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COVID-19: Challenges and Opportunities for Parenting While Social Distancing Part 1

COVID-19: Challenges and Opportunities for Parenting While Social Distancing Part 1

Many parents out there are scrambling as schools close and the CDC and other public health agencies are recommending social distancing to reduce the spread and impact of the COVID-19 virus in the U.S. Social distancing is an important step to keep yourself and your family safe. The Washington Post has a good visual demonstration of how social distancing helps reduce disease transmission and “flatten the curve.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/world/corona-simulator/).

But social distancing can put a lot of stress on parents, including struggles associated with working from home situations, financial challenges, and how to manage children who have had their schedules and social networks disrupted.

  • For parents who must work outside the home during this period, the fear of getting sick and bringing that illness home to our families can feel overwhelming.
  • For parents who are able to work from home, there are many challenges to juggling full-time caregiving and full-time jobs at the same time.
  • For parents who cannot work from home, the looming income loss creates worries about paying for food, shelter, and utilities.

Meanwhile, everyone is worried about friends and family members who might get sick and what this global crisis might do for both short term and long term finances, individually and globally.

How do we attend to our kids needs when we are worried about working from home, taking time off work, potential income losses, and fears about the health of ourselves, friends, and loved ones? As I am talking to my clients in Bethesda, Maryland, I am struck by several challenges and opportunities this quarantine presents for many families. I am encouraging people to be authentic about the real strains they face with social distancing, while also taking the opportunity to embrace the extra family time to create positive, memorable experiences during this trying time.

This blog will address each of these issues in turn. Part 1 of this blog will validate and discuss ways to overcome your fears or concerns, discuss this situation with your children, and help your children work through their own emotions. Part 2 of this blog will give you concrete actions you can take to juggle working from home, to tend to the increased caregiving, and to address the social isolation your family will likely experience. Part 3 of this blog will discuss how to make the most of this change in circumstance. Each blog will repeat a list of resources for people who need assistance.

As Part 1, this post will focus on validating your experiences surrounding this pandemic and providing you with concrete tools to address your own concerns and your children’s concerns.

Managing Our Own Stress

Most adults are stressed about some aspect of this pandemic, be it from the disease, the disruption, or the isolation. Our children will pick up on our stress. It is important to be authentic about your feelings without stressing your children.

To manage your own anxiety about the pandemic, make sure you are engaging in good self care. Keep a consistent bedtime, get plenty of rest, exercise daily, and eat healthy. Make sure you plan fun time with your family, with your partner, and some alone time. And think about adapting other ways that you usually manage stress and anxiety in your daily life. What already works for you? For example, if exercise with a friend is what gets you going, can you do still do it at a safe distance from each other? Can you have a workout session over Skype or FaceTime?

I also encourage my patients to engage in guided meditation. Insight Timer (Insight Network, Inc) and Relax (by Andrew Johnson) provide good guided meditations on iPhone. (No affiliation or commission, just apps I recommend.) Many meditations are also available on Youtube: simply search for mindfulness meditation on Youtube.

One kind of meditation that I am finding particularly helpful right now is a “metta” or loving kindness meditation. Loving kindness meditations are really helpful right now because they develop our compassion for ourselves and others. Compassion helps loosen the grip of fear and anxiety on our hearts and minds. Thinking and offering others well-being (as well as ourselves) helps us feel connected rather than alone and isolated. It also helps our perspective-taking, since anxiety narrows our attention to our own immediate danger, while compassion and mindfulness about others’ suffering helps us broaden our attention to our shared needs, concerns, and humanity.

Social connection is often a source of comfort for anxieties for people, so make the time to talk about your anxieties with close friends or family. Phone calls, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, etc. can allow us to meet with people one on one or in small groups and get some of the social connection that we would have with them. Now may also be an opportunity to deepen some of those friendships by vulnerably sharing what you are struggling with the most, and offering empathy for your friends’ struggles. I will talk more about this in part 2 of this blog.

