Parenting during the Coronavirus Pandemic

By: Nicole “Nikki” Moore, LMFT

I am awakened by my four-year-old jumping on me in the day breaking hours of the morning. It is always too early, yet, a new day has come again. During this new season in life, it feels like a never-ending day. With uncertainty, I check my phone to determine the time and actual day of the week. It’s 6:02 am on Wednesday, April 1, 2020. Like Groundhog Day, my son and I engage in the same conversation every time he wakes up. 

He asks if he can go to school, and I inform him that school is still closed. Then he asks if he can go to the park, to which I also reply “closed”. He wines and begs for a cognitive understanding of the sudden changes in his routine and life. I share with him that a lot of people are getting sick and we must stay at home to stay healthy. We also talk about how his school and our community have made major changes to ensure our safety and health. It is never a response he likes to hear but he seems to accept my explanation for now. 

As a mom and family therapist, I am taken aback by the depth of changes our children and families are undergoing as a collective, global system. There is also so much fear as to how this pandemic may be impacting our families. From the possibility of becoming ill or losing someone, to the financial stress as bills pile up and income halts, to the emotional stress of “too much family time” as parental engagement increases to 24/7 and it seems that our relationships are bearing the brunt of this new way of being.  It is stressful.  The reality is, for most families, quarantining is no easy task, despite an understanding and willingness to participate in it.      

I have seen lots of “how to survive quarantine” parenting guides lately and have found some to be well thought out. However, the truth is, there are no guiding posts on how to get through something we are all just trying to survive while also navigating our fight, flight or freeze responses in our brains to the building fear around us. This is because every family is different and has different needs. There is no way we can generalize how to get through this mayhem in a set number of easy steps.  

In helping our families, sometimes we need to step back and gain some perspective.  By taking time to broaden our view of our home life we can remember that our own experience is not always everyone’s shared experience. For one family, they may welcome an increase in family time and participate in activities such as baking banana bread or porch family photography sessions. Other families may experience an increase in parentification by the oldest siblings, who are now expected to care for their younger siblings 40-60 hours a week while their single parent works to provide for the family. Other families may be significantly impacted by the overall stress leading to an increase in substance abuse or even domestic violence within the home. For these families, the generalizing advice of simply engaging in mediation to stay calm is unhelpful and even oppressive.

Reminding ourselves, as a community, to step back and see where we are within this pandemic is important in helping support our families and children as well. This reflection gives space to witness our own personal experience and the experiences of those around us. These differences may be key in creating compassion, kindness and collective support. To explore this further we can look at one of Abraham Maslow’s psychological theories. He developed a theory called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to speak to the motivation of humans through the completion of each level of needs for individual growth. These needs include: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization.     

When exploring where you are within your familial growth and motivation in this pandemic there is a lot to consider. The first need in the hierarchy that must be met is physiological. This includes basic needs such as breathing, food, water, sleep and homeostasis. When thinking of how many people throughout the world are simply trying to obtain physiological needs for their children and families, it is eye-opening and heartbreaking. Once needs of food, water and shelter are met, one can assess if they are meeting their safety needs. This includes security of body, employment, resources, morality, family, health and property. 

The next step in the hierarchy is love/belonging where friendship, family and sexual intimacy occur.  Then comes esteem, where one is able to respect others and have confidence and self-esteem.  Finally, there is self-actualization, where one can accept facts, is nonjudgmental, can engage in problem-solving, creativity and morality. 

For many families, basic necessities are coming into question, as food supplies dwindle and the financial ability to stock up on food is nonexistent. While other families or leaders are at the highest level of the hierarchy of needs.  They are able to explore creative ways to help others or even solve bigger financial issues for their family such as selling out of stocks that are not yielding the income they are hoping for within this economic climate. To support one another as a community, we first have to meet each other where we are at. Healing occurs when we can hold space for the pain, grief and trauma that may be occurring, witness it from a nonjudgmental place and give compassion, all while processing emotions. We must all start the support within our own homes first.

Where is your family located on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Chart? Are you on the physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem or self-actualization level? Once you realize where you are functioning from based on your family’s level of need take a minute to sit in it. Really think about what that means for you as a parent/family and how that may be impacting your abilities. Then, take a minute, grieve, let those big feelings out and give yourself grace. Wow, you are somehow managing!  You are doing the best you possibly can, given these unforeseen circumstances. You may wish it was better, kinder, or even prettier. However, I assure you, you are doing better than you think you are. 

