Parenting may be one of the most challenging roles to have. It is a full-time responsibility of providing physical and emotional care for a vulnerable population, while trying to help advance a child’s development and growth. Unexpected events and circumstances serve to further test parents’ abilities to parent meaningfully and effectively. Then there is the matter of parenting during COVID-19. During a crisis, the typical parenting-related stressors and tasks that are present are magnified and incessant. As professionals, we know times of high stress lead to a variety of reactions, some helpful, some harmful, some related to the stress itself and others a secondary consequence. The average family is encountering a novel situation that is surely stoking the flames of unsettled conflicts between parents (partnered, married, separated, divorced, other) and powerful intrafamilial dynamics (parent to parent, parent to child and sibling to sibling). We do not know when we will be in the clear, but for those of you who are professionals working with parents (or parents yourselves), this article offers some guidance to make parenting during this time a bit less daunting.
We are all familiar with the grounding effects of consistency. This is relevant to all children, regardless of the makeup of their family constellation. In this time when routines once familiar are now obsolete, it is necessary for parents to create new routines that closely mirror the routines followed before the pandemic. This applies to a child’s schedule of learning, eating and sleeping. This also applies to a family’s parenting time schedule- irrespective if this is a formalized schedule (i.e., for non-intact families) or not. To that end, for the families who have a documented schedule, unless a court has stated otherwise (see The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ), 2020), Parenting Time Orders are still in effect. There remains a presumption that the Order in place continues to represent what is in a child’s best interest (Wong & Burns, 2020). Therefore, whether a child is from a family where the parents are together or apart, to whatever extent is possible, the child should maintain the exposure previously had to each parent during the regular academic year.
Notwithstanding any court-ordered exclusions for reasons of safety and well-being, social connectedness, by way of quality time with caregivers, is especially beneficial now during an otherwise isolating period (Bartlett, Griffin, & Thomson, 2020). Therefore, in the unfortunate event that COVID-19 has forced a change in the parenting schedule, it is vital the parent physically present with the child consciously engage the child in connecting activities with the non-present parent. Technology provides a plethora of options for doing so. Consider the applicability of guidelines generally given to separated and divorced families, and use photos, voice recordings, and videos to maintain a child’s connection with a distant parent (Parlakian & Lerner, 2012). Take a cue from the military’s United Through Reading program and offer a child the opportunity to connect with a distanced parent through the bonding experience of reading aloud (Yeary, Zoll, & Reschke, 2012).
Inevitably, parents will run into conflict. As long as parents have shared legal decision-making, one parent cannot force the other to follow non-government ordered guidelines, such as isolation during COVID-19. As always, when such disagreements arise, parents should be encouraged to work together. Can a professional or trusted friend help the parents uncover the underlying issue or dispute? Can a parent undertake the extra effort typically abandoned for the sole purpose of assuaging the other parent’s concern? If there is even a fraction of a chance the answer is “yes,” parents are encouraged to try these options.
For separated/divorced parents, even if “parallel parenting” rather than “co-parenting” was historically practiced, now is the time to exchange information and collaborate (Wong & Burns, 2020). Parents shall communicate what the child is saying, what the child is feeling, their ideas about care and how to respond to the child and changes that need to be made (Burns, 2020). If this amount of communicating seems daunting, parents can consider using “I” messages: “I feel…when…because…, so can we…?” (Deutsch & Sullivan, 2020). This allows communication to remain focused on addressing the matter at hand, without accusatory distractions or provocative verbalizations.
Finally, communicating is not exclusive to the other parent. Parents are to communicate with their child(ren). This likely already began when first communicating about COVID-19. Communication should include concise and focused age-appropriate information about the nature of the current disease outbreak, how it is contracted, what the possible dangers are, protective measures taken in the community and protective measures taken in the immediate family (The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), 2020). This communication should be one of many family-style, developmentally appropriate meetings where family members are encouraged to share their experiences, ask questions and receive age-appropriate responses (Basu, 2020). For the quieter child, that disposition should be respected by receiving non-verbal assurances, comfort and support from the parents. The quieter child also needs guidance on non-verbal ways to communicate his/her feelings (Moore & Rauch, 2015).
Providing accurate and authoritative psychoeducation can be the key to helping parents reach agreement (McNamara & Hall, 2020). In the way that there is stress related to the pandemic and stress related to the consequences of the pandemic, two categories of information are needed from professionals: 1) Health and safety information about how the virus spreads, along with effective health and safety protocols to follow (see Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2020), and 2) How to understand, relate, communicate and interact with the adult and child members of one’s household (see World Health Organization (WHO), 2020). This latter set requires the application of the abundance of general advice to each family’s unique needs and circumstances. Professionals are encouraged to describe the range of normative reactions to the ongoing situation based on developmental age, as well as provide relevant tips and parenting tools.
Make time to tune in to your ongoing emotional experiences so you can be mindful about your approach to coping. Children, parents and the professionals helping them need to get in touch with their internal states, experience them and then venture forward with intentionality. A range of emotional and behavioral responses are expected. We all need patience, tolerance, and reassurance from those around us (NCTSN, 2020). Draw on coping skills used in other stressful situations and find your path forward. Remember, sometimes it is beneficial to bend the rules and indulge with moderation. Be flexible with yourself and those around you, and then try again to get back to the new norm.