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Parenting During a Pandemic

Insight from WashU Psychiatry instructor, Andrea Giedinghagen, MD

This pandemic has brought changes to almost every aspect of our lives, and parenting is no exception. From coping with the boredom of being at home for days on end to grappling with fear and uncertainty, there are challenges for parents and children alike. Some parenting challenges are specific to this crisis: explaining the importance of social distancing isn’t covered in any parenting books. Ultimately, though, there are certain universal needs that can guide your parenting in this time.

Despite the urges you may have to try to protect children from the news (trying to protect our children from painful things is natural, after all), it’s ultimately counterproductive. Children are aware of the emotional content of the news and the emotional states of their caregivers even if they don’t understand all the details—and what they imagine is often worse than any information you could share. The best approach is to address children’s (and your own) fears head-on. Set aside time to discuss the pandemic directly with your children rather than waiting for them to ask questions (though it’s important to answer questions, too). Explain the situation in age-appropriate but reassuring terms; there are also age-appropriate videos and stories online that you can look at with your young ones.

It’s also important to remember that, while you’re dealing with stress related to coronavirus (trouble sleeping, muscle tightness and irritability are all common), children are dealing with their own worries. Kids’ anxiety can show up in lots of ways: acting younger than usual, throwing tantrums, or trouble with disturbed sleep, among others. Yet in the face of this crisis, kids need the same three things as always: structure, freedom and connection. Under the constraints of the pandemic, though, providing these three things may look a little different than usual.

Providing children with structure is always important, but during scary times like this it becomes even more essential. Children crave structure (even though they may rebel against it at times) and having a set schedule and regular routines provides them with a sense of safety when so much about their world is changing. Even during remote schooling, have regular sleep and wake times for kids, and times designated for eating, play, and schoolwork. Keep house rules the same. Resist the urge to loosen things up too much, or to clamp down in response to stress. Set boundaries around media intake, too: excess media exposure can increase anxiety and feelings of hopelessness in older children and teens (and parents!).

Kids need the freedom to explore, even during a lockdown. If at all possible, get everyone out of the house for a little while each day. A ten-minute walk or a few minutes soaking up sun on the front porch can fend off cabin fever. If you live in an area where that’s not possible, there are ways to explore without leaving your apartment: build a fort, try a new craft, let the kids help with a new recipe. Give yourself permission to break free, too: if you can go on a walk by yourself occasionally, make it happen.

Connection is also essential during these difficult times. Make sure that there’s time every day for the family to be together—whether working on a puzzle or having family dinner. Maintain connections with the community. Your kids may be missing their school friends, but they can still connect with loved ones outside the home through phone and video calls. Writing old-fashioned letters is another option (kids will love making cards to say hello to family and friends). In this time of enforced isolation, also be liberal with cuddles and kisses. Physical affection cements feelings of connection and safety for children and adults.

Last but not least, give yourself permission to do this less-than-perfectly, and to ask for help when you need it. None of us have ever parented through a pandemic before, and none of us have ever been taught how to do it. When and as you can, take time for yourself—and you’ll find you’re better able to care for your kids, too.

Andrea Giedinghagen, MD is an instructor in Washington University Psychiatry, Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

More Resources for Parenting

Read an article covering challenges for Generation Z featuring Washington University Psychiatry faculty member, Jessica Gold, MD

Staying Connected: Navigating Close Relationships Through Tough Times Zoom Session led by WashU Psychiatry

Mindful Parenting: Kids as Coworkers Zoom session led by WashU mindfulness expert, Meg Krejci

Work-Life Solutions – the employee assistance program – helps you with every aspect of your life, from counseling to connecting you to community resources.  View their special COVID-19 resource page for webinars, articles and tips.

As a part of our family care benefits, Back-up care has been increased from 15 to 20 days. View details on the Back-Up Care Advantage program.