If the pandemic has taught me anything in the last seven months, it’s that we all handle stress differently, and these differences create conflict within a family. It can be challenging enough to mitigate different coping mechanisms between adults, but it’s an added challenge to model healthy reactions to stress for our children.
COVID-19 affected more than just what we wear to protect ourselves when going out in public, or even who we spend time with. The pandemic brought to our attention the importance of showing grace and caring for ourselves when things around us feel like they are swirling and out of control.
Arthur C. Evans Jr., CEO of the American Psychological Association, insists self-care should be a priority right now. “For many parents, it can feel overwhelming to face competing demands at home and work along with possible financial challenges during this crisis,” he said in response to an APA survey showing parents are exhibiting high stress levels during the pandemic. “Children are keen observers and often notice and react to stress or anxiety in their parents, caregivers, peers and community. Parents should prioritize their self-care and try their best to model healthy ways of coping with stress and anxiety.”
Stress responses for both children and adults can include trouble sleeping, increased or decreased appetite, impatience, anxiety, fearfulness, agitation, and depression. These responses can manifest in different ways for different people.
In our home, I decided to repaint the greater part of our house, deep clean baseboards, and study for the Law School Entrance Exam (LSAT) during the pandemic. My husband Nick tackled our taxes, refinanced our home and took extra naps. Our kids have been taking advantage of extra screen time and wearing us down on our snack guidelines.
These disparate coping strategies are benign enough to make you laugh, but were not without marital tension. I had leftover energy and felt cooped up, so changing my environment sounded great to me but unnecessary to my husband. He felt overwhelmed by the sudden change in our freedom and wanted to take advantage of time to research our financials. I had unspoken expectations that his new work-from-home arrangement would lend itself to more help with the kids. Conflict was inevitable.
Then there’s the kids. Many experts during this pandemic have stressed children’s need for structure and consistency in times of trauma. Jessica Drachenberg of Journeys Counseling Center in Tempe challenges that a little. A marriage and family therapist, Drachenberg works with families in child-parent psychotherapy and counsels family units in overcoming trauma. She agrees that structure is helpful for kids — especially in stressful times. But she insists rhythm is the real goal.
Rhythm allows for creativity and flexibility amid the unknown, says Drachenberg. The goal is to be flexibly firm and avoid rigidity. She gave the example of always playing with your child for the same amount of time at the same time each day (i.e. 20 minutes before bedtime), but being flexible in what that play might look like. Maybe one day you go on a walk, or another day you cuddle on the couch and watch TV.
The key, she says, is to be consistent in the connection but flexible in the ways you connect. To that end, Drachenberg cautions us to avoid the pressure to be a perfect parent in such unprecedented times.
In this space of navigating new normals, it’s normal for us parents to want to do the exact right thing to help our children make it out of the pandemic with minimal tension and conflict. But it’s unrealistic to think that we’re going to handle this new stress perfectly — and on top of it, teach our children to do the same.
If my husband and I responded to shelter-in-place orders with such polar opposite approaches (painting versus napping), just imagine the varied responses we see from our kids. Drachenberg encourages parents to use these differences and the conflict that might arise between adults as an opportunity to teach grace and reconciliation to our kids.
“A lot of parents put themselves into this idea that they have to be perfect and always get it right,” said Drachenberg. “Kids need to see their parents be people and know that they don’t have to be perfect.”
None of us could have seen the pandemic coming, so it’s crucial that we are patient with each other. If there’s any silver lining, COVID-19 has given me more than freshly repainted walls. It’s offered me a chance to step up my self-care, prompted me to model flexibility and pushed me to show family members — and myself — grace.