Important differences in how the pandemic affects our families means we make different decisions, explains Parents.com's Ask Your Mom advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D. But she says that if we can also remember what we do have in common, we can be part of the solution instead of the problem.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
September 01, 2020
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Illustration by Emma Darvick

Dear Over It,

There are times I have to look away from the hostility seeping into social media threads debating parenting decisions in the pandemic. As a psychologist, I can't help but be acutely aware that strong emotions must be feeding these virtual interactions. I'm not a Freud person, but my psychoanalysis of the social media heat of late is that social media platforms are where helplessness goes to fester.

We feel helpless about how national and state leadership is (or is not) governing with our safety in mind. We feel helpless about decisions being made from the top Department of Education all the way down to our local School Boards. In many districts, they asked our opinions in parent surveys, but how is everyone going to feel heard when the needs and requests vary so much? Not to mention how rapidly the data points needed for decisions keep changing. (In just two weeks, our district flipped from a hybrid plan to 100 percent remote.)

For parents living in school districts that are actually offering choices of what to do with their children this school year, I do not envy you. Part of me is relieved our school district went ahead and decided for all of us that nobody was going to school in person so I didn't have to tread these tricky waters. (It's like when your teenager is secretly grateful she can blame her "mean parents" for leaving a party where she's uncomfortable.)

Pinpoint Important Differences, and One Important Commonality

"We are all in this together" already feels cliché as it has become apparent that in many ways, we are not. We actually have very different lived experiences with this pandemic and how it uniquely affects us and our families. This means we come at decisions from a range of perspectives based on what we see as the largest threat to our well-being. For some, that is a physical life-and-death threat; for others, it's surviving the daily house-bound demands with our relationships and mental health intact; and for others, the threat is their very livelihood that provides for our families. Within these differences, though, we can be united by a huge commonality: we are scared.

If we can remember this basic premise—we have different experiences of what feels the most threatening AND we are all scared right now—we can work to communicate with each other in a more compassionate way. If you are feeling attacked or shamed by another parent for your back to school decision, understanding the psychology behind it can help you cope, and decide whether it's worth taking action or not. Because we all have enough stressing us out right now.

Navigating Social Media Attacks

If you are feeling attacked about your back-to-school decision via social media, it might be tempting to engage in so-called dialogue, but unfortunately, the medium often encourages more argument than understanding. Sometimes, a non-response is the best response on these platforms. Personally, one of my life guiding principles is to not expect that my post or comment will change minds on Facebook. Another option is to counterbalance the general tone with explicit support of decisions different from yours, "I hope it all goes well! You'll have to let me know." Imagine if there were more of that across social media!

When I start to feel reactive to another parent's comment on social media, I think about how this parent has her own fears driving her passionate response. Just as she does not know what went into my decision, I don't know her or her family's circumstances. These comments are often the tip of a very complicated iceberg.

Responding to Attacks In Real Life

If the personal attack is happening within your circle of friends (or let's be honest—likely family), you can stand your ground while not contributing to the shame and blame games. The best you can do is control what you can: your behavior. Start with acknowledging that this decision is a struggle for everyone, and you have made a decision that's best for your family, with no judgment of what other families do. Offer acceptance and understanding of their different decision, and maybe they will follow suit. The more each of us practices this, the more toxic air we take out of the parenting environment. The last thing we need right now is MORE division and breakdown of our support systems.

The Bottom Line

We need to recognize our diversity of experience and perspective to build compassion for each other and remember our common ground: We are stressed. We are scared. We are all making the best decisions we can with an array of terrible choices.

In this world right now, even a little compassion and kindness can go a long way, especially for parents as we all muddle our way through this dark tunnel before the eventual light. The more each of us can be part of the light, the faster we will get there.

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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