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Insight on Parenting During a Pandemic

Posted on: June 4th, 2020 by Julia Samton, MD

Parenting is hard. Parenting during a pandemic is harder.

Just a few months ago, few of us had heard of the term “sheltering in place” and now we have been doing it for months. COVID has caused a dramatic transformation in our lives, and it has taken a psychological and physical toll. Bedtimes, wake times, and mealtimes are discombobulated. Without school, sports, and extracurricular activities, millions of kids have no clear path, and parents are having a tough time guiding them. Creating structure and normalcy during an era of uncertainty seems undoable, but once we understand the importance and patterns of resistance, we can continue to work toward building healthy family relationships and home lives.

While it is our responsibility to limit our children’s behavior, it is our children’s job to push against those limits. Children learn by trial and error, and with certainty, they will conduct real-life experiments as they reach different developmental stages. Just as a butterfly pushes against the cocoon before it can fly, your child will push against the restrictions you set forth. When they push, consider whether you can grant them more freedom, or maintain the boundary to keep them safe. When the latter occurs, reassure your children that you are not merely maintaining your authority, but rather it is your responsibility to keep them healthy and secure. Share that once both you and your child feel ready, you look forward to giving them more leeway so they can grow and thrive. Explain that limits are unfortunately stricter on all of us because of the uncertainty surrounding the virus, and the unknown consequences of getting the disease. For the moment, we might need to overprotect them until we understand what is needed for their safety.

What about when it all goes wrong?

We are well aware that these discussions do not always end harmoniously. Our children sometimes respond negatively to limit-setting, displaying tantrums, defiance, or withdrawal. Interestingly, when we see these negative behaviors, we are actually witnessing only the tip of the iceberg. Our children tend to act out when they have overwhelmed their ability to contain their sadness, anxiety, grief, or fear. Although their anger is often directed at us, it is not actually about us, but rather belies larger feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness.

Regardless of the cause, it is hard to maintain composure when you are the object of your child’s rage. Nevertheless, it is critical to keep calm even if he or she is disrespectful and rude. Never fight fire with fire. We teach our children by modeling good behavior, not by lecturing, punishing, and yelling. When a child is out of control, they need to learn self-discipline, and if you refrain from retorting, over time, they will learn to do the same. In addition, if you remain calm, even the most defiant child will stop their rant, tantrum, or disrespectful behavior sooner than if you add to a chaotic exchange.

Once your child calms down, capitalize on a teachable moment.

Do not hold their behavior against them. Instead, put yourself in their shoes. Consider a time when you lost your temper and said something you regret to someone you care about. What did you need at that moment? Did you need someone to criticize and tell you how you mishandled yourself? Most likely, you knew that you goofed, and so does your child. This is not a good time to withhold love. Instead, take the initiative and approach your child with understanding. Place your arm around your son or daughter and tell them that you recognize that they are suffering. Living through a pandemic is difficult. Listen if they open up and talk about how they are feeling. Give them space to express themselves, even if they are blaming you for the latest poor exchange. Once they have finished talking, explain to them that while all close relationships have some conflict, it is important to be respectful of each other. Hopefully, in the future, they can remain calm and respectful during times of disagreement. Nevertheless, when that does not feel like an option, explain that they can take the option of politely excusing themselves, collecting their thoughts, and, when ready, approach you with concerns. You want to remind them that you are ultimately the “decision-maker”, but you can tolerate disagreement, as long as it is approached with calm and respect.

During these times, when we are not sure of what tomorrow brings, it is important to approach our children with empathy and compassion. COVID has displaced us, and together we are experiencing collective trauma. As adults, we struggle with the correct ways to handle sudden changes in our lives. We can expect our children, who lack the psychological maturity that comes only with life experience, to have even greater difficulties navigating these historic times. Remember, that although their negative emotions are directed at us, our children are communicating the grief and sorrow from losing their freedoms and the life that they have grown to depend on to feel stable.