Parenting in the age of COVID-19: Coping with six common challenges

illustration of parent juggling challenges during covid pandemic
(Illustration: Fawn Gracey/Adobe Stock)

As families grapple with an ever-changing normal, stress and anxiety can escalate. We turned to Erica Lee, PhD, and Keneisha Sinclair-McBride, PhD, psychologists in Boston Children’s Department of Psychiatry, for answers to six common parenting challenges.

Challenge #1: Struggling with schedules

With everyone at home, typical schedules have fallen by the wayside, which can feel unnerving.

Solution: Create structure

Whether your child has distance learning or not, structure and consistency feel comforting. To keep your children’s minds and bodies active, aim for a mix of school-related activities and fun. Eat well (include treats), have regular sleeping and waking times and exercise daily, with outdoor breaks that adhere to physical distancing and public health guidelines. “Healthy habits help children and teens feel safe, especially during times of stress,” explains Lee. “The more normalcy people can bring into their lives, the better.”

Remember, you don’t need to be perfect. “What works one week may not work as well the next, but sticking to the basics will be a source of security,” says Sinclair-McBride. “There are going to be aspects of this new normal that are uncomfortable and messy, but there will be times of joy, too. Kids grow from messiness and joy.”

Challenge #2: Constant togetherness

You’re together at home all day but also need time for yourselves.

Solution: Balance together time and alone time

Families benefit from time together and time apart. You can connect in old or new ways — make meals together, play games, or watch movies. Learn new skills, go for a family bike ride, or try a hobby you’ve always wanted to explore. But it’s also important to create space for each family member to recharge, says Sinclair-McBride. Plan solo time when everyone can go to their own room or a quiet space for at least half an hour for an appropriate activity, such as playing video games, talking to friends, or journaling.

Challenge #3: News overload

Staying informed is important, but too much information can be overwhelming.

Solution: Manage media consumption

“Talk to your children about COVID-19 in supportive, developmentally appropriate ways,” says Lee. Keep it simple and clear. Validate any worry or concern; remind them you are there for them; and work together to identify ways to feel better (an activity they love, a video chat with friends, fresh air). Limit media access and frequent updating of news feeds. If news is truly important, you can be the funnel for your child.

Challenge #4: Different personalities

Staying home all day can reinforce anxiety for anxious or introverted children, while extroverts may feel lonely.

Solution: Engage and support

Encourage introverts balance their time so they aren’t only doing one solo activity all day or going a long time without connecting with family and peers. Strive for a mix of screen time, social connection, physical activity, schoolwork, and fun projects.

Help extroverted kids find creative ways to use technology to stay in touch with family and friends, like hosting a Zoom dance party or creating a cooking show. “They can connect with causes they care about, check in on elderly people in their lives, or virtually read to younger students,” says Sinclair-McBride. “Being of service gives them some control.”

Challenge #5: Helping an immunocompromised child

Immunocompromised children are often already familiar with social distancing techniques, but they may also feel more stressed about the situation.

Solution: Focus on the positive

An immunocompromised child may feel more stuck than others — try to affirm how unfair that might feel while making their time at home fun. Remind them the whole country is trying to keep vulnerable people safe and healthy. Focus on the factors within our control, like healthy hygiene and social distancing.

Challenge #6: Navigating shared custody

Social distancing may mean kids must stay in one parent’s house.

Solution: Establish a regular routine

Set up a schedule so kids know when they will have time with each parent. “Check in before breakfast and bedtime, or find a regular time to FaceTime or Zoom with the parent who’s not in the home,” says Lee. Plan quality time together, like an online game, a craft, or a virtual dance competition. If you have multiple children, try to get one-on-one time with each.

“If you can’t be with your child for a short time, remind them, ‘Even though we’re not together physically, we’re here for each other,’” says Sinclair-McBride. “There’s also a bright side of our current situation for shared custody families: establishing new ways to connect during this time can positively shape your relationships for years to come.”

Get more answers about Boston Children’s response to COVID-19.

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