Parenting During Coronavirus: Tips for Families with Kids

The pressures of juggling work, chores, and your kids’ school schedules while under lockdown can seem overwhelming. But there are steps you can take to keep a sense of structure (and your sanity)!

Girl propping herself up on hardwood floor to let her nuzzle up to her, a coloring book and colored pencils beside her

The unique stresses facing parents during COVID-19

With schools and most workplaces closed due to COVID-19, many of us have found ourselves dealing with a new, and often very stressful, family situation. As well as having to work from home and run the household, you’re likely also trying to keep your kids on track with their virtual schoolwork—all while being confined to home, cut off from the support of friends and loved ones. With the whole family occupying the same space day after day, the strain can seem unrelenting. If you or your spouse have been furloughed or lost your source of income, the financial pressure can add even more stress. Left unchecked, that can be a recipe for burnout.

As a parent at this time, it’s easy to feel that you have so many roles to fulfill that you can’t possibly perform any of them well. But it’s important to remind yourself that this is a unique situation, a global health emergency that none of us have had to face before. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not functioning at your usual standard. This can apply to your quality of work, your upkeep of the home, or your ability to keep your kids focused on their schoolwork. By going easy on yourself and following these tips for maintaining a sense of balance, you can keep your stress levels in check and make each day a little easier for your family—and for yourself.

Helping your kids with online classes and schoolwork

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown many of us into the role of de facto homeschool teacher. In addition to all your other responsibilities, you may be finding it difficult keeping your children on track or helping them with assignments, especially if they’re in different grades. Keep in mind that this is a stressful time for kids as well, and that it’s normal for them to regress or act out in ways they normally wouldn’t. Going easy on your kids can help reduce their stress levels as well as your own.

Join forces with other parents. Reach out via phone, email, or social media and exchange tips for keeping kids focused and engaged. You can also organize a virtual activity or study group, which has the added bonus of providing social interaction for your child. Collaborating with other parents may help you feel less isolated as well.

Connect with your child’s teacher. Remember, they’re also getting through this by trial and error. Be honest about what is working and what isn’t. Your child’s teacher has a good understanding of their academic strengths and weaknesses, so they may be able to help you come up with a more individualized learning plan.

Create a routine. A routine gives kids a sense of normalcy during an otherwise uncertain time. But you don’t have to go crazy with color-coded schedules if that’s not your style. Just create a general outline that you think you can maintain on most days that still leaves room for flexibility and down-time. If possible, try to designate a workspace for each member of the family.

Set goals—and celebrate their completion. Since so much has been stripped from our everyday lives, having something to look forward to can help kids stay motivated. Setting up small rewards, like watching an episode of a favorite TV show, can help them tackle that unpleasant math assignment. Get the whole family in on it. If you all set a few goals and plan breaks together, your kids will see that you’re a team.

Get creative with lessons. Doing a science experiment, for example, or cooking with measurements, can be a good way of bringing lessons to life. And consider your child’s strengths. If they love to draw and write, now is a good time to set them free with pencils and paper.

Practice vulnerability (and encourage your kids to do the same)

Let’s face it: these are less-than-ideal circumstances, and at some point, conflict at home is bound to happen. When you feel your frustration starting to build, take a time out and try to separate yourself before the situation escalates. If you do lose your temper, wait for everyone to calm down and then apologize. Be honest with your kids and let them know when you’re feeling overwhelmed. At the same time, encourage them to be honest about their feelings and frustrations.

Self-care during the pandemic isn’t a luxury—it’s essential

You’re probably feeling like you’re being pulled in every possible direction right now, and can barely take care of your basic needs, let alone relax. But in times of stress and uncertainty, it’s important not to neglect yourself. Remember, you can’t fill from an empty cup. The better you take care of your own needs, the better equipped you’ll be to support your kids and everyone else in your household.

Spend some time alone. With your family confined under one roof, your previous outlets for personal time are probably gone. Make it a point to carve out some space for yourself, whether that’s taking a walk alone, practicing a relaxation technique, or winding down with a bubble bath.

Prioritize your wellbeing. The lack of structure at the moment can make it easy to fall into coping mechanisms that can turn into bad habits, such as overeating, drinking too much, or abusing drugs. Added stress and uncertainty can also make it difficult to sleep at night. Try to prioritize your wellbeing as much as possible. This means eating healthy, getting in some exercise, and sticking to a regular sleep schedule.

Don’t set yourself up to fail. Be realistic about what you can achieve. Do the best you can but try to keep some perspective. If you can’t bring yourself to set up that virtual museum tour or the kids end up eating cookies for dinner one night, don’t despair. There’s no guide to this, and everyone is taking it day by day. Try not to fall into the comparison trap, either. Each family has its own set of concerns and priorities.

Reconnect with old passions. Think about hobbies you enjoy but rarely have time for. Maybe there’s a skill you’d like to learn, like knitting or making jewelry, but haven’t gotten around to yet. If you can carve out the time and energy, engaging in activities you love can help ease stress and add joy to your day.

