Parenting Through a Pandemic: 7 Tips to Keep You (and Your Kids) Firing on All Cylinders
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, we are asking members of our community to share their experiences — how the crisis is affecting them as parents, as professionals, mentally and physically, and so forth. We're also asking them to share stories of inspiration and provide tips and valuable advice, taking into account their expertise and experience. Today's column comes from Melissa Pinnetti, a mother and licensed independent clinical social worker.
Finding a Balance Has Never Been More Challenging
I am a self-employed parent of a middle schooler and a mental health clinician, and I admit that I have floundered and blundered through the last five weeks of social distancing due to COVID-19. As a working parent and wife, I have been trying to find balance for my family in the face of this crisis.
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On an average day, as I often tell my clients, we cannot reference a parenting manual dedicated to navigating the myriad of parenting challenges we face in raising our children to be good citizens. Never has that been more evident than right now. When COVID-19 reared its ugly head, working parents and their children faced the unprecedented and daunting challenge requiring them to pivot instantly, to abandon long-held routines and ways of interacting within the world.
These routines were replaced with fears, anxieties, and uncertainty that are so different from the usual worries. Schools were closed indefinitely, parents were working from home or struggling to locate child care, sports were suspended, playdates ended, and the usual outlets we accessed to manage our daily stressors — gyms, clubs, dinner dates, shopping — vanished from our lives. As parents worked to manage our own discomforts with the realities of COVID-19, we were faced with having to juggle at-home work obligations with homeschooling and parenting. Simultaneously, attending to the emotional and social impact of isolation on our children became a priority within our homes.
Establish a New Routine
During week one of social distancing and stay-at-home mandates, I became keenly aware of the need to establish a new routine, perhaps even shifting previous "rules" to accommodate these new realities. Sleep schedules quickly became unhealthy, video game use increased, exercise was non-existent, and purpose — the very reason for being — was unclear. Quite frankly, our house was grouchy and anxious.
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"This sucks," I loudly professed after learning that my favorite outlet, the gym, had closed down indefinitely. "This totally sucks and I can’t take this," my 13-year-old screamed, mimicking my negativity, when I told her she couldn’t see her best friend in person for a while. At that moment, it became clear that my primary responsibility was to model adaptive and effective management of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty for my daughter. It was my moment to assist in building her resiliency. From that parenting moment grew a plan to tackle the woes of COVID-19.
Panic Is Contagious; Don't Let It Spread
Anxiety is the overwhelming emotion shared by most of us as a result of this pandemic. Even though anxiety can feel bad, it serves a very important purpose: It alerts us to potential dangers. Today, a reasonable degree of anxiety translates to folks protecting themselves from virus exposure. Anxiety becomes maladaptive when that sense of reasonable fear is inconsolable with basic coping skills or reasonable protections against that which we are fearing, or when panic develops. In instances of panic, rational thought processes turn to catastrophic thinking and impulsive behaviors. Panic is contagious and can easily spread through a family, particularly to our children, who have fewer coping skills and far less knowledge to ease fears.
Anxiety rising from this pandemic is not simply about falling ill, but also about the uncertainties of the future and the financial or social impact on our families. For our family, the keys to decreasing anxiety have been 1) to relate and normalize and 2) create some certainty within the uncertainty.
Let Your Kids Know That YOU'RE Struggling, Too
Let your kids know that you are struggling with aspects of this pandemic, too. Like them, you miss your friends, work, your exercise schedule, and getting your hair and nails done; that a world reduced to being in the house is difficult. This relatedness may be comforting for them. Negative thoughts or cognitions significantly impact our moods and emotions. Reframing is a healthy coping tool for parents and children to practice together.
Practice cognitive reframing with your children: "Being away from my friends is really hard, but it means I get to spend more uninterrupted time playing games with you and I’m enjoying that." Most importantly, normalize their anxiety related to uncertainty and then ... create certainty.
