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COVID-19 Social Distancing: Challenges and Opportunities for Parenting Part 2

COVID-19 Social Distancing: Challenges and Opportunities for Parenting Part 2

Our world is rapidly changing. Restaurants and stores are shuttering their doors temporarily, schools have shut down, and governments are encouraging people to shelter in place. This rapid change has brought vast changes to our daily routine and uncertainty to our future. In Part 1 of this blog, I talked about self care, how to talk to your children about this pandemic, and how to help your children process their reactions to this scary time. In Part 3 of this blog, I will discuss ways to make the most of this situation.

Being Part 2, this post is going to focus on the middle: adjusting to this new reality and creating a sense of normalcy. We will discuss how to balance working from home with your increased caregiver roles especially during a period of social isolation.

 

Working From Home

Working from home presents many challenges, even when kids are at school. When kids are at home, the challenges increase significantly.

Working from home has the potential to mean you are never away from work nor are you ever away from the endless todo list of household chores and projects. While you are working, the laundry is yelling, “I need to be washed, dried, AND folded.” While you are cooking, your computer is yelling, “there’s still unfinished business you should be attending to.”  If you don’t set clear boundaries, no matter how much you get done, you will feel like you failed.

It is best to set up a designated area where you will do work. If you can keep that area out of your bedroom and play areas, it will help differentiate sleep, work, and play. If you don’t have that kind of room, establish a corner of a room that is dedicated to work and only work.

Establish hours that you will be working. When you are working, you will not be helping with kids, doing chores, or talking with family, within reason. If you have kids who can care for themselves, you might be able to work from 8 AM-noon, take an hour for lunch, and then work from 1 PM-5 PM. Many people prefer to take a few 15 or 30 minute breaks, which will extend the work day. Whatever feels right to you, make sure you come up with a schedule that you will stick to, and then stick to it.

If you have younger children and a partner to help, you might have to trade off, so each partner works, for example, for 2 hours while the other partner is caring for the children. You will probably have to scale back your hours or extend work into the weekend to allow adequate whole family time each day while getting everything done.

If you are trying to work from home with younger kids and no other adult support, be prepared to be exhausted. It’s going to be tough. You will likely have to work during naps and sleep times. Consider going to bed when your kids do and waking up at an unreasonably early hour so that you have dedicated work time before your kids wake up. That will give you emotional relief of knowing you have gotten work done while you tend to your children.

Kids also need clear boundaries about your work time. They don’t have a lot of life experience to draw from, so it’s even more important to be explicit about what you need. For example, if you cannot be interrupted except in extreme emergencies, lay out the circumstances for when kids can interrupt. Give them a method of addressing their concerns if they cannot interrupt you. For example, they could call a grandparent or write their questions on a notepad outside your office.

If you need complete silence for a phone call, consider asking your kids to throw the ball with the dog during the designated time. Set an alarm for when they should go out and when they can come back inside.

Sharing space in this way will also be new, so be prepared to discover how noise carries. Try to be patient because noise that is normally OK at home could disrupt your during your designated work times.

Be realistic. At work, most of us don’t sit at a computer and plug away from clock in to clock out. We have coworkers, clients, customers, delivery people, and others interrupting us every day. These people will likely be less disruptive when you are working from home. But, the disruptions will be replaced with family disruptions. Don’t idealize your work environment or you will become much more irritated with your family, even if you are getting more work done at home!

 

Increased Caregiving Roles

When kids are at school, breakfast is often a hurried, separate affair, lunch is at school/work, so dinner becomes the only meal many families have together, if schedules allow. While you are homebound, you and your family will be eating at least 3 meals per day at home.

As I discuss in part 3, more time for meals at home will provide more time for family meals. Meals will likely switch from “grab and go” to cooked and plated meals. This switch will increase the burden on the family cook.

More cooked meals will also mean more shared meals, which will mean more compromise about what to eat and less individual choice that lunches apart allow. It can be a good idea to rotate who gets to decide what to eat, so that when kids are eating food they don’t enjoy, they can at least look forward to the next time they get to choose. If you want them to eat meals you pick, you should also eat meals that they choose, even if a peanut butter and jelly sandwich isn’t your lunch of choice.

That said, some kids might fare better with picking from a list of meals. And, choices might be limited to what’s in the pantry.  Other kids might fare better by creating a long list of meals they’d like, and then having parents whittle the list down to healthy options that are available and affordable.

Your role as caregiver will also increase because fewer adults will be guiding your kids. Normally, parents are in a community with teachers, family members, and friends. These adults will often provide rules so you don’t have to. They will reinforce rules that you lay down. And they will be a sounding board and voice of reason when your kids are upset.  Moreover, when kids are in school, group norms set by their peers’ behavior often guide their actions as well.  During this period of isolation, parents will be alone in their roles as rule makers, rule enforcers, rule negotiations, and complaint departments.

This increase can cause and heighten tensions, especially around rebellion, autonomy, and authority conflict.  One of the first things that can help us parents in this time is to consider carefully what battles we are willing to take on.  What must our kids’ do and what might fall into the category of what we’d like them to do but can let slide a little?  For example, in our house, we have definitely been letting our teenagers sleep in more than we would during school.  We are also letting them watch more TV than usual.  That has given us some credit, I think, for insisting that they do keep up some self-care routines and engage in certain educational or creative projects during parts of the day.

Once you are clear about what they must do and what you can let slide, you can reduce some rebellion with adolescents by giving some choice.  You might try to position yourself collaboratively “next to” them rather than dictating to them what they should do.  For example, with some school projects, you might say:  “I know you have this essay and this math work to do before next week.  When do you think you would work best on them?  How much time do you think you need for each?  When do you want to do it?”  Or if you have an important meeting during which you can’t be interrupted, you might talk to your adolescent about it and ask them what they think might be the best activity for them to do so as not to interrupt you during that time.

