may actually be communicating that they are not OK. They may be feeling sad or depressed or anxious and may need an outlet to communicate that effectively.


The overall message is…if your child is acting different than how they “normally” act, (1) that may be a normal response to their experience of a traumatic event and allowing them some forgiveness may be helpful for everyone, and (2) if they are not acting “normally” (i.e., how they were acting prior to the pandemic), it may suggest that they are looking for you to reach out to them to help them feel in more control.


Just like you may forgive yourself for not doing certain tasks during the day, you can forgive your child for not doing what they are told at some points during the day. However, it may be important that forgiveness is the exception, but not necessarily the rule. This is why: Keep in mind that typically speaking, boundaries can help children feels safe in terms of knowing what is expected of them and what they need to do to be successful, and that children testing boundaries (temper tantrums, anyone?) is normal and helpful for them to learn the boundaries. At this time, it may be important to do two things: (1) Re-evaluate what boundaries you have set for your children (e.g., pre-COVID: 2 hour of screen time allowed; during COVID: 10 hours of screen time allowed), and (2) Stick with those boundaries by providing consequences in response to positive and negative behaviors (e.g., more than 10 hours of screen time = going to bed early Friday night). Consistency, in terms of what the boundaries are and in consequences for breaking boundaries helps your child learn better; however, it’s OK to forgive yourself when you are unable to maintain strict consistency. Again, you and your child are both experiencing a traumatic event at this time. Just do the best you can!


3. Label Your Emotions

Ever feel “blah” or “not yourself”? Have you noticed that when you leave it as feeling “blah” or some other non-descript emotion, you feel grumpier or negative for longer? Conversely, ever feel frustrated and tell someone “I am so frustrated right now”? Do you notice that simply saying that alleviates at least a little of that frustration in the moment?


There may be a (good!) reason for this.


The goal is to place a specific label on the emotion you’re feeling. Research suggests that just identifying the emotion can help you feel a little better in the moment. Here’s an article that discusses how labeling a feeling may be helpful, and identifies the science behind it: (https://bigthink.com/robby-berman/4-things-you-can-do-to-cheer-up-according-to-neuroscience).


Labeling the emotion may help by making us feel that we have some control over our emotion; once you know what the feeling is, you can create a plan to address it!


When we are sad, sometimes it helps us to cry or talk to someone specific. When we are frustrated, sometimes it helps to do a fun activity. When we are uncomfortable, we may stop what we are doing in the moment and do something else.


These examples suggest that how we feel may determine what we do next. So if we don’t know how we are feeling, how are we supposed to know how to help ourselves navigate that emotion?

If you are feeling negative, uncomfortable, down, blah, or not yourself right now, maybe check out this article that describes why the feeling you may be experiencing is grief: https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief?fbclid=IwAR3L9xBk0cNrgwV87nWl9qJMoO75xXMsj8QKp5z3iaLN9IRAtygOTWSDZ9Y

4. Recognize It’s OK To Be Worried

Worrying is normal. Particularly, worrying in a time of crisis is normal. Worry is an emotion. Emotions can be our body’s way of allowing us to coordinate with our thoughts about the best plan of action. Our emotions may encourage us to stop and think instead of just act. For example, if you feel some worry about climbing a ladder, this may alert your thoughts to think through if climbing the ladder is a good idea or not. In this way, emotions do not simply dictate what we do, but serve as another piece of information we can include in our decision making.


In this way, worrying can be helpful. Worrying causes discomfort. Discomfort typically leads to changes in behavior (because discomfort doesn’t feel good, and we just want to feel good right now!).


But…how has being worried changed your behavior among the Coronovirus pandemic? Worrying may lead you to wash your hands more. Worrying may lead you to eat healthier. Worrying may lead you to reduce your trips to the grocery store. Worrying may limit your interactions with others and engage in social distancing. These behaviors are in line with the CDC guidelines for what we should be doing right now. In this way, worry may be helping you survive this pandemic.

If you haven’t already, it may be helpful to watch Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk where she discusses that stress causes negative physical consequences if we think stress is bad (of course, this is an oversimplified summarization of her talk. Listen to her talk here: https://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend?language=en or read my summary of her talk here: https://www.centerforactiveminds.com/post/the-benefits-of-stress-and-anxiety-yes-i-meant-to-say-benefits).


Our body’s cues that tell us we may be worried (shakiness, butterflies in the stomach, heart racing) can look very similar to our body’s cues that tell us when we are being brave, courageous, or excited. This is why it can be really important to make sure we are labeling the correct emotion for how we are feeling in a particular situation.


It’s important to keep in mind that not all worry is normal or helpful. If your worry is impairing your ability to focus or complete daily activities, then seeking professional help through a psychologist or a therapist may be warranted. If your worry gets you stuck into thinking about things you cannot control, it may not be helpful worry. If you find you cannot control your worry, you may need some guidance for you to be in better control of the worry. You can find local therapists through PsychologyToday.com or by calling your insurance company (or going through your insurance’s website online). If you are looking for affordable therapy, you can look for therapists through OpenPathCollective.org or call some local therapists and ask if they offer a sliding scale fee for services.


5. Talk With Your Child About Their Concerns

Not only are you experiencing the trauma firsthand, but you are also re-experiencing the trauma secondhand, through the eyes of your child. You are seeing the COVID crisis from their eyes, noting what their major concerns are. You are also learning what that balance is for your child to know what is happening with the virus but not be gripped with fear.


Parents can serve as one (and maybe the only) filter between all the information about the virus provided from the media and society at large and their reality of the virus. Likely, your life has changed drastically in response to the virus: You may be home more, you may be seeing your friends less, you may have to change your coping skills (e.g., cannot go to the gym), your financial situation may have changed, you may not be traveling as much as you usually do, the economy changes may change your job requirements or if you have a job…and the list goes on.