Working parents have the particularly tough task of balancing their own work-from-home responsibilities with the need to monitor their children’s attention to virtual academics. We have found that a concrete, printed schedule for "work/school days" has created a rhythm and routine, correlated with a reduction in irritability and anxiety in our home. Hang the schedule up for the family to access each morning. This daily behavioral schedule might include a range of activities intended to target the behavioral, emotional, social, and spiritual needs of the family.
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Tip #1: Establish a Sleep Schedule
One complaint I have heard often from my clients during this pandemic is that sleep schedules have been impacted by sleeping later, staying up later, decreased expenditure of energy, and worrisome thoughts at bedtime, leading to trouble falling asleep. Establishing a sleep schedule is essential to our natural rhythms, it contributes to more stable moods, and it will make a return to a typical work/school day that much easier.
Tip #2: Look the Part
As my husband states in justification of his 150 golf shirts, "Look good, play good." These are wise words today. Taking care of our hygiene, changing out of our pajamas, showering daily, and eating healthy meals contributes to positive feelings about ourselves. When we take pride in our physical being, we generally feel better than when we do not. Expect the same from your children during the weekdays. It’s tiring to take on the struggle of, "But Mom, I’m not even leaving the house!" Remember, as parents, we are modeling adaptive ways to manage anxiety or crises, and that includes calling attention to our mind/body connection.
More: My Life As a Mental Health Professional During COVID-19 (+ 5 Expert Tips to Remain Calm and Focused)
Tip #3: Set 'Work Times' for You and Your Children
Perhaps they align at 1-2 hour chunks, depending on the age of your children, and are followed by "breaks" for 15 minutes to snack or check in on their progress.
Tip #4: Physical Activity Is Key
Provide an hour of physical activity in the morning and in the afternoon as a means for you and your children to get moving. We are all moving around less these days. If you are an avid fitness person, the absence of your usual tools for working out likely has you grasping for new ways to exercise and get the endorphins flowing.
Your children are struggling with having their sports teams disbanded. Many of them, like my own daughter, have gone from formally practicing five days per week to nothing. Some athletes are worrying about losing their gains at their game of choice. Perhaps establish a new goal with your children that will enhance their sense of accomplishment, and facilitate perseverance and grit in the face of adversity. Whether it be yoga, a mindful walk, a jog, or a recorded exercise video, be sure to get yourselves and your children moving each day.
Tip #5: Give Yourself, and Your Children, 'Creative Time'
This is time that you each choose to spend in your own ways. Let’s face it: As much as we love our family members, we need breaks from each other, too. This might be a time when I read, or write an article, or use a meditation app. My daughter tends to enjoy DIY projects or journaling. My husband is into video games. This time apart, in separate spaces, doing what we each wish at that moment, has been especially important. When we reconvene as a family, we are reinvigorated and can resume enjoying each other.
Tip #6: Social Distancing Does NOT Mean Relationship Distancing
We are social beings, and studies demonstrate the importance of healthy connectedness for our wellbeing. My usual limits around technology use for socializing with my middle schooler have been abandoned in the face of COVID-19, replaced by the twice-daily granted requests to Zoom and FaceTime with her friends. Similarly, parents need be creative with scheduling virtual dinner dates with their own friends or meeting in a large parking lot for take-out meals at a distance. Parents, like children, require connection to their peers, relatedness, and an "adult" place to vent their frustrations and fears with the current state of the world.
Tip #7: Appreciate This Newfound Quality Time
Many of us are missing the craziness of rushing from work to sports practice, yet finding enjoyment in the newfound time we have to spend with our children. Make dinners together, engage in a charitable project, or teach your children a life skill. This models healthy use of time.
Melissa Pinnetti has a private practice in Newton, MA, serving clients with varying diagnoses, including major mental illness, polysubstance abuse and dependence, and personality disorders. She provides individual psychotherapy, family therapy, and case management services, and is a court-appointed parent coordinator. For more information, visit her website.