By Guest Blogger Christine Pomper
“You got this!” Those simple (and admittedly overused) words of affirmation serve as my mantra whenever I feel overwhelmed. In fact my friends and coworkers have heard me speak those words enough that we laugh when they chime back, “You can do stuff!” Yes, I know I can do lots of things, but boy, like many, the shelter at home order and social distancing guidelines of recent months have challenged my parenting abilities to the max.
It took me about a month to actually admit my poor pandemic parenting (I CAN alliterate). I absolutely did not anticipate my own difficulties with being a parent to a college freshman, a high school junior and a 7th grader during this pandemic.
In addition to having lived through a number of difficult times, including estrangement from a family member and personal health issues, I work with behavior specialists and feel confident in my ability to use sound research-based strategies to manage the moody, dramatic, self-absorbed teenagers living in my home. However, with the complete halt of traditional school, extra curricular activities, and on-site employment, the external scaffolding that my kids and I relied on to regulate our lives fell away and left me scrambling. I realized that while I felt comfortable guiding and parenting with the external constructs of school, dance class, jobs etc. in place, their absence left a void for which I had not prepared my children or myself.
My kids had learned to “do school” pretty well because that is what my husband and I taught them, to what I realize now was the exclusion of a lot of important other skills. Before the pandemic, I allowed my kids to leave dishes in the sink and laundry unfolded because they were “so busy” and I felt it was their job to focus only on school and activities. After a terrible first pandemic month of constant dishes, cooking and nagging I started plotting a new way forward for us. With loads of starts and stops, and failed attempts at pseudo structure I have finally come to finding some relative peace with the new flow of our self-structured lives.
I am sharing what I have learned with the disclaimer that none of these ideas are original or earth shattering, and nothing I have learned presents a quick fix. Please interpret them as a collection of thoughts I have curated from a variety of internet blogs, Facebook posts, articles and countless vents/advice swapping with friends via text or voice to voice over these last two months. My husband continues to go to his essential job so he does not factor into some of these strategies I have assumed as my current parenting armor.
Here follows my personal game plan for pandemic parenting of teenagers:
Let go of some control.
This first one remains very, very hard for me. However, having a college freshman underfoot unexpectedly, I have had to allow him his space and more freedom than I used to be comfortable with in the past. I have allowed him to sleep longer (sometimes all day), play x-box (sometimes all night), and do his chores on his “time.” I allowed my 7th grader to start a number of parent-shared Instagram accounts to allow her to connect with friends and share some of her artistic endeavors. I have also loosened phone use restrictions for my high school junior. Before the pandemic my rule was no social media until 8th grade and no facetime after 8 PM on school nights. Between my part-time work which suddenly ballooned to full time hours in the work-from-home setting, and dealing with my own initial situational depression, I have had to let go of the “perfect” internet savvy mom approach. Besides, I found my own phone usage sky-rocket by about 300% so I would have felt hypocritical clinging to my pre-pandemic screen use attitudes.
Offer leisure time activities but understand the developmental stages of your children.
Wow…those first few weeks I felt super angsty and stressed when I saw the super cool family time activities many of my friends had happening. Family game night, theme dinners, starting a garden, cooking a themed meal … all really awesome! I am a born theme planner and joiner and I wanted this familial harmony. Finally I realized that right now my kids are not feeling it and that is OK. As typical teens, they want to be hanging with friends not with me. Sure, I can mandate forced family fun with the best of them, but once I realized that my kids had different needs and “losses of activities” they were processing, I understood why they did not feel particularly gung-ho about going on a family walk. We did manage a low key Disney themed dinner for my husband’s pandemic birthday and we recently took a family hike, but I have chosen not to try to force these events. What I have learned to do is not to take it personally but to keep offering over and over and accept that sometimes only one teen or maybe no one will join in my activity. I am still doing the activity and modeling how to fill my time beyond screen time. I have gone on many walks alone and baked many goodies by myself during this time. Another activity that helped me – looking through family photos and old home movies. Revisiting our family history allowed me to relive the times in my life when my children still loved hanging out with me. Endless craft projects, trips to the zoo, and family pool time when I was the center of their world. Miraculously, two of them even joined me in this activity and we had three evenings of family “home movie” nights. (Not only can I do stuff now, but I used to do stuff back in the day too!)
Determine new chore distribution.
Five people living together – four of them home all day long, and it comes as no surprise that our house has never been as “used” as during this time. Two weeks in, I decided to leave the table after dinner and just go upstairs to my room. I could not handle another night of cleaning the kitchen or nagging others to do so. Luckily, my husband does not shy away from helping in the kitchen and he quickly stepped in and brought my kids in on the new procedure. Now my children have learned that not only do they continue with the typical setting and clearing of the table that they did before the pandemic, but they also clean the kitchen after dinner and assist with other more involved chores. With regard to other chores like laundry and home cleaning, it has taken a bit more time. I have had to ignore overflowing laundry baskets and nasty bathroom sinks for longer than I am comfortable with, but my kids have learned how to vacuum, mop, clean a toilet, dust and do their own laundry over and over again.
Every once in a while they still act surprised when suddenly they can’t seem to locate their phone or the car keys, but understanding usually follows quickly … they are learning that dishes and laundry chores remain endless. In order to obtain timely cooperation without exhaustive verbal nagging, I sometimes temporarily re-posses high value items that I technically own like their phones. I consider it rearranging the environment to suit my needs … misplaced phone allows me to easily implement a when-then strategy … when you clean the bathroom, then I will help you get your phone back.
Implement a one for all and all for one policy with regard to retail therapy or special treats.
Right now it seems that even a trip to the grocery store seems like retail therapy. Trips to the store to get one or two things have ceased. I decided that we needed to do a better job of thinking of each other during this time. Therefore, when we have taken trips to the grocery store we make sure to throw in extra items for our schools’ food drives. Additionally, I asked my kids to check in with each other before they did something “special” for themselves. My son’s pandemic stress relief has been to visit drive-thrus and one of my daughters loves to try new sweet recipes. When my son makes a trip to the drive-thru, he checks with his sisters to see if he can bring them back a treat. Those times my daughter wants to bake something she offers to have her sister join her and everyone gets to enjoy the finished product. When I order a new book online, I ask if my kids want to get in on the order. It has taken lots of modeling for this to stick but recently I have noticed this practice taking hold without my verbal prompting.
Explicitly talk about self-structure.
I have found opportunities to chat with each of my kids during some “mom and me” alone time with them about the need to self structure their time. I have tried to keep these discussions non-judgmental. Sticking to a self-imposed routine has been a struggle for me and I share my failures and successes with them. We have talked about reasonable times to get out of bed, how much and what type of exercise to get and how to get chores completed while working (my older two now have summer employment) and still playing x-box and watching TV. We have found that writing down our intentions, much like using a day planner with school, works for me and my youngest child. Daily verbal check-ins seem to work for my older teens (although I did recently ask them to jot down their plans to help with personal accountability).
So that’s it. This plan is not perfect and doesn’t always work, but at the end of the day, I got this and my teens got this too! We can do stuff!
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Thank you for this well-written article. It’s comforting to know that many of us are sharing these same challenges in these unique times, and that we all need to find our own best ways to adapt.
Great suggestions, and I, too, struggle with no schedule for the kids sometimes. But I agree it’s good to let go of some control and trust that our parenting will prove OK in the end! We will get through this, and I believe we will all turn out better because of it 🙂