In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been forced to take on new and different roles, to change our routines, and to adjust to restrictions that limit our usual activities. Although these changes can be stressful, they also provide opportunities to learn and practice many valuable skills including flexibility, communication, and problem solving.
On the Sunday night before my kids’ distance learning began, I brought an agenda with me to dinner. I wanted to be sure we were organized, had a routine, and that the rules and expectations were clear. I wanted to communicate that I thought we could work together to have some fun and do everything we needed to do. I was optimistic.
And then there was Monday morning. And Monday afternoon. And then Tuesday morning. And Wednesday. I was starting each day with a 1:1 meeting with each of my 3 kids. I wanted to use that time to help them make a plan for their day, check in on the work that they had to do, and answer any questions. I also had a pretty detailed schedule which included a column for each of us and the time in 15 minute increments. On the schedule were blocks of time for work, chores around the house, snacks/lunch, outdoor time, exercise time, creative time, and free time. I really thought it was the only way that I could keep track of all the things that needed to fit in a day for each of us.
My 6th grader really did not like our morning meetings. Historically, I’ve been pretty hands off when it comes to school work. I would check in every now and then and I always made it clear that I was there if she needed help or support, but I trusted her to manage her responsibilities. These morning meetings were not seen as “helpful” or “supportive.” Instead, she perceived them as “a waste of time” and an “interference.”
No one liked my detailed schedules, including me. They were too ambitious and they didn’t allow for any wiggle room that we might need if an assignment took longer than expected, if the weather changed, if none of us felt like working at the moment, if one of my calls took longer than expected, or if we were having trouble with the technology. I was feeling stressed and overwhelmed. It seemed like anyone who had my email address was sending me links to fun things we could do while at home, programs my kids could use to practice math or reading, virtual museum tours, educational shows to binge watch with your family, books to read together, exercises to do together, or places to go hiking. My kids’ teachers and coaches were all trying to stay in touch, offering support and guidance, as well as suggestions for how to spend the time at home. And, of course, my social media feeds were cluttered with warnings, tips for maintaining wellbeing, information about COVID-19, misinformation about COVID-19, political rants related to COVID-19, and personal rants related to how teachers or neighbors were responding to “social distancing” and “distance learning.”
Meanwhile, I was working with patients and families who were struggling with the many ways in which COVID-19 and related restrictions were impacting their lives. I was trying to make sure I could meet my patients’ needs while being a responsible citizen prioritizing public health recommendations. I was educating myself in the ethics and legalities of conducting telemental health and transitioning my practice to video conferencing or phone sessions. I was researching and troubleshooting video conferencing software. I had to get comfortable conducting sessions via video.
All of this began to weigh on me. One morning during the first week of distance learning, when my kids weren’t doing exactly what I wanted them to be doing exactly when I wanted them to be doing it, I had a bit of a meltdown. After my kids consoled me (shouldn’t it be the other way around?), I took a break from the expectations I put on myself and on them. I came across two quotes that helped me to reset. The first was in an article about parenting during the coronavirus. Psychologist Barbara Greenberg said, “…the way you act during this time is going to be a very salient memory for you and your kids. They will remember how you act very clearly.” The other was a post on Facebook by Stephanie Grant, Ph.D. that said, “Prioritize your ability to remain regulated for your child over your ability to provide them academic instruction. Academics don’t protect your children from trauma. Your relationship does.”
I’m sure I’ve said something similar to many, many parents over the years. I know this stuff. But still, I got caught up in the uncertainties and unknowns in this completely novel situation we’re all going through.
I recently gave a talk about parenting with core values in mind. I thought about the values I want to instill in my kids, what I value about our family, and what I value about myself as a parent. And, beyond my family, I thought about skills that I help my patients to develop and qualities that I hope teachers and parents will value in all of our children.
Being cognitively flexible means that you can look at a situation or a problem from different perspectives. Cognitive flexibility helps you be open to trying new or different approaches as well as being able to “shift” gears from one plan to another. I had a very clear idea in my head how my days with my kids would have to be scheduled in order for us all to do what we needed to do. I needed to be able to step back from my plan and be open to another’s approach. Which leads me to…
I end up spending a lot of time helping kids, adolescents, and their parents learn to communicate effectively. With young kids, I might take a Goldilocks tactic and help them understand that sometimes you can communicate “too much,” “not enough,” or “just right.” With older kids and teens, we can help them become comfortable asserting themselves. We try to help them understand that it’s ok to have a need or request, to ask someone to do/not do what you want, or to stand up for themselves. We teach them that they can do this in a way that maintains their self respect and that maintains their relationships. I encourage parents to reinforce open communication with their kids by listening respectfully and validating before moving forward.