If not enough of this is working for you, and you feel like you need some extra help, don’t forget the option of reaching out to a therapist in your area. Many therapists, like myself, are continuing to help people deal with their anxiety and stress via teletherapy (therapy conducted online through a secure audiovisual connection conducted in real time).

It is going to be important to try to be more patient with your family and be more forgiving both of your family and of yourself. The stress will impact your daily communications. It is best to acknowledge this reality, take responsibility when you make a mistake in communicating, and try to make amends and repair any damage you’ve caused. Also, it will be important for family members to give each other the benefit of the doubt, forgive each other for our mistakes and outbursts, and give each other many chances for a “do-over.”

Communicating with Children: The Importance of Being Honest and Authentic

There’s no pretending this disruption is business as usual. It is unrealistic to call social isolation an unexpected holiday because you are confined to your house most of the time and can’t interact with friends. So talking with kids about what is going on will be important. There’s a delicate balance of being honest with them, but not causing them unnecessary fear.

Kids learn empathy and emotional intelligence, in part, by perceiving others’ emotions and trusting their perceptions. Thus, it is important for parents to exhibit extra authenticity when talking with our kids about stressful situations. Children need to know that if they perceive that you are anxious, stressed, exasperated, frustrated, confused, uncertain, or feeling something else, that they are reading you correctly. They can also learn the important lesson that parents are not somehow magically immune to big feelings when they go through lots of big feelings in a day or week. Thus, it is important that parents don’t deny how they are feeling with their children.

That said, it is also important not to over share feelings. Children don’t need to be burdened with the details of what worries us. They don’t need to know the extremes to which we might be feeling these emotions.

Sharing feelings with children will look different at different ages, especially because the younger kids will have less language and more need for you to be a strong, capable caregiver. Younger children, especially, need to know that you’re not angry or upset with them (even though sometimes you will be). Some ways you might start would include:

  • I’m not upset with you. I am feeling overwhelmed about all the changes going on…
  • Daddy (or Mommy) is feeling anxious right now, but we are making plans to keep you safe.
  • Mommy (or Daddy) has a lot of problems to solve with all the changes going on. I know that I am more short-tempered than usual, even though I am trying hard not to be.

With older children, you might turn this experience into a learning opportunity about how you solve problems. You might provide some details about what you are reading, how you are evaluating the reliability of the sources, how you are making decisions, and what you struggle with in deciding what to do and not do.

It is also important to reassure children. Let them know what you are doing to keep them safe. Let them know any age-appropriate pieces of information that give you some optimism or hope about how people are responding to this crisis, like the institutions and individuals who are working diligently to help people who get sick, meeting people’s needs for food, education, etc. Share with them some things that you are grateful for. For example, I keep finding myself feeling grateful for both the people who are continuing to work in the grocery stores and pharmacies, and some of the example of policies I see them implementing to keep people more safe (e.g., at Costco, they are limiting the number of people in the store at any given time, offer wipes for the carts, encourage people to stay a safe distance away in line with each other, etc.). You may find that as you reassure your children, you will reassure yourself some at the same time.

Listen With Your Ears, Eyes, and Heart

Our kids are going to have all kinds of reactions. Many kids might initially focus on the joy of having time off from school. Some kids might experience anxiety about the disruption to their sense of “normal.” Some kids are going to be pissed by the limits, blasé about the risks, bored, stir-crazy, and some are going to think summer vacation just came three months early. And we are also going to have reactions to their reactions.

As the pediatric neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel M.D. talks about, we often have to connect with our children first in an emotional and body-oriented (i.e., right brain) way by paying attention, making eye contact, sometimes physically getting down on their level, making gestures, and matching vocal tone and intonation. When we do this, we allow ourselves to get into their world a little more and listen with the heart beyond the words that they are saying or the actions that they are taking. Then, once we have connected with them in this right-brain way, we can help them learn to use their left brain to label, talk about what they feel, and problem solve about what might help.