With younger kids, you might have to give more constrained choices, and will likely have to tell them what to do more, as well as maintain some consistent consequences.  When they rebel, draw on your usual strategies for calming yourself down first, then using choices and consequences of those choices to influence their behavior.  Also, as I talked about in Part 1, some of the tension and conflict you might experience with your kids might be due to their spoken and unspoken big feelings about all of the changes in their lives.  So you might have to focus more on connecting and relating to their emotions first, understanding what’s driving them, and then redirecting them towards a more positive outcome.  All that being said, expect it to be tougher, and that just as you might have some more “bad days” due to the stress, anxiety, uncertainty, and upheaval, so will your kids.

Mostly, parents will be responsible for structuring their kids time 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. In part 3, I will talk about how to use this structure to create quality time. But first, let’s admit that without external structure, maintaining a structure will be difficult.   And also, let’s recognize that schools are set up to have much more structure than lots of us parents can maintain at home, and your kids (especially the younger ones) will notice and react to the decreased structure.

Here again, it can be important to set clear guidelines rather than expect your kids to make good choices. For example, if you want kids to limit their idea games, it is important to tell them how much time they can play video games each day, what hours it is ok to play video games, and what they should do when they are not playing video games.  To give them choice, you might help them think through when they want to schedule their video game time, but you still keep the choice about how much.  And it can be useful to give them (or with older kids, help them create for themselves) a visual reminder of what times they are supposed to do what in their day.  You might check out this blog by a colleague Dr. Ari Yares that focuses on structuring kids’ time and has a link to some calendar examples for kids https://www.ariyares.com/2020/03/16/structure-the-unstructured/.

While you can use this time to catch up on much needed sleep, it’s not a good idea to let sleep schedules get completely out of whack. It is a good idea to ensure kids are getting to sleep within an hour of their normal school bedtime. You can let them sleep in so they do catch up on sleep, but not so late that they then skip naps (with little kids) or have trouble falling asleep at bedtime (all ages).

It’s also a good idea to set up a daily or weekly todo list, as well as times for different activities. If kids have online schoolwork, it’s a good idea from emotional, learning, project-management standpoints to do a little each day, or at least every other day.

If school is not providing online work, it is a good idea to assign at least 1-2 hours of educational activities for kids 10 and up. I will discuss more educational activities in part 3, but these can include reviewing prior schoolwork, brushing up on a tough subject, studying for the SAT’s, investigating colleges, or doing independent research. It can also involve watching educational programming when you need the tube to help with parenting.

Last, but maybe most important, you might find that balancing work and home life results in increased caregiver roles for your children as well, especially your older ones.  You might start relying on adolescents to watch and entertain younger ones while you have some important work to do.  Or you might find that you are having some of your children exercising more self-sufficiency than they are used to doing.  If so, it can be so valuable to appreciate your children for their extra efforts, extra responsibilities that they take on, and ways that they help you out or help out the family as a whole.  A little encouragement and recognition may go a long way.

 

Stay Connected (Electronically) 

We are fortunate to be of a day and age where we can reach out to call people, text people, email, post on Facebook, etc., even when we have to stay away from them physically.

Don’t forget to reach out and lean on the people you have that support you even more during this time of crisis. You can choose whether you want to discuss your fears with them or talk about other topics. Either way, connecting with them will remind you that you have a support network.

Also reach out to people whom you might support.  As Shakespeare said, “Love sought is good, but given unsought is better.”  Helping someone else is one of the ways we contribute beyond ourselves in the world, and it has the added benefit of often making us feel better.  You may deepen a connection with someone who you value, and you might become closer friends.  You might also feel that you are doing something that contributes, where other avenues for esteem (like work and going out with people) are curtailed by social distancing.  And as I talked about in Part 1, focusing on supporting someone else can reduce your anxiety, help you feel less alone with your anxiety, and expand your sense of connection with other people and humanity as a whole.

Make sure your kids are connecting with their friends via phone, email, text, social media, and other forms of long-distance communication. If you have younger kids, now might be a great time to have a Skype call with a peer or a grandparent. Just remember to let them be active and silly on the phone.

If you don’t feel like you have much or much of a reliable social support network, it may help to remember how much a part of the whole human race you are still right now. What you do affects people you don’t even know.  Two poems that have recently gone viral remind us that we are all connected:  Pandemic by Lynn Unger and Lockdown by Brother Richard Hendrick.  I encourage you to share them with people you love, including your children if you think that they are of an age that they could get it.

If you are really struggling emotionally, it might be better to rely on professional help rather than rely solely on friends and family. Many therapists, myself included, have experience with teletherapy, which is therapy conducted over an electronic, audio-visual medium (similar to FaceTime or Skype).  You don’t have to go through it all alone.

 

Conclusion

Balancing working from home, structuring your kids’ time, overseeing their education, and maintaining social connections will be daunting during this time.  You will likely benefit from carefully deciding what’s most important with regard to it all, and let some usual expectations, limits, and extra activities slide for a time.  You will also reduce some of the extra tension and power struggles if you can find ways to give kids some choices in how they structure their time.  And your kids’ will flourish more if you can acknowledge and recognize them for the extra roles, responsibilities, and efforts they make during this time.  In Part 3, I will talk more about creating some opportunities to slow down and create meaningful connections out of this extra time that we have together.

 

Resources:

I am going to repeat the resources I posted yesterday to make them easier to find. If you have additional links, please include them in the comments.

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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Bethesda, MD 20814

drleary@matthewleary.com
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