Parenting During Social Distancing Burnout
Updated: Jun 18, 2020
After some of the initial shock of the first few days of quarantine started to subside, I began receiving texts and emails from friends with questions about how to best support our kids during this time. None of us knew how to cope. We were deep into getting into a work from home normal (if we were lucky enough), helping our kids log into remote learning and make sure they were keeping up, and strategizing how to get enough toilet paper. People were panicking. The Tiger King obsession was a good representation of the climate in those early days.
Parents needed a place to ask questions and support one another, and not knowing how else to help a community that's been so helpful to me, I started an informal support group for local parents. I've been honored to Zoom with these women for several weeks and wanted to share some things we've figured out together to help our kids.
Below are some practical ideas we've generated for improving the general family struggles we've encountered.
Create a family project: Enlist your kids' ideas and decide on a project as a family. My family decided to re-landscape our front yard and plant a big garden. This project not only added a new routine and something else to do in our day-to-day unstructured time, but it helped my kids be future (and not present) focused. Watching things grow, planning the meals we'd have with what our garden yielded, and writing guest lists for the celebratory barbecue we'd host in the new space once it was safe helped the kids remember each day that this crazy time would eventually end.
Create daily routines: Once everyone was up (and yes, I let them sleep really late) we started our day with a little meeting about what we each needed to get done for the day. We took the day in 60-90 minute alternating blocks of school, screen time, rest, and being active. Kids need structure, and setting a schedule for the day helped break up what could have been really long, boring days. Most of the parents in our group did the same.
Create weekly routines: Prior to quarantine, our family had weekly routines. Tuesday nights was one daughter's math tutoring, Wednesday was mom's night out, and Friday we ordered takeout and watched movies together. We decided to add another movie night to the week if everyone's school work was done and started taking more walks. Each evening was something different, and it helped them to have something to look forward to.
Get some new tools: I know not every family can afford this, especially with so much job loss, but I tried to get a new game or puzzle each week. An inexpensive pool was the best investment I've made. I'm paraphrasing Sark, but "When your kids get crabby, put them in water" and it works every time. Parents in our group also found this helpful.
Plan a vacation: Covid derailed our June vacation, but we have fun daydreaming and planning the destinations we'll visit when this is over. If you have older kids, enlist them in looking up flights, vacation packages, budgeting, and helping plan the trip.
Encourage new life skills: This is a great time to teach our kids life lessons. Show them how to write a check, cook a perfect ribeye, practice driving in your driveway, negotiate friend conflicts, make a budget, and wax a car. It's been fun for me to have a sidekick doing the things I need to do anyway, but they thrive in this one-on-one learning time.
This is the sphere for most of the discussions in our Zoom group. How do we support little ones, attend to our own work and educate them simultaneously, and maintain everyone's emotional wellness? The multifaceted challenges taxes even the most relaxed parents. As social distancing becomes more protracted and may run into the next school year, it's important for us as parents to be able to hold the emotions our kids experience.
Make space and safety for big emotions: Adults have our entire lives' worth of experiences and the resulting coping skills. Even though this is a novel time for us, we can draw from past experiences to cope when we feel cooped up, stressed, and anxious. Our little ones don't have that life experience yet. They may not be able to identify feelings and instead act them out. They struggle with isolation, and hearing tidbits of the news creates anxiety. Remember and honor that they can't cope the way we do. Make it a point several times to check in with their emotions. Most importantly, if you're anxious, stressed, or scared, downplay it in front of your children. Kids look to us for cues on what to think and feel, and if you model calm and safety for your kids, they will feel it.
School is second to emotional health: A lot of the parents in our group (and many others I know) are preoccupied with keeping their kids' learning on track - sometimes even going above and beyond to ease the fear that their kids are going to be behind next year. Know what? Yes, they will. Accept it. Know what else? Despite our best efforts, most kids will. Next year, across the country, kids and teachers will have to work hard to make up for the losses this year. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that the next school year will look very different nationwide. My advice? Relax. Don't go to heroic lengths to enrich your children's learning. When my kids were little and parents would boast about their kids achieving developmental milestones early, my take was that my kids would probably achieve them by the time they went to college. It continues to be my attitude now. Keep kids' emotional wellness and emotional safety a top priority, and they'll get there with the other things by the time they leave for college. I promise.
Manage the inevitable bickering: Anyone who has spent time in my house knows the only thing my kids regularly fight about is whose turn it is for dishes. Quarantine has intensified the bickering tenfold. Even though I understand it's the byproduct of being cooped up together for such a long time, it's my least favorite thing about quarantine parenting. I try to give the kids activities and chores to do that separate them from each other regularly. We have reading time each day to spend time alone in their rooms. And I try to encourage them to work together peacefully. When the arguing is particularly intense, I take time throughout the day to ground myself, be mindful, and empathize with what they're going through.
Help kids learn distress tolerance and self-soothing: A few friends have asked for advice when their kids' behavior is not typical for them. Some withdraw, some act out in ways they hadn't before. While it's understandable, parents are at a loss about how to help. A good book I recommend to parents to help their kids deal with big feelings is "Don't Let Your Emotions Run Your Life for Kids: A DBT-Based Skills Workbook to Help Children Manage Mood Swings, Control Angry Outbursts, and Get Along with Others." Parents can use this opportunity to teach kids how to cope with distress and cope with big feelings, a valuable life lesson for us all.
Take measured, careful breaks from isolation: Quite a few of us have talked about our kids being upset seeing other families being less strict about social distancing, and question why they can't participate in the activities their peers are. There are a few things we can do with our kids to help alleviate the isolation. I've found that beaches are not at all crowded, and we've met up with other families and keep our distance. My teenage daughter has had a couple of friends over, and they stay outside, 6 feet apart, with masks on. I know it's a controversial opinion, but knowing how critical social interactions are for kids' development, I'm in support of lower-risk activities in order to safeguard kids' emotional health.
Self-care: I regularly ask clients, "What are you doing for self-care today?" If they can't immediately answer, I know that their own self-care is not a priority and they are at risk of burnout, depression, and anxiety. It's a therapy cliche, but there's a reason we're told to put on our own oxygen masks on planes before we put them on our kids: If you're not taking care of yourself, you can't be fully present for the little people who need you. Self-care doesn't have to be spa days - it can be as simple as 30 minutes of quiet time reading a book, the mindful act of creating a good meal (and having the time to savor it), or connecting with a friend by phone for support. One of my favorite self-care treats is Susie Mantell's "Your Present: A half hour of peace." Build self-care into each day to inoculate yourself against burnout and be more emotionally present for the people who need you.
I'd be remiss if I didn't thank the parents in our support group who helped inspire these ideas - seeing you each week has been a bright spot in my weeks of social isolation. As I put this on a larger platform I'm hoping it might be helpful to a broader audience. If you have questions or comments, feel free to add them below (helpful thoughts kindly expressed are appreciated). And if you'd like to be added to the Zoom support group, please send me your email address for an invite!