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Pandemic Parenting: Strategies to Reduce Family Friction

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This summer and fall, I’ve given many talks for corporate client employees and parent groups on how parents can continue to support their children with remote and hybrid learning. These build on a piece I wrote for The New York Times in March.

A question that comes up at every presentation is How can I deal more constructively with the friction that keeps coming up between my child and me? This makes sense — spending more time at home with our families has its positives, yet the challenges for many of us can feel overwhelming.

When it comes to pandemic parenting strategies that make a difference for family relationships, three points offer significant payoff and are accessible for any parent: Build relationships, interpret problematic behaviors, and set limits. These strategies enhance parents’ ability to support learning, and they also make day-to-day interactions smoother and more pleasant for everyone.

Building Relationships to Prevent Frustrations

Especially when we’re tired, stressed, and frustrated, conveying warmth and focusing on connections poses a genuine challenge. Yet, parents who can prioritize the relationship with their child gain an enormously useful tool that supports positive interactions and makes it easier for kids to respond constructively to correction.

Parents often wonder, does prioritizing a relationship mean giving in to my child’s requests more often to avoid friction? Not at all! Rather, prioritizing a relationship means taking time to connect with kids individually, specifically, and meaningfully. This might mean inviting your child to choose an activity that you do together for twenty minutes after dinner. It could mean telling your child that you’re leaving your phone in another room so you can hear what they’re looking forward to this fall — and if they can’t identify something, working together to think of a fun activity you can do together, which can be as simple as going for a walk and picking up a special treat. Adding time for authentic connection helps prevent problematic behaviors, and makes correcting them easier.

Spending fifteen minutes doing an activity with your child, like simply sitting together looking at family photos, or watching a funny video together and then talking about it, demonstrates your availability and interest in a way kids readily absorb. Over the course of a week, aiming for three to five additional moments like this lets families capitalize on strong relationships when problems arise.

Interpreting Problematic Behaviors

A helpful truism in educational circles is that problematic behaviors signal unmet needs. Seeing kids’ challenging behaviors this way lets parents focus on solutions, rather than getting into unnecessary battles. Adopting this approach requires a shift in mindset for many families. Feeling that kids’ poor behavior is due to disrespect or naughtiness can be a signal that you may benefit from adapting your thinking. The idea isn’t to excuse challenging behavior, but rather, to use it as a pathway to locate the child’s unmet need and address it.

A straightforward example of problematic behavior signaling unmet need is a child who runs around the house and jumps on furniture, annoying family members. From worry about safety to feelings of frustration that the sofa will wear out, a pattern like this can lead to frequent negative interactions between the child and parent. Disrupting the pattern by looking for unmet needs can offer an alternate path that’s more productive. For example, the parent might observe, “It looks like you have a lot of energy. We need to get out of the house more often. Let’s figure out how. Would you rather go for a 10-minute jog before school with me, or do this 7-minute workout app together?” Teaching kids to recognize and address their own needs leads to improved self-regulation, a skill that supports both academic and socio-emotional development.

A more involved example of unmet need is a child who engages in group chats during the school day. More complex behaviors like this may require a combination of addressing needs and setting limits, such as helping the child schedule more positive social time, and removing chat functions or installing monitoring software to help the child focus on school.

Setting Limits Responsively

Many families’ habits have changed during the pandemic, potentially in ways that make juggling school demands harder. Whether in the realm of academic tasks, socio-emotional behaviors, or household responsibilities, many families are finding that the fall has included increased friction between kids and parents — or simply the realization that limits have changed in ways that aren’t working.

Successful parenting involves developing the ability to set, communicate, and reinforce limits in constructive ways. Like any skill, this requires practice. Making multiple changes at one time can make limits harder to communicate and reinforce, so start with one change and plan to focus on it for several weeks until it’s a reliable habit. Some families choose an issue that causes significant friction, while others start with a minor problem and build on those changes to address more concerning behaviors.

Either way, start by identifying the behavioral limit you think will support the outcome you want. If bedtimes have crept too late for optimal rest, determine the lights-out moment that would work better. If your screen-time policy has evaporated in favor of no-holds-barred Halo at all hours, determine the days and times that you think will work for video games. Next, let your child know you plan to make a change, but don’t enact it yet. Leave time for them to weigh in and to problem-solve together. Kids who are consulted on needed limits in a collaborative way often surprise parents with their ability to identify patterns that would be healthier for them. That said, negotiation may not be productive, so part of the reason for announcing a change before expecting anyone to act on it is to demonstrate authority and allow kids to adjust mentally and emotionally.

Create a step-by-step plan for communicating and reinforcing the limits you’ve set. Build the habit using positive reinforcement, noticing aloud when kids are following the limit independently. If a habit proves hard to change, don’t throw out your plan. Instead, notice what your child does well, comment on that, and look for ways to support the outcome you want. For example, a child who resists a later bedtime may need to return to a more defined bedtime routine. They may be seeking out time to connect with you, and building that into a set of pre-sleep steps can address that need, while helping the child wind down.

Investing time and effort in building positive relationships, understanding problematic behaviors, and setting constructive limits will help any family weather this challenging time more easily.

To learn more about these strategies and others, please join me at 8pm ET on Tuesday, December 1, 2020 for Parenting Strategies to Reduce Family Friction & Support Learning, a workshop for parents of kids ages 4–18.

Katharine Hill, MS, MAT | Learning Specialist & Parent Educator | upnext.nyc

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UpNext helps parents and educators access recent and classic evidence-based learning support strategies for use at home and in the classroom, as well as providing fresh takes on parenting and learning issues.

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Katharine Hill

Katharine Hill

Learning specialist and parent educator in private practice at Upnext.nyc, has written about learning for The New York Times.

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