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2020 Survival Guide: Parenting through a Pandemic

To the dear parents who are tasked with all the roles - caregiver, teacher, housekeeper, short order chef, class monitor, employee, breadwinner, to name a few - please acknowledge this for yourself: You are doing something difficult right now. It is normal to be finding it difficult. Please understand that we are living through an unprecedented moment in human history. Please remember that there is no blueprint for this. Our own parents and caregivers did not have to live like this, with little to no natural supports, no schools to go to, no places of worship to travel to, very little chance to socialize, and very little choice in the matter. Even if you have help at home and only have to juggle two or three of those roles, you are doing something difficult. Even if you have always worked from home or your work has always been the home, you are doing something difficult. Even if you only have one child at home or only adult children, you are doing something difficult. Know this. Acknowledge it. Give yourself permission to cut the entire household some slack. You are all doing something difficult.

Breathe. Now that we agree that this is difficult and you have had no previous examples, we need to take some time to redefine our expectations. Some of us may be feeling disappointed that our families are not performing optimally, or are not engaging with each other in an ideal manner. This is especially disappointing if your expectations are based on a pre-COVID baseline of functioning. Give yourself permission to lower the bar. Setting expectations of optimal functioning for any family member, at a time when the entire planet is sub-optimal, can only lead to feelings of failure and inadequacy. Do not buy into the hype that we should all be singing kumbaya and braiding each other’s hair all day. You know by now that some days are harder than others. Being in constant contact with children, parents and spouses is not the panacea you may have dreamed. You must set suboptimal expectations for suboptimal times. Anything else would be an abnormal reaction.

For parents of infants and toddlers

I think that of all the age groups, this age groups stands to benefit the most from this experience if their parents can apply some conscious awareness to the moment. As I write, my daughter is about to turn two years old. I can’t help but notice what a difference it has made to her to have her parents with her all day everyday for nearly a year. She revels in the attention and has become the most secure sleeper she has ever been. Children of this age can take this time to consolidate their parent-child bond and lean into that secure attachment to a parent who is emotionally present. It is an especially good time for them to have this, as they are beginning to learn how to navigate this first relationship with a little more agency and they are doing it with full presence. Parents, you will not have another opportunity to start this child off right. They will show you what they need if you stay in the present moment where they live.

While it has been lovely to watch my baby grow, I must acknowledge the toll it takes on a parent to be consistently available to a young child like this. Perhaps you had plans to be utilizing daycare and pre-k or preschool and kindergarten classrooms by this time. Perhaps you had prepared for a daily schedule of drop-offs and pick-ups, painful separations and daily anxiety. Well, you may not have to deal with that this year but now the work gets real. Young children require constant supervision and frequent engagement. They require your present moment awareness and infinite patience. There is very little they can do for themselves, and older siblings may not be the reliable helpers you’d hoped. The demands on a parent’s time and mind can be immense. You are doing something difficult. Give yourself permission to modify your expectations. Revel in the play, order take out, do the laundry later, limit the work tasks, take some time to be.

For parents of school age children and pre-teens

This age 5 & up group are a diverse bunch but I will attempt to highlight a universal theme: They tend to require more supervision and engagement than you would expect, especially when they are uncertain or anxious or just in an unstructured environment. The good news is that they tend to thrive with structure. If we provide them with a realistic framework of daily expectations, and refrain from over-identifying with their achievement of said expectations, they can exercise some flexibility of their own within reasonably safe and secure boundaries.

Imagine setting the daily expectation of a three-step morning routine, a day-time classroom schedule (perhaps provided by school), and a three-part nighttime routine. You may collaborate with your child to define the “why” of these routines, but you decide on the “what”. Then the “how” is where you can leave room for creativity, consultation and further collaboration. Children of various ages will need varying levels of support. As an added bonus, because you are a conscious parent (wink), adherence to the routine itself is less important to you than the rich processes that can take place within that routine. In other words, it does not make or break your parent-child relationship whether they fulfill the expectations daily (at least it does not need to). You simply hold the same expectations daily, and focus on support and redirection when they are feeling lost or in need of co-regulation. Remember, you are doing something difficult. Feel free to lower the bar. Lean in to the discomfort, make room for empathy, dial back the self-judgment, define the big picture (rather than the minutiae), and allow yourself sometime to be.

For parents of teens and young adults

Also a wildly diverse group, teens and young adults are masters of attunement. Their BS meters are finely honed, and they may not react to your good intentions as you expect. At this point, they probably know you better than you know them and this makes them good sources of information about the family’s needs. While I will always advise against parentifying and adultifying a teenager, I encourage you to tune in to the voices and minds of these young ones. They are seeing the world most clearly. This is a massive source of unrest and dissonance for a young adult. Note that your own maladaptive style of coping is not welcome here. Your well-meaning suggestions for what they should or should not be doing or thinking or feeling may not be helpful.

Much like the toddlers, they require your conscious presence. Your efforts at understanding what they are going through will be most welcome when they know that it is not for the purpose of your own agenda. It can be hard to simply sit and hold their discomfort with them (rather than for them). It can be hard to tolerate their inertia without judgment. It is difficult to watch them “waste” precious time. However, this is not the time to make them shape up. They are no longer simply a vessel to hold your hopes and dreams, they are growing into whole persons too. If you do not take the time to honor this whole person, your intervention will likely be ineffective. We must first acknowledge that they too are doing something hard.

A framework of daily expectations may be helpful here too. However, successful achievement of these expectations cannot be the ultimate goal. Engagement and containment are the goal. A parent is still a secure base for the young adult. You will always be necessary but you can expect to become insufficient. However, in times of high stress like these, teens and young adults will need to lean harder on the secure base. You may become more necessary and more sufficient than usual. It is ok to modify expectations of independence and adult-level functioning. Lean into the disenchantment. Seek first to understand. Let the relationship evolve. Follow their lead and enjoy the opportunity to reconnect. Take some time to simply be.

In summary

You are doing something difficult. Acknowledge this. Set appropriate expectations. Perform realistic evaluations. Breathe and Be. Everything you truly need is available to you in the present moment.

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