Parenting in Quarantine: 8 Steps for Sanity & Success

Danny Griffin
10 min readApr 26, 2020
Photo by Kelly Sikkima, Unsplas

In so many ways, this is war. We all got drafted this time, some into front line positions, others of us charged with maintaining the home front. There are no deferments. The front-line folks — medical staff, first responders, and the people that keep us fed- they are the public heroes, the elite forces who get a shout out from our porches every night at 7. Parents are the foot soldiers, the grunts slogging through the day-to-day drills & mess hall duty, maintaining morale, requisitioning supplies, containing skirmishes.

Covid 19 has engulfed the world and plunged our lives into a battle on multiple fronts. There is no basic training, we all have to jump in and join the fray. Being a virtual guest in people’s homes as a Zoom-toting family therapist has instructed me. In the spirit of humility, I have a few things I’d like to share- some Covid-hacks for your parental Quaran-time.

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  1. Parenting as Wartime Presidency. Like it or not, we have to lead. Some leaders are good; others, fall short. One thing that good leaders grasp is that they need to engage hearts and minds to command the actions of their charges. The best leaders find ways to leverage emotions — they convey empathy, humor, self-effacement, optimism, and a feeling of commonality and purpose. Sharing a joke or funny video (or boneheaded mistake you made during a Zoom meeting) may be effective ways to brighten the mood and mobilize your troops to get out of pajamas or clear the collecting debris in the family room. We are not just connected, we are co-creators of each others’ experience. Families profoundly affect their members’ thoughts, feelings, and actions, whether we are aware of doing so or not. During quarantine, we are more than ever living under the same “emotional skin.” If your right shoulder is in pain, it is unlikely the rest of you will be ready and willing to take on yet another mission. We are not necessarily responsible for each others’ moods, but we are active agents in their creation and shelf-life. A little change in one person’s mood is usually followed by corresponding changes in the moods of others, and then, their behaviors. Try to flatten the curve of resistance by “connecting before commanding”. Remembering to take a moment to express affection or appreciation for something can be a balm that soothes the monotony, irritability and frustration of another Blursday. Creating warm, small moments can also grease the wheels to mobilize your troops to do what needs to get done. A small shift in mood, from cool to warm can make the difference from getting begrudging compliance (minimally doing what “looks right”) to cooperation (doing it because it’s the “right thing” to do).
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2. Pay Attention to “Attention”. A business dictionary defines “resource” as a “factor that is required to accomplish an activity, or as means necessary to achieve a desired outcome”. With regard to the activities and outcomes of our lives, attention is arguably our most critical resource: We don’t accomplish much, whether creatively, practically, logistically or socially, without paying attention to what we want and how we are attempting to achieve it. That just seems logical, right? However, our attention is routinely commandeered by our emotions — we tend to focus most on what we are feeling most strongly. In a period of prolonged stress, like now, our attention tends to get hijacked by feelings of anxiety — the emotion probably most closely tasked with keeping us safe. Like the proverbial tail that wags the dog, anxiety can “wag” us when we let our focus get riveted to things we cannot control, but can incessantly think about, like — “When this will end?”; “What changes will we have to adapt to in the future?”; “What will the transition to what’s next look like?”. We do a better job of managing our anxiety by thinking of it as an alert signal and a call to action. By choosing do-able actions — making masks, volunteering, planting a garden, taking or hanging a picture, calling someone- we deliberately focus our attention and direct our anxiety along paths that are manageable, constructive and creative. We thus avoid the temptation to let our anxiety set us adrift. Choosing to direct our attention to what is worth worrying about, that is, things we can do something about, is our ongoing task, particularly when there is a glut of potential threats, which a global pandemic provides in spades. There are always more things to worry about, always. Our attention, like our vision, can focus on what we direct it toward, if we remind ourselves maybe as often as we wash our hands, that we can, and should, choose our focus.

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3. Not All Help is Helpful. The ever increasing number of online educational resources will confuse and confound you and most likely make you feel like you are not doing all you can. Reminding oneself that it is impossible to ever do “all you can”, which really means “everything that is possible”. For example, by picking a PBS activity for this morning’s “class”, you are forsaking a Smithsonian Kids activity. This necessary choice evokes a necessary loss, which can feel like you are missing out on an opportunity to help your kid. I sense there is an inverse relationship between the amount of “resources” we are inundated with and the sense we are doing well by our children, as well as how competent and committed we feel as parents. If not careful, you can drown in this river of stuff. Less, here, is truly more. It’s really not about the volume of content, it’s about how we navigate the river, as calmly as possible, and if possible, to have some fun along the way. Same with the news: Deliberately limit the number of information inputs and time spent “staying informed”. Try limiting your intake of news to a few planned small bites per day rather than unplanned and impulsive binges . “Breaking News” is a corporate con, a device to monetize and profit from your anxiety by keeping it as high as possible. The tsunami of ever available information creates a feeling of urgency. A feeling of urgency does not reflect actual “urgency”, i.e., “something important that requires swift action”- the vast majority of what is dumped into a news cycle is not news, nor does it require your swift action. It can and often does trigger the kind of anxiety that is not amenable to constructive action, only worry. Leverage intentionality — we are more likely to adhere to a behavioral commitment if we deliberately say it out loud, (e.g., “I will check the news twice tomorrow, at breakfast and while making dinner”) even if it is just to ourselves.