Your child could be experiencing a subset of these changes: they may not be seeing their babysitter as much, they may be seeing their parents more, they aren’t going to school, they aren’t seeing their friends, etc. Also, your child could be experiencing these changes to a lesser degree than you are given that they are not as likely as parents to be consuming as much media regarding the virus, and given that you have more life experiences than your child does, so naturally you have different worries in your life than your child does. So, whereas you may be worried if your parent or grandparent will be OK health-wise, your child might be most worried about not seeing their friends for what feels like forever.


Understanding your child’s perception of their world and their thoughts about the changes they are experiencing can increase our ability to respond to our child’s concerns effectively.


So If your child is asking you about the pandemic and what it means, how do you respond?

Responding by asking them what their thoughts are, or what they are most concerned about, can help guide your conversation with your child. This way, it may also alleviate some pressure from the parent about what to share versus what not to share with their child. In this way, your child’s thoughts then can guide the conversation about towards addressing what they are most concerned about, not what you are most concerned about. For example, a child expressing concern that they aren’t going to be able to play with their friend again may lead to a very different conversation versus a child expressing concern for the safety of their grandparent versus a child expressing concern for their own safety.


6. You’ve Done This Before, & You Can (Will!) Get Through It Again.

Unless you are over 100 years old, NO you haven’t gone through a pandemic of this magnitude before. But when you break the pandemic down into it’s component parts, it may feel more familiar to you than you might realize:


-Difficulty focusing or finding motivation

-Feeling a loss of control

-Fearing the unknown/uncertainly

-Finding new coping skills if old coping skills didn’t work

-Focusing on short-term increments; one day at a time, or one hour at a time


Some examples of situations where you may have experienced one or multiple of these components can be major or minor unexpected events, including: short- or long-term physical illness to you or someone close to you, death of a family or loved one, witnessing a traumatic event, losing a job, experiencing food insecurity, having a baby, being in a car accident, moving to another state, changing careers, experiencing a mid-life crisis, having to call into work, running late for work, being unprepared at a meeting, or you (or your child) experiencing a sudden illness.


If you haven’t experience any of the above-mentioned situations or similar situations, you may feel lucky. But on the other hand, you also have not been afforded the opportunity to learn how to adapt to these potentially stressful situation so that you learn about yourself and what you need and thus have new and improved skills to address similar situations in the future.


What has worked well for you during times where you’ve had this happen? Often, parents and children may find that focusing on what they can control is more helpful than focusing on the unknowns. Focusing on the bigger picture can also be very helpful in this way. That is, knowing that you have been through crises before and you learned you were able to adapt and find your way out of the crises can allow you to feel more in control when uncontrollable events happen.

Remember that time your child broke their tooth and you didn’t know what to do? Oh, except you did know what to do. Because you got your child the help they needed. Worried you didn’t act flawlessly? Well, your child got the attention they needed at the time they needed it. That’s a win in any parenting book. Yes, of course the situation relating to the larger pandemic is different; however, in a pinch you will figure out how to manage it and get through it because when you’ve had to figure out things in a pinch in the past, you have figured it out.


7. Find Opportunities To Reframe This Experience Into Positives (When You Can)

There is a lot to be concerned about right now. There are many practical concerns that affect our daily functioning that need to be addressed. But…are you finding ways to focus on those things in a neutral or even positive manner?

For example, yes, it’s quite a hassle for those who have moved their job which is normally conducted face-to-face to using an online platform. But learning that online platform will undoubtedly force you to learn a new skill! Might that new skill allow you to market your skills better in the future? Will it help you discover a career opportunity that you may like better? This may not reduce the frustration and stress of taking a crash course in learning a new skill right now, but if you have to do it, there might be some benefit you can salvage from that in the future!

You are undoubtedly learning more about yourself and what your needs are and how to meet those needs during this time. Are you someone who enjoys going out with your friends every week? What are you replacing that behavior with to fill that need of socializing weekly? Are you finding you usually feel more productive at work when you have breaks throughout the day to talk to your colleagues? Now that those organic breaks aren’t happening, what are you doing to ensure you are able to continue to be productive? What new self-care activities are you getting into to help your mood?

You can also think about applying this same information to your children. Is your child learning they are having a hard time learning material presented online than they learn face-to-face? Maybe keep this in mind when they sign up for college courses. Are you finding your child to be really good at problem solving your technology issues? Provide them praise about that and let them know you recognize this as a skill they have! This may lead to thinking about future career options or learning experiences once the pandemic is over. Does your child typically play with their neighborhood friends when they are feeling stressed? What coping skill can they try right now to de-stress? Expanding on our coping skills and knowing that we can control our emotions (by using our coping skills purposefully when we feel stressed), rather than just needing to wait them out, can be a very powerful life skill.



Crises and times of conflict or discomfort allow us to test our boundaries in ways that times of peace cannot. That is, we typically do not change our behavior if what we are doing is working. Thus, the Coronavirus pandemic is causing us to re-evaluate what’s working in our lives, and to get even more creative in our problem solving and coping skills, and effectively creating flexibility and RESILIENCE. I doubt anyone would ask for a catastrophe to happen in their lifetime, but now that we have it, how can we make the most of it?



 

Disclaimer: The Information provided through this website, including the various pages, blog posts, and emails, are designed for informational purposes only and does not constitute a client/therapist relationship. The information is not intended to replace medical advice or mental health treatment. Every individual person's situation is unique. Please seek out individual care if needed.

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