Seventy-two percent of U.S. adults are now practicing some form of social distancing and are avoiding public places. Millions of American parents are trying to navigate through the unforeseen and inherent complications of suddenly sharing space 24/7 with their young children and/or teenagers for an undetermined end date. This goes against the natural developmental milestones for children and adolescents practicing separation and individuation and parents practicing degrees of “letting go.”
Most families have never faced or had to endure this degree of isolation for an extended period. For many, it may have only happened in the very early stages of welcoming new babies into the world when their families gathered for hours on end. Even then, outside interests and social options were allowed. Being cocooned on an island with each other is not a typical state-of-affairs for any family, and the structures of families today has changed dramatically.
The newest census notes the majority of America’s 73.7 million children under age 18 live in families with two parents. Roughly a quarter (23%) of same children in the same demographics live with one parent and no other adults. Some 64 million Americans also live in multi-generational households. So, every configuration of the contemporary family is dealing with a different set of challenges in setting up an effective social distancing response under the same roof.
It’s now common knowledge that mandatory social distancing and staying at home is the most effective tool for combatting and reducing the spread of the virus. It’s very important that parents reinforce and stress this with their children. Fortunately, most children are not susceptible to the virus, but it is possible for them to get infected, so they need to be protected.
Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan, says the goal is for parents to limit exposure, period. “My guidance right now to families is, as much as possible, do not have your kids in other people’s houses. Do not have other people’s kids in your house.”
If you’re a parenting as a couple or are a single parent, your family is counting on you to come up with an effective and loving environment that will hopefully make everyone feel comfortable. As a mother, I can assure you that’s a daunting task even in normal times. Here are 5 tips and suggestions that hopefully will help you navigate and guide your family through this unchartered set of challenges:
- Communicate and work together as a family
Communicate with your family as a group about this is new and novel territory for everyone. There are no definitive methods that will work for every family to handle this crisis. However, working together to create effective ways that are unique to your family will bring you closer together as a unit. Using a team approach will enable you to tackle and solve problems. See this as “found time” to bond with your family members in ways you heretofore would not have had. Create challenges for each other; like picking “cooking teams” for dinners, see who can do the most pushups by a certain date or do art projects together.
- Manage Your Expectations
Manage expectations of your family members and yourself. If you are a person that likes to run your ship a certain way or has certain expectations of your children, suspending some of those may be necessary. No “ships” are running smoothly in these unchartered waters; the goal is to stay afloat and love each other through the rocky waters.
Some ways adolescents may try to regain autonomy during this time is playing with their sleep schedules, changing their hairstyles, etc. Know that self-expression is an important developmental milestone. And even in this environment, some of that is natural and needs to be accepted.
- Don’t fall into the trap of being camp counselor
Ask everyone to come up with creative ideas about how to spend time together or alone. You don’t have to be the camp counselor and come up with all the creative ideas to keep family members “boredom” abated. Maybe one family member comes up with the clever idea to tie dye t-shirts with toilet bowl cleaner (Clorox) and that becomes a family project. Encourage and give each member the freedom and opportunity to be creative.
Model behaviors you might want others to engage in. Instead of always making suggestions of what you might want others to do, show them. Sit down and work on a puzzle or an art project. Lead by example. Take a walk and see if someone wants to join you. Or maybe they’ll opt to take a walk on their own later. Let them see what you do, instead of making them do what you say.
- Be patient and kind to yourself
As the leader of the family, it’s essential to be patient with yourself as you try to manage your competing responsibilities. Inevitably, you will get pulled in many directions: parent, spouse, worker and referee. Be compassionate and kind to yourself. There is no way it can all get done the way you might want with so much “noise” in one place. Do the best that you can.
- Don’t forget to self-care
Most importantly, don’t forget to “self-care.” Meditate, exercise, take baths; whatever you can do to remain as spiritually healthy as you can. You won’t be any good to yourself if you lose sight of the importance of trying to keep your emotional space healthy.
When this pandemic “war” is all over, your family will forever be indebted to you for all the hard work you put in every day to soldier and keep them safe through the most challenging time your family may ever face.
“It’s Time to Get Serious About Social Distancing, Here’s How,” by Maria Godoy and Allison Aubrey, www.npr.org, 17 March 2020
“How Multi-generational Families Manage Social Distancing Under One Roof,” by Carla Anthony, www.npr.org 5 April 2020