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As individuals across the country try to adjust to the “new normal” imposed upon them by the coronavirus pandemic, parents and children are struggling to find balance.

Remote working, home schooling and disruptions to most, if not all, aspects of their daily routines are shaking them to the core, creating challenges that most never imagined they’d have to experience. The impact is real, and it will affect life as everyone knows it for months and, perhaps, years to come.

For many parents, the biggest shocks have been the closing of schools and worksites. On the other hand, children have lost much of their freedom to simply be young; and instead have been forced to stay home and take a more active role in their education through the use of technology and other non-classroom strategies. These factors — especially if and when they’re coupled with financial insecurity, job uncertainty and worries about the future in general — are creating tensions and pushing many to a breaking point.

“Parents are frustrated and overwhelmed,” says Carla Buck, a licensed mental health counselor who has experience working with children, parents and caregivers around the world (warriorbrain.com). “Their businesses/jobs need them more than ever, and their kids require help with home schooling and distance learning, which demands so much more hands-on time. People aren’t made to be stay-at-home parents and full-time employees at the same time, yet right now this expectation is far too real for parents everywhere.”

According to Buck, the myriad disruptions and sudden loss of “normalcy” can trigger emotional responses that are akin to the feelings one might experience when a friend or loved one dies. “Whether we realize it or not, we’re all grieving what life was like a couple of weeks ago,” she says. “It’s unexpected grief, so the ‘denial’ phase can last a lot longer than expected. It’s a lot for parents to find time to think about and grasp, not to mention their kids. It’s a huge adjustment period, and with that comes overwhelming emotions and a very short temper.”

But there are silver linings.

For starters, families are learning to connect in both new and old ways. With no school or extracurricular activities and most states under stay-at-home orders, family dinners are returning. Movie nights and games are becoming more regular, and siblings are spending increased amounts of time with each other since play dates and other interactions with friends have been greatly reduced or eliminated.

Despite the challenges associated with distance learning and other lifestyle alterations, children are also developing skills that will serve them well — not only now but also later in life.

“This is all a part of the kids’ learning experience—they’re learning how to adapt and how to take charge of their learning,” Buck says. “They’re also learning how to manage their own frustrations when they’re forced out of their own comfort zones. A shift needs to happen, and they’re learning how to do that comfortably.”

Although it will take time for families to fully adjust to the many changes that have upended their lives, parents and children can work together to regain a sense of balance. Experts advise:

Build resilience.

  • Buck points out that getting adequate sleep, eating healthy, drinking plenty of water, exercising, laughing, showing gratitude and limiting the amount of time spent on electronics can have a positive impact on physical and mental well-being. She recommends choosing one or two of these activities that seem manageable (say, getting eight hours of sleep each night and sharing three things each family member is grateful for while eating dinner) and seeing what happens. “You might find yourself moving forward and through this quicker than you thought,” she notes.

Communicate.

  • While it is not uncommon to become more insular when faced with worry, stress or fear, families need to keep the lines of communication open.

Parents should share their thoughts and perspective with their children, letting them know that it’s OK to feel frustrated and to get angry. It’s also fine for parents to admit they don’t have all the answers and are unsure what the future holds, as long as they offer reassurance that the family will get through the pandemic together. “We’re all feeling a loss of control,” says Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a family and relationship psychotherapist, and author (drfranwalfish.com). “If parents stay calm, the children will stay calm.”

Set a routine and stick to it.

  • Routine provides certainty in uncertain times; however, trying to replicate and adhere to old routines while the world is in such a state of flux can be overwhelming. Buck suggests parents choose four daily rituals that are important to their families and set a time to do them each day. For instance, eat breakfast at 8 a.m.; break from school and work at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. to spend time outside; and eat dinner at 6:30 p.m. It may prove difficult to stick to the schedule every day, but consistently following a (new) “normal” schedule can help reduce stress and anxiety.

“Adapting is about emotional agility and having the right mindset with which to see the situation for what it really is,” Buck says. “Parents [now] have a unique opportunity to help their children see challenges with a growth mindset, to have the perspective that this situation and how they respond to it will help them do better the next time something challenging happens. Because something challenging will happen again—we can be sure of that.”

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