With older kids, some of them will be able to put some words to what they are experiencing. They might come out and say that they are scared, or bored, or frustrated. It’s important to give them time, attention, and freedom to open up about what they are feeling. If they aren’t forthcoming, you could ask them more direct questions and let them know you are here for them.

With younger kids, especially, they will show you how they feel, and often won’t have words to express those emotions. You will have to listen with your eyes as well as your ears to them. Even if they know the vocabulary words of “scared,” “angry,” “bored,” they often don’t have the awareness and skill to identify their own feelings in the moment. Instead, they often act out in behavior what they are feeling, and when they are having a tantrum or an emotional meltdown of some kind, they are often expressing nonverbally that they are overwhelmed by their emotions. (We adults also express emotional overwhelm this way too).

With these younger kids, you can use this pandemic to help your kids develop this discourse. You can notice what they are doing and offer them an empathic guess about what they are feeling, which will help them start to know their emotions better and engage them in talking with you about them. For example, you might try:

  • I noticed that you are staying alone a lot. I wonder if you are feeling sad and lonely?
  • (To a child having a tantrum) Wow! You are clearly feeling something big. Maybe you are trying to tell me how frustrated and angry you feel?
  • (To a child who is constantly seeking your attention) Gosh, it seems like you really want some more connection with me?
  • (To a child who is not sitting still and bouncing off the walls) Wow, you seem restless. I guess you must be feeling anxious? Bored? What do you think?

Once you have helped them label their feelings, and talked about it some, then the two of you together might be able to figure out what to do about it. Sometimes, just talking about the feelings will be enough support. Other times, you might need to ask: “What would help?” Also, drawing on attachment research, don’t forget some of the most basic things that often help kids:: physical affection if they are receptive, encouraging words, eye contact, a warm smile, and loving attention to what they are interested in can go a long way to soothing and comforting a child who is feeling overwhelmed with feelings.

Conclusion for Part 1

We are in an uncertain, unprecedented time for many of us. It’s an incredibly stressful and challenging shared experience that we are going through, children and parents alike. While each person may react to the stress in their own way, it’s important to tend to and comfort ourselves and our children during this trying time. To do that, we need to take good care of ourselves, be honest and authentic with our kids about how we are feeling within age-appropriate limits, and empathically understand, connect with our hearts, talk about their feelings, and help support them emotionally when they are feeling overwhelmed by their feelings.


All Social Services: 211.org provides a comprehensive list of local social services. You can search for services by your zip code.

Food: Many schools are continuing to distribute free breakfasts and lunches in a curbside delivery. Similarly, other hunger initiatives continue as pickup or delivery services. Information on the web is harder to find. It is best to call your local school, city, and county governments to find local programs. Additionally, the Food Research & Action Center links to federal programs and updates about federal programs in light of COVID-19.

Financial Support: The Simple Dollar lists banks and other financial service providers who are waiving fees, reducing or deferring payments, refinancing, or offering loan products. Additionally, Inc is reporting that the federal government, sixteen states, and the District of Columbia have responded to COVID-19 by waiving unemployment waiting times and providing small businesses low-interest loans.

Utility Assistance: Some internet service providers are offering free or low-cost temporary service to households, as well as unlimited data. Many heating and water companies are extending repayment options rather than shutting off utilities. A USA Today article reported on some of the options and the Energy and Policy Institute is keeping an ongoing list of what actions different utility companies are taking. Just keep in mind that charges continue to accrue and will be due in time.

Emotional Support: Many therapists, like myself, are providing teletherapy to clients so mental health services can continue with as little disruption as possible. It is important to ensure that the therapist you see is appropriately licensed for where they are practicing and where you are calling from. For example, I can see clients in Maryland and North Carolina because I have active licenses in both of those states. If you are in crisis, Business Wire is reporting that Optimum has opened a free crisis hotline for those who need urgent help dealing with stress and anxiety.

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