Parenting during a Pandemic: Tips for Parents Home for Extended Time Periods

Wendy Grolnick
Mar 19 · 3 min read

Wendy S. Grolnick

Clark University

If you are like many parents, you experienced a sense of panic upon hearing that schools were canceled for at least two weeks and perhaps more. Though you might have agreed that this was the best decision for the health and well-being of all, a number of questions may have run through your mind. How am I going to keep my children entertained? Will I be able to get them to do their school work? Will I end up losing my temper given the stress and strain that all of us are under?

These are reasonable questions! My goal below is to share research from the areas of disaster mental health and parenting that might be helpful as we negotiate this unexplored territory. I’ll stress the importance of structure and attempt to address it from the standpoints of disaster and parenting research.

What is Structure?

In the context of parenting, when we provide structure we organize the environment for children’s success. The obverse of structure is chaos, where things are unpredictable and unorganized. Structure might include clear guidelines for children about what is expected (when to get up, what time schoolwork starts), predictable consequences (what happens when siblings fight over a toy), and a consistent routine.

Why is Structure Important During a Disaster or Emergency?

Research on coping with disasters suggests that the structure is especially important for disaster or emergency situations. Changes in routines as a function of natural or man-made disasters make children feel like things are uncertain or out of control. And children tend to be very tuned in to the fact that, by definition, adults feel this way as well with the uncertainty of the situation. Research suggests that getting in to a predictable and consistent schedule and rhythm can help to qualm anxiety and help children feel like they have some control over their lives.

How Can I Implement Structure during this Time?

You can provide structure in a number of ways that will help you and your child feel more comfortable. For example:

1) Establish a regular schedule for waking up, having meals, beginning schoolwork etc. Write down the daily schedule on a piece of paper or better yet a white board so that it is visible to all.

2) Develop guidelines for the duration and type of screen time you would like your children to have. Of course, we might want to provide a bit more leeway for screen time when children are home-bound, but establishing some guidelines will help to keep the disagreements at bay.

3) Create routines for meal preparation, school time etc. where a family member is responsible for each step

4) Be sure to include a fun activity in the routine that children choose such as a game, putting on a play, or a family puzzle

Importantly, structure will be most effective when children have input into the guidelines, expectations, and routines. You can:

1) Hold a meeting where family members provide input into the expectations. Ask each member their opinion about the best period for schoolwork, screen time, chores etc. Establish the decisions together.

2) Allow children some choice into their responsibilities and schedule.

3) Ask children to provide feedback about how things went at the end of each day.

Though parents are obviously not responsible for the home-bound situation and the regulations (e.g., no play dates), provide children empathy for their feelings about being in their situations. For example:

I know it is disappointing that you can’t play at Jennifer’s house as we planned. Maybe you can chat with her on facetime.

It feels really frustrating that you need to do school work even when you don’t get to do the fun things at school.

Try to understand that, even though you are not the villain here, your children may sometimes blame you as they tend to focus on the immediate and have trouble seeing the larger picture. Try to avoid what is natural to feel and say — “It’s not my fault there’s a pandemic!!!!” Keeping the empathy flowing will help your children to feel better and foster a positive relationship with them.

The uncertain times are difficult for both parents and children. Providing structure at home can help both parents and children feel some control over an uncontrollable situation.

Wendy Grolnick

Written by

Wendy Grolnick is Professor of Psychology at Clark University in Worcester, MA. She does research on parenting and children’s motivation and adjustment.

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