Jennifer Weil Malatras, Ph.D.

The Healthy Child

Parenting in a Pandemic

How do we maintain stability in the midst of unpredictability?

Posted Mar 14, 2020

Earlier this week, in efforts to contain the spread of Coronavirus, my children’s school closed the water fountains and asked parents to make sure children came to school with water bottles. Next, the Science Fair moved from an all-family afterschool event to a student-only display held during regular school hours. Despite these precautions, yesterday evening, my children’s school, like many others in our area and throughout the nation, announced it would be closing for at least a week, and left open the possibility that more change is yet to come. 

People globally are feeling the impact of rapidly changing circumstances and uncertainty. My Facebook scroll is overflowing with articles and advice, many filled with seemingly sound words, some in deep conflict with the advice that came just before. My friends are discussing matters by group texting, and my colleagues are doing so in extended email chains and videoconferencing. As a parent and as a child psychologist, I too have wavered about how best to handle the coming weeks of change with a 2-year-old and 7-year-old in tow. 

But this morning, I was reminded of what has been at the core of much of my research and my thoughts about effective parenting. Routine. My 2-year-old, mostly naïve to the magnitude of change occurring around her—albeit aware of Mommy and Daddy’s increased requests for her to wash her hands—came downstairs as she does every morning and requested a “snack.” Actually, it was breakfast time, but as those of you who have parented toddlers know, that’s not a point worth arguing. Plus, a toddler is much more likely to eat something healthy if we call it a snack as opposed to labeling it breakfast, but I digress.

“Two cereals,” she said, as she does every morning. “In one bowl. With milk. And boo-berries. And a spoon. On Mommy’s lap.” And, so there we sat, me sipping my coffee as I do every morning, and she eating her two cereals in one bowl with milk and blueberries on Mommy’s lap. This is her routine. Much of my work and that of the Child and Family Program lab originated by Professor Emeritus Allen Israel at the University at Albany, in fact, has been about investigating the ways in which the stability of daily activities and routines, such as meal or bedtime routines, are associated with a wide range of positive outcomes—from fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, and behavior problems to better self-regulation and health behaviors. 

Pixabay / No Attribution Required
Source: Pixabay / No Attribution Required

How can we, as parents, maintain routine during an uncertain and anxiety-producing situation such as the Coronavirus pandemic?

Take stock of the routines in your daily life. Identify things your family does regularly that can be maintained. Of course, some beloved routines, like soccer on Saturday mornings or visits with friends, will be largely disrupted under conditions of social distancing. But many routines, particularly the ones that most provide your child with a sense of predictability and security, can be maintained under household isolation and quarantine: bedtime, mealtime, and family time. Read the bedtime stories if that’s what your family does, or eat dinner together, or have your Friday movie or game night. The way one family creates stability may look very different from another, so focus on the things that you are already doing that are unaffected by current conditions.

Maintaining stability, somewhat counterintuitively, also requires flexibility. Don’t forget to think about the ways in which you may still be able to maintain aspects of your routine even under changed conditions. If a quarantine is imposed in our area and grocery shopping becomes difficult, we’ll run out of blueberries in a matter of days. Not far after, the milk will be gone. My family is lucky because we are privileged enough to have options and a well-stocked freezer and pantry and that fact does not escape me.

The most hardship my child will likely face is to have to switch to a frozen waffle or oatmeal for “snack” instead of her cereal. But, it isn’t the cereal, in particular, my daughter is craving. It’s the five or ten minutes she spends quietly starting her day, sitting on my lap at our dining room table, watching for the birds out our window. It’s the moment of calm in an otherwise busy and sometimes chaotic day ahead. It’s the sense of predictability, the stability that her routine brings her what she looks for when she wakes each morning. And, to be honest, that routine helps keep me centered too. 

Significant life changes are difficult, but they don’t have to up-end all stability. You can offer your children predictability and stability even amidst larger uncertainty. Some reflection and time at home may even provide you with an opportunity to build new routines. Introduce a few new activities—even simple things like 20 minutes of daily reading or games or a weekly video chat with a grandparent—things your child can count on and look forward to during the weeks ahead. Make the new feel normal. You may even find you build routines to maintain long after the Coronavirus is behind us.

References

Ivanova, M.Y. & Israel, A.C. (2005) Family Stability as a Protective Factor Against the Influences of Pessimistic Attributional Style on Depression. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 29, 243–251.

Ivanova, M.Y. & Israel, A.C. (2006) Family Stability as a Protective Factor Against Psychopathology for Urban Children Receiving Psychological Services. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 35, 564-570.

Malatras, J.W. & Israel, A.C. (2013). The influence of family stability on self-control and adjustment. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69, 661-670.

Malatras, J.W., Israel, A.C., Sokolowski, K.L., & Ryan, J. (2016). First things first: Family activities and routines, time management and attention. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 47, 23-29.

Malatras, J.W., Luft, I.R., Sokolowski, K.L., & Israel, A.C. (2012). Family stability as a moderator of the relationship between family life changes and sleep behavior. Open Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2, 149-156.

Sokolowski, K.L. & Israel, A.C. (2008). Perceived Anxiety Control as a Mediator of the Relationship between Family Stability and Adjustment. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 22, 1454-1461.