Social distancing at home during coronavirus with partners and children is a stress test for the family unit that can overwhelm our coping resources. Parents.com's 'Ask Your Mom' advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., explains how to support your most important relationships during this time.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
April 16, 2020
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Dear Losing It,

Being at home all of the time with our partners and children is a major stress test for the nuclear family unit. Don't believe all those pretending to live their best quarantined lives on Facebook and Instagram; this is rough on everyone, and we are all going to have non-precious moments.

We were not built for this situation. As humans, we are social creatures craving connection and community. As modern humans, we are not used to being homebound with partners and children day in and day out. In moments of optimism, I can see this time as full of opportunities for bonding and making memories. In all the other moments, I want to bolt from my house and breathe my own air.

This unprecedented coronavirus social distancing has all the ingredients to bring out the worst in each of us as we are overwhelmed with extraordinary stress and emotions. The anxiety, anger, sadness, and fear combine with grieving losses big and small to make a combustible potion. Mix this with uncertainty about how long this will last and what the aftermath will look like, and we have an emotional overload. Then add the fact that many of us are working simultaneously with parenting and "homeschooling" and there's no way our usual coping strategies are working.

Some very prepared researchers have already done a study on how the coronavirus pandemic has affected parenting so far, and it isn't great. Despite some positives like parents feeling closer to their children, they also reported yelling more and using more harsh discipline.

All this to say it's worth some extra time and energy to figure out how to get through this social distancing with your family, with your relationships, and yourself intact.

Give Yourself Space and Grace

If you are enduring isolation with a partner, this relationship needs the most space and grace for both of you to be better as parents. We can't expect our children to take care of us, and we need a lot of being taken care of right now. If we can prioritize our partner relationship to mutually meet our emotional needs, we can get through this better for ourselves and our families.

One way to do this is to get away from each other. Find a way to each have alone time if not daily, then weekly. For example, my partner and I alternate weeknights of being in total "do not disturb" mode for the 45 minutes between dinner and bedtime. For the rest of the day of togetherness, when going through the relentless pace morning to evening, snappy comments and irritated eye rolls are unavoidable. Give each other grace in these undesirable moments—let it go, Elsa style.

Talk It Out

Remember all the emotions and stress? If we are following the good advice to stay as calm and present as possible with the kids, the emotions have to go somewhere—most likely straight to our partner. There's a reason communication is the cliché solution: it works.

In the constant shape-shifting of responding adaptively to life with the coronavirus, we need to ensure there is time to really talk about how life is going, and what we each need to do differently. Set up a virtual babysitting date with the grandparents (win-win), go to another room, and talk through how you each are managing, what's working, and what's not. Problem-solve if you need to. Fall apart if you need to. Be real, honest, and there for each other. Throughout the week, ask for what you need ("I have to go for a walk") and be ready to give what your partner needs.

Isolation as a Parent

Most of us have not conditioned ourselves to be with our children 24/7. As we all scramble to figure out this reality, there has probably been even more chaos than usual. That's OK, but as we all adjust, we need to find some calm. The calmer the household, the better our kids feel, so invest your time and energy into this household since it's all you have right now!

In whichever ways you can pull it off, structure and routine are truly part of kids feeling calmer and safer. It helps them to know what to expect each day in this very unpredictable time. Even if they rail against the rules, they need them. As part of this routine, include periods of physical separation so everyone can have time away from each other. Find opportunities for parent-child one-on-one time so you can really connect with each child and find out how they are managing, and what they need. Giving them focused time and attention can help them be even a little less demanding and needy all those other hours.

Maintaining rules and routine, though, is even more effective with flexibility and fun. When my 5-year-old has even more fragile fall-aparts than usual, I know it's his way of expressing how hard this is. I slow down and give him big hugs instead of expecting rigid rule-following. Also, your kids need things to look forward to as much as you do right now, so plan something out of the ordinary as a family. Our basement family slumber party was a surprisingly big hit, and totally no-frills.

The Bottom Line

The basic ingredients for coping with isolation as a family are not just time and attention, but the right time and attention. This includes taking time for yourself and giving attention to your needs, so you have the mental and emotional energy for your relationships. Remember through it all to give yourself space and grace too.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns. 

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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