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4. Structure Now, Structure Tomorrow, Structure Forever- as long as this crisis lasts, at least. With regard to the nationwide move to tele-education, I believe the most critical function of online classes and assignments right now is to add structure and a measure of normalcy to so many abnormal hours, days, weeks. Most of us benefit from a predictable organization of our days. The temptation to treat the quarantine as an interminable snow-day- pajamas, not doing things until one might feel like it, consumption of media — is a recipe for a sustained hangover feeling of irritability, depression, inertia and more anxiety. Precise timing of structure seems less important than ensuring that a structure, meaning a predictable sequence of activities, occurs

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5. Take Zoom Academy With a Grain of Salt. There are state-of-the-art medical centers, there are field hospitals and there are first-aid stations. The people whose entire job it is to be prepped for catastrophic events were caught unprepared. That schools were caught unprepared is now also pristinely clear. What is largely passing for school now has as much in common with our concept of an actual school experience as a first-aid station has with the National Institutes for Health. Our first attempts, like first aid, are clearly helpful, even critical, but ultimately not sustainable in the present form. Many parents feel compelled to compel their kids to participate in what is an erratic, tedious and confusing veneer of an educational experience. It is better than nothing, for sure, but it is an approximation, at best. I believe it wise if we can muster the wherewithal to embrace the good and forsake the perfect. Adapting old Maslow to a new crisis: let’s focus on survival and safety first (milk, masks, toilet paper, Doritos), then attend to the quality of our connections — how we care for each other’s emotional oxygen supply, then worry about achievement, i.e, academics. Acquiring academic content can and will follow, but improving this massive pivot in how we do school is a project best approached with patient expectations. The primary value is the opportunity online class has to add structure to the day and remind kids that they are still students, even without a school to go to.

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6. Recognize the Absurdity in the New Normal of Working While Home. I see a lot of parent couples feeling compelled to put all their waking energy into managing the kids, being available for their own aging (and now more isolated) parents and the household while feeling like they are never not “working”- trying to keep their jobs. Beside the benefit of eliminating the commute, the lack of boundaries between work and home is a major stressor for most. Many feel like they are not doing a good job on any front, and as a result, feel like they are never finished with work for the day. This fuels a constant sense of being “on call”, of having to perform without an intermission or ending. Evening cocktails have surged to a popularity not seen since the Fifties, but it we’d do well to make deliberate nonalcoholic “time and geographic boundaries” at home and support each other in maintaining them.

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7. Nourish the “ We”. There is so much sheer necessity these days, so much on parental plates, that many couples look at me like I am kidding when I ask about the state of their union, of the quality of their relationship. Most feel like there is no time for any attention to this, even if they wanted to. Time is short, energy finite, and emotions frayed. This unfortunate state frequently results in “We”- the couple, getting scant if any attention. Yet, if the couple gets some regular care and feeding, deliberate acts of reconnection: an extended hug, a slightly prolonged bit of wordless eye contact, the sharing of a vulnerable emotion, or an entirely non-goal directed and playful sharing of a moment’s absurdity — EVERYONE in the house will benefit. Recall, we are co-creators of each other’s experiences and emotions, and I have found that a connected “We” is a tide that lifts every vessel in the family, and makes the next frustration or worry more bearable.

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8. Remind Our Kids and Ourselves: We are Living Through History. While it might be said that all of life is a teachable moment, marshaling our attention to the uniqueness of our predicament is a curriculum in itself: A global crisis that binds us all together in a common purpose while forcing us to separate ourselves everyday. Science, statistics, world & local politics, media, psychology — are just a few of the ways of knowing that are available to us as we try to make sense of this chapter in our lives. We are also making indelible memories — this is a generationally uniting event — whether you are a Millennial, Gen-X or Gen-Z or an OK-Boomer, we are walking our socially distant way into a new world. A curriculum we are living through with lots of opportunities to “discuss amongst ourselves”. Our daily experiences and observations can be highly charged channels for experiential learning. And there is the chance to make art out of our pain, uncertainty and isolation. Recording our experiences in this way offers us an opportunity to not only participate in history, but to be part of writing it as well. This phase will end, and there is so much more to life than this pandemic, but if we tune in, that is, direct our creative attention to it, there is so much life, however hard, in this prolonged wrinkle in time.

This is an extraordinary and frightening time. Some kids are really scared, for sure, What I see hour after hour of virtually visiting with families is that most kids aren’t as scared as their parents fear, and that is largely because most of the parents are holding the lion’s share of the anxiety. I believe this has always been the case throughout our evolution, but particularly so now, in this time of utter uncertainty, real danger and societal change on a mass level. You, parents, are doing a better job than you know. Trust me on that one.

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Danny Griffin

A psychologist, bassist, & radio host, Dan works at The Center for Assessment & Treatment (www.caatonline.com/) & on air Fridays, 4-5PM (www.TakomaRadio.org)