In my situation, I had to listen to what my 6th grader was telling me. I’m actually quite glad that she was able to recognize that my system wasn’t working for her and that she was comfortable discussing her problem with me. I want her to be able to do that outside of our home and into her adulthood, and to do so, she needs opportunities to practice at home. I also wanted to open the conversation to all of my kids, since I don’t think any of us were particularly happy with the way our first few days were going. Listening to my 6th grader and opening the conversation to all of my kids allowed us to take the next steps.
In order to solve a problem, you have to define it. When I’m faced with a problem, I usually just ask, “what’s not working?” Once we’re able to define the problem, we can ask, “what do we want to happen?” Then we can begin to brainstorm possible solutions. (By the way, brainstorming solutions is more practice in cognitive flexibility and having this discussion as a group is more practice in effective communication). As a group, we can then evaluate the possibilities and decide on an option to try.
In our case, it didn’t take too long to define the problem. We settled on, “there are a lot of things that each of us needs to do and Mom needs a way to keep track of it. Kids feel like the schedule Mom makes is too strict and they want to be able to have more choice in what/when/how they do their work. Mom wants to make sure nothing is forgotten and wants to make sure they know that she has her own things she needs to do and can’t always help when kids want.” We didn’t actually spend too much time brainstorming solutions to this problem. What we decided on was a looser schedule, where I told them when I was unavailable to help, and more informal check ins about their work.
Creativity, Play, and Leisure Skills
Being at home, unable to go to school or most extracurricular activities, we find ourselves with a lot more unstructured time. It’s true, many people are getting their fair share of screen time (that’s ok – no judgment). It’s also providing the opportunity for people to find new ways to spend their time. Kids are spending more time playing, learning card games, breaking out their board games, and using their imaginations. Teens and adults are doing the same, too. Unable to fall into their usual routines, they have to figure out what they can do to pass their time. Though it can feel uncomfortable, lots can be learned from being “bored.”
All of us will likely have some good moments and some tough moments while we wait out the coronavirus. Some of us will experience heightened anxiety about getting sick or our loved ones getting sick. Many people are worried about their finances or ability to work. Others have trouble keeping themselves calm when their kids are not doing what is expected. People are grieving many types of losses. In all of these examples, we have the opportunity to practice our coping skills.
Be intentional about the activities and tactics you use to help you feel better. For some, exercise and movement can make a huge impact on mood and wellbeing. Finding ways to connect with people while maintaining physical distance is important for others. Laughing at funny memes and stories from friends adjusting to their own situations can offer much needed lighthearted moments. Learning to refocus, reframe, or challenge your thoughts can also be effective coping skills.
Simply put, cognitive refocusing is when you shift your attention from one aspect of a situation to another. I’ve seen many social media posts encouraging this type of refocusing by prompting people to think about what they can do during the “stay at home” order instead of what they can’t do. We posted a graphic about focusing on what you can control as opposed to what you can not control during this pandemic. Fred Rogers’ recounting of his mother’s advice perfectly illustrates refocusing. His mother told him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people helping.”
Instead of thinking about the stay at home order as missing out on a bunch of activities, one can reframe it as a chance to take a break from the usual fast pace of life. Alternatively, if dreading yet another day inside their home with their healthy kids, one can think about healthcare workers who are leaving the safety of their homes, risking their lives to take care of those sick and dying.
Cognitive challenging refers to questioning your beliefs and assumptions instead of accepting them as a statement of fact. For example, if you’ve thought to yourself, “this is impossible. I can’t work from home while trying to supervise my kids and monitor their distance learning,” you could challenge that thought by asking, “is it actually impossible?” Of course it’s possible to work from home and take care of kids – lots of people are in the same position right now. It may not be ideal and your expectations for your own work, how your kids spend their free time, and how closely you monitor their distance learning may need to be adjusted. You may need to get creative about how you can solve this problem. Once you’ve challenged the extreme version of your thought, a more realistic thought can take its place. When you’re facing the situation with a realistic appraisal of what can be done and what may need to be solved, you can move forward.
Finding balance can perhaps be one of the best strategies you can use for yourself and for your family. If you’re being inundated with new stories causing you to feel scared and sad, pull back your exposure to these stories. You don’t have to ignore the realities of this horrible pandemic, and you also don’t need to monitor the horrifying developments 24/7. If you have children, you will need to monitor their distance learning. You will want to make sure they’re meeting expectations, and it’s ok to shift your focus to other activities when it feels like it’s time to do so. You can grieve the disruptions in your own life and you can feel grateful for the positive aspects this time brings you and your family.