Parenting during Coronavirus: How to get the balance right at home

A daily structure is essential when working from home during the coronavirus crisis. But watch you don’t put too much pressure on yourself or your children, experts tell Helen O’Callaghan

Parenting during Coronavirus: How to get the balance right at home

If during recent weeks you’ve been juggling child-minding, home-schooling and working from home, you’re most likely finding out how essentially unworkable it all is — at least to get everything done to the standard you feel is required.

Dr Colman Noctor, psychotherapist with St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, says the notion of multi-tasking is fictional. “We can’t do three things together to the same quality as we can do one.”

He points to the ‘parenting triangle’, which in pre Covid-19 days had three sides to it: keeping yourself sane, your kids happy and your house clean.

You can only do two really right, says Noctor. And now that home-schooling has been added to the triangle (maybe making it more of a square, or ousting ‘clean house’ from the triad), something has to give.

“There’s a lot of stress in families. There are parents who have lost jobs or who have small businesses they don’t know will open again," says Noctor, who recommends we park expectations and prioritise

Next to that, the idea of home-schooling has to take a back seat.

"These are extraordinary times and we are being asked to do the impossible – imagine taking your child to work with you and trying to ‘home-school’ them in the office.”

He suggests parents design a hierarchy of their value system and identify what’s most important. “Home-schooling will come somewhere along that list. If a family’s in crisis about their job, the rent or mortgage, home-schooling is going to be further down the list than those who have more resources.”

HEALTH IS WEALTH

For author and psychotherapist Stella O’Malley, the key focus should be to emerge from the coronavirus threat with the health and mental wellbeing of yourself and your family intact. After that, with some sort of financial wherewithal.

To begin to work well from home, you need to identify the pressures around home-schooling and put them in perspective. O’Malley sees huge pressure currently on children, parents and teachers (who, after all, haven’t done a training module on how to manage education during a pandemic).

Teachers are telling me they feel under huge pressure to provide lots of work. They’re quite aware this doesn’t suit the majority of children but they really feel they have to provide it.

And then there are the WhatsApp groups, with their persistent pings delivering the news of classmates who have (a) just done three hours maths this morning, (b) completed a fabulous project on space, or (c) strode ahead two chapters in their Irish textbook.

“Push from the very few is creating anxiety in a lot,” says O’Malley, adding that people have huge anxiety right now and when people feel anxious, they have an intense need — even at a biological level — to control something.

“So they’re projecting their anxiety onto their children’s education. In a time of anxiety, they want control and they’re harnessing their nervous energy towards their child’s academic work.”

EDUCATION STRESS

While it seems like stating the obvious, O’Malley says we need to acknowledge that Covid-19 is a health crisis. It’s not an academic crisis.

“I can see why people are anxious about Covid-19. That’s appropriate. Anxiety about education is not appropriate. All children are in the same boat.

They’re all missing out and missing their teacher. Some kids will benefit from being pushed but what you win on the swings, you lose on the roundabouts.

"If your children can come out of this with their wellbeing intact, that’s much more important for their long-term education and economic prospects.”

O’Malley’s big recommendation is to reject guilt and to see what each child in your family really needs over the next four weeks. Maybe one child — who finds their normal, overscheduled life tough going — just needs to do less work now and a lot more play.

Perhaps another hasn’t quite experienced the joy of reading yet — you might gently nudge them in that direction with a few good books chosen from the library’s Borrow Box service

SPLIT THE LOAD

But how do you manage working from home while nurturing your child physically and emotionally, mentally and cognitively?

Structure’s important, says Noctor — for you and the children. Create a timetable.

“Children function well on timetables. They’re used to them. If they don’t have a timetable, they don’t know when something’s going to end and that creates anxiety.

The more knowns you can put in place, the less anxious people will be.

To accommodate your work, which has to be a priority, you could perhaps arrange it so that you spend alternate periods of 60 minutes on your work and then being with your children.

Boundaries are vital, says O’Malley. Decide on a schedule and communicate it to everybody in the family. This will involve saying something along the lines of ‘between 9-10am I’m going to be doing some work’ or ‘between 10-11am, you can’t seek me out at all’. “There has to be some absolute golden time, when they have no freedom to contact you,” says O’Malley.

This is more easily done if can divide your working day between you and your partner. And remember that your children’s downtime is your golden time for working.

Get them busy with an art/gardening project or FaceTiming their friends or chatting with their grandparents on the phone or watching a good movie. Better again, do all of these at different times of the day so you’re freed up for work.

Do whatever it takes, while keeping everybody as sane as possible. And know that it’s more than good enough. In fact, it’s heroic. As Noctor puts it: “Our world has been turned upside-down in a matter of weeks. People need to be OK with their struggle. It would be unusual not to struggle.”

    Tips from Dr Colman Noctor:
  • Work within your limitations. If you can’t get to home-schooling today because work is too chaotic, park it. Your child’s career trajectory isn’t going to be affected by what you don’t get to between now and June.
  • Prioritise what’s most important in your family at a given moment. Your children will learn from your value system. You might be saying ‘we’re not going to get to the school bit today, people are getting a bit stressed so we might need to get out for a game of football’.
  • Minimise the comparisons with — and the exposure to — other parents and to those whose performances are seemingly flying.
  • Remember that children are struggling too. Going to school, playing sports, meeting their grandparents — so many familiar aspects of life are gone. Their behaviour will be more challenging than usual. Encourage them to talk about the challenges they’re facing.

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