Make time to laugh. There’s certainly a lot of fear and heartbreak in the world right now, but there are also still chances to share a laugh and enjoy some lighthearted relief. Try to create opportunities for fun with your family. Build a pillow fort in the living room and tell ghost stories or look at old scrapbooks together. Roast marshmallows over the stove.

Easing your kids’ anxiety about coronavirus

While some kids are content to read or play video games rather than focus on the situation in the world right now, others may have questions. Your kids might have expressed fears about the pandemic, or shown a change in behavior, like being unable sleep at night.

It can be difficult broaching the topic of the coronavirus pandemic without scaring kids. Yet you still need to make sure they understand the importance of safety precautions, such as social distancing and washing their hands. By staying calm yourself, and managing young children’s intake of information, you can educate your kids about COVID-19 without overwhelming them.

How to direct the conversation

  • Deal with your own worries first. Make sure you’re not in an anxious state when you talk to your children or they’ll pick up on your energy and your attempts at reassurance will be lost. If you’re having difficulty getting it in check, there are plenty of steps you can take to manage your own fear and anxiety.
  • Find out what your child already knows. You can approach the discussion by asking what your child has heard. This will allow you to address any misconceptions.
  • Talk at an age-appropriate level. If your child is young, don’t volunteer too much information, as this could cause their imagination to run wild. Instead, try to answer any questions they might have. It’s okay not to know everything; if your child is older, help them find accurate information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or World Health Organization (WHO).
  • Focus on what you can control. Talking to your kids about the safety precautions you’re taking can empower them. Remind them to wash their hands for 20 seconds (the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice) when they come in from outside, before they eat, after blowing their nose, coughing, sneezing, or going to the bathroom. Explain how reducing close contact with other people keeps the virus from spreading, therefore it’s important to stay at home as much as possible.
  • Offer reassurance and honesty. If your kids are afraid they’ll get the virus, reassure them that children don’t seem to get as sick as adults. Watch the news with older kids so you can explain what they’re hearing and put things into context.
  • Keep lines of communication open. To keep fear from building up, let your kids know that you’ll keep them updated as you learn more information. You can also use this as a teaching opportunity, explaining how their immune system fights disease.

Dealing with teenagers’ concerns about COVID-19

While young children may be frightened about the pandemic, older kids and teens are more likely to be annoyed by the restrictions it brings. Spending time with their peers is extremely important to teenagers, so they may rebel against social distancing guidelines. If you’re finding it difficult to enforce the rules or your interactions always feel like a power struggle, don’t despair. There are ways to get through this time without becoming a drill sergeant or turning your home into a war zone.

Explain why social distancing is important. Teenagers tend to feel invincible at the best of times. During this pandemic, they know that the virus may not pose as much of a risk to them as it does to older people. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t spread the disease and cause extreme suffering to others. Explain that even though they feel fine, they could still be asymptomatic carriers and pass the virus on to those most at risk, including their own grandparents or other family members with underlying health conditions.

Empathize with their frustrations. As well as all the other frustrations of lockdown, older kids may also be missing important school events such as exams, dances, and graduations. Validate their feelings and listen without trying to convince them that they’ll be fine or reminding them that others have it worse. Sharing your own disappointments and frustrations will put you on the same team. Encourage your kids to be creative with how they interact with their friends. If you have any limitations regarding social media and phone use, consider relaxing them during this time.

Let them set their own schedule. While a sense of structure is still necessary for teenagers, treating them like a little kid will only fuel rebellion. Give them choices whenever possible and let them know you’re available to help keep them on track and plan breaks if they need it. Giving your teenagers autonomy also means holding them responsible for certain chores, such as helping with cooking and cleaning.

Encourage mindfulness

Like you, it’s unlikely your teen has experienced uncertainty on this type of scale before. They may fear for their future, especially if they’re missing college admission tests or summer activities expected to help them with applications or scholarships. Older children may worry if they’ll be able to return to college in the fall.

Practicing mindfulness meditation encourages you to experience all these difficult emotions without judgment. In these difficult times, it can benefit both you and your teenage kids. Remind them that it’s okay to feel stressed and anxious, but they should try not to dwell on worst-case scenarios. After all, even in the best of times, an element of uncertainty is still an unavoidable part of life.

Get more help

Coronavirus Parenting: Managing Anger and Frustration – Gives tips on how to handle common scenarios during this time. (Child Mind Institute)

School closed due to the coronavirus? Tips to help parents cope – How to keep kids motivated and connected (Harvard Health)

Supporting Teenagers and Young Adults During the Coronavirus Crisis – Resources for parents with older children at home (Child Mind Institute)

Talking to Children About Coronavirus – More tips for discussing the virus without scaring them. (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry)

Coronavirus (COVID-19): How to Talk to Your Child – On keeping the lines of communication open (Kids Health)

Authors: Anne Artley and Lawrence Robinson. Reviewed by Melinda Smith, M.A. Last updated: May 2020.