Once you have gathered yourself and realized that, no matter how bad it might be, you are still there for your children to the best of your abilities. Then, maybe you can step back further and think about your children. You may be trying to work from home as a single parent or even manage a home of college-age kids. No matter what you are going through, your children (younger or older) are adjusting to this new way of life as well. Though their outbursts or challenges may seem minute in comparison to those fighting for their lives with the coronavirus, their emotional experiences are still valid. Like adults, your children are experiencing losses and grievances of their own, including the loss of friendships, daily structure, sporting events, prom, graduations and interactions with the outside world. No matter how insignificant these losses may feel to you as a parent, they are significant within their peer/developmental experiences for your children. 

Creating space to sit down and talk with your children is key to your understanding of their experiences. Opening up a conversation about what it has been like for them to be in quarantine may be very eye-opening. During this time, it is important to move into more of an observer role, rather than a problem-solver. Being able to make validating statements, such as “I hear it is really sad for you to be missing out on …”, or “I hear it is really scary for you because …” creates space for you as a parent to witness and honor their emotional experiences. When children feel heard they are able to regulate their emotions within a great time of fear and panic. This emotional regulation is essential to a calm home environment.  

We often want to problem solve through our children’s experiences because as parents we feel like it is our job to fix their grievances. However, at this time the opposite is true. Allowing space for our kids to share their feelings teaches youth that their feelings are important, even if we as parents can’t “make it better” instantly.  You being there within these moments of big emotions shows your kids how much you care! It also helps families learn to talk about hard feelings without shutting down.   

Additionally, it is also important to remember that you are your children’s guide in this world. Your ability to stay calm during emotionally charged conversations is really important as well. It could be easy for children to be overexposed to scary news programing, social media messages or witnessing a family member go through coronavirus health issues first hand. If you, as their guide, can create space as an observer/witness and validate the emotional experience of your child/teen/young adult, while staying calm, it helps your child to regulate their own fight, flight or freeze reactivity. No one wants a guide to be scared, unsure or hysterical when they are supposed to help you navigate new terrain. The same goes for you as a parent within quarantine. You may not have all the answers but, hopefully, you can dig deep and find the ability to be calm and help guide your child within these new experiences.

As parents, it is our job to keep our children safe and healthy. In times like this it can be hard to feel like we are actually able to do this especially when things feel so out of our control. However, sharing the action plan you have outlined for your family, in a developmentally appropriate manner, can help your children see that you are doing everything you possibly can to protect them. Additionally, finding ways to reassure your children that they are safe and healthy right now is helpful in desculating panic. Bringing your children back to the present and pointing out their current state can help debunk any future tripping and thinking errors they might be experiencing. It also will help create space to talk through any fears they might have grabbed onto that need clarification. 

Our brains are hardwired to make sense of things. For children, when they do not have all the information or do not understand everything, they will often make up information to fill in the blanks. This can lead to emotional or even physical outbursts. Therefore, taking the time to identify and clarify their cognitive understanding of the pandemic while reassuring our children during a time of mass fear is essential.  These conversations will need to be ongoing as information and emotional experiences change.  

Tomorrow, I am sure I will wake up way too early and be bombarded by questions from my preschooler once again. My half-awake brain will listen to his disappointment and frustration as to how quarantine life continues to impact him. I will remind him why we are engaging in this life change “stay at home” orders to save lives. I will remain calm. If I am being honest, my half-asleep body will give me the resilience to not be reactive in the moment.  Then I will reassure him that we are both safe and healthy. As more questions, emotions and challenges occur throughout the day I continue to do my best to remain open to his experiences. I will dig deep and try to be calm as his guide in order to help my son to regulate how he feels with love, support, compassion and reassurance. I will not always do it perfectly, but I will try my best to support him unconditionally. 

In the meantime, I will continue to remind parents and families that they are doing the best they can within this public health crisis. Parents, remember you are not alone, no matter what stage of need you are in.  We are all in it together without “7 simple steps” to guide us through the choppy waters of the unknown.  However, we will teach our children that in the mix of uncertainty we can manage big feelings and get through trying times as a family, community, society and world.        

To learn more about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs you can check out: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

Nicole “Nikki” Moore, LMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.  She is the co-founder of the lifestyle brand Live Moore Co. Nikki and her late husband, Matt Moore, began the brand to inspire others to live life to the fullest while Matt battled colorectal cancer.  Following the loss of her husband in 2017, Nikki Moore continues to engage in operating Live Moore Co., consult, write and participate in colorectal cancer advocacy work.  She is the VP of communication and operations for The Colon Club and event co-director for the Colon Cancer Coalition’s Tucson, AZ and Portland, OR Get Your Rear in Gear 5k races.