It's rough to be a parent right now raising a family amidst a pandemic. Many adults are working from home. Many families are now together more than ever. We called up Liliana Lengua, a professor at the University of Washington Department of Psychology who studies how stress and adversity affect children and families to get her insight on how families can better cope with the pandemic and foster emotional resilience going forward.
HEALTH & HOME: What impact is quarantining having on families — both kids and adults?
LENGUA: The impacts are pretty similar for the children and the adults in the house. People are feeling more anxious, both in terms of the COVID-19 illness itself but also what it means for the future. There's a lot of uncertainty and uncertainty is usually hard to cope with. There's also feelings of loss and grief, missing out on things you're used to doing, and social connections, and having routines and regular life experiences. We might be seeing family members with shorter tempers. It's hard to be patient when we're around each other 24/7. We're definitely hearing about increases in anxiety and feelings of sadness and loss.
What can families do to better cope with the stress of quarantine?
For parents, it's just going to take a lot of patience and compassion. They're going to have to really tap into their own coping and emotion regulation tools. Recognizing that everyone is having big feelings is challenging. Approach those feelings with some acceptance and validate our own feelings and our own frustrations and our kids feelings and frustrations, recognizing that it's OK to be feeling upset at this time, we're all feeling that way. It's really useful to have preplanned things that help you calm down or help your kids calm down in those situations. Maybe even having a list on your refrigerator for your kids. So that when they're feeling upset, they can go to those practices, those things that really work for them.
There are things we can do to build resilience. [Try] to create some routine or structure in the day that builds in things that are enjoyable, things that are rewarding. Making sure we carve out some time for activities alone that we enjoy doing, creative things, exercise, and also some time for family time that is really just for fun and not just about getting homework done or getting work done.
How can parents talk about the pandemic with children?
There's some really great guidance on these topics for traumatic or community level disasters in general. And I think the same rules would apply. The idea is we want to be honest with our kids and open, but also be thinking about the age appropriateness of the message. So with younger children, we want to be giving them assurances around the reality of the situation: "We're home because this is what's going to keep us healthy. The adults in your lives are going to do everything we can to make sure we all stay healthy, including you."
I think kids really benefit from the opportunity to also contribute and do something and give back in some way. They can reach out to family members who may be lonely or alone, send postcards or cards or letters. They could write notes or letters to people who are first responders or are in the medical field.
Do you think families will interact differently after we get through the pandemic?
Some people will come out of this having really grown from the experience and become a better person. There has to be that intention to learn something from this experience and make a decision about what you would want to do differently in your family and in the future. People have been talking about what they have been benefiting from is the opportunity to really just spend a lot of time with their family. And if that feels like something new to your family — if carving out family time hasn't been a standard practice — maybe this is an inspiration. Some people have been talking about trying to find creative ways to entertain their kids instead of going to the movies, creating a movie night with a movie theater atmosphere at home. So maybe those things that we're creating right now can carry forward.