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Parenting Pandemic Style

The pandemic has thrown all parents into more intensive parenting. If you are newly on furlough, working from home, or unemployed, you have been thrust into being a combination at-home parent, homeschool teacher, and activity director with little time to think about it, much less plan for it.

Every age and stage has its challenges. To limit its scope, I’m going to focus this article on elementary age kids (ages 5 – 10). Babies’ needs are basic. Teens often have their own ideas about how to keep busy. It’s during the elementary years that kids are the most dependent on parents to both allay their fears and to provide a variety of activities to get through the day. 

If you are an at home parent already, you’ve probably been doing most of these suggestions for years. If you have just joined the at home parent club, these reminders are offered as a way to help you plan for the days ahead:

Here are some friendly reminders for getting through:

Help the kids express their feelings. The kids are already anxious. It’s in the air. It’s in the many changes that have already happened. They are not too young to hear an age-appropriate explanation about why things have changed.

Validate their worries. Make room for disappointment and anger and boredom, but don’t let it go on for too long. Expressing lots of anger has been shown to just make people angrier. Reassure the kids as best you can.

Monitor your own anxiety. It’s okay for the kids to know that you are upset, too. Do limit how much you show your concerns to the children. Nothing makes children more anxious than an anxious parent.

Find ways to calm yourself and cope. Meditate. Do yoga. Pray. Listen to music. Do whatever works for you so you can be your best self with the kids.

Get good information. Reassure yourself while you are reassuring the children. Read and listen to credible experts. Knowing what is happening and what you can do to maximize safety will give you a sense of control.

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For your own peace of mind, limit yourself to checking the news a couple of times a day. Constantly exposing yourself to who said what about the virus is likely to up your anxiety, not calm it.

Create structure. The first week or so of social distancing may have felt like perpetual Saturdays; days when kids could stay in pajamas, eat when they were hungry, and generally goof off. But we’re now in it for the long haul. That means a shift in how we manage our days. 

Young children thrive on structure and predictability. Lacking internal structure, they need us to provide external rules and routines for them to feel safe and secure. Making a daily schedule that is somewhat predictable also lets you off the hook from having to make it up every day. Every family will come up with their unique schedule, depending on how many adults are available to help and what they are juggling. 

Create routines: At the very least, establish a morning getting up routine and a going to bed-time routine – just as you have for when school is in session.

It can be very basic. Morning routines usually include a list something like this:

  1. Get up (at a set time)
  2. Wash up
  3. Brush teeth
  4. Get dressed
  5. Make your bed
  6. Report for breakfast

Evening routines after dinner usually include:

  • Pick up toys
  • A bath or washing up
  • Brush teeth
  • Set out clothes for the morning
  • Story time.

Some parents make a star chart for the “Morning List” and “Evening List.” Others have the kids make a poster that they can check to make sure they’ve done their list. If routines are new to your family, there is a bonus to starting them now. You are establishing a sense of order and routines of self-care that will be helpful to your children for the rest of their lives.

Home school sensibly. Relax. You don’t need to replicate a school day of 6 or more hours a day. Children need fewer hours of instruction, when they get focused individual attention. A rule of thumb is one hour of teaching for each grade. (1 hour for first graders; 2 for second graders; etc.) Your local school system is probably doing their best to provide materials and guidance.

Setting a time when school is in session every day will help your children retain what they learned so far this year and will give them the clear message that you think education is important. Don’t make schoolwork into a chore. Do make it a time where you reinforce joy in being curious and learning.

Recess! Children need physical activity for at least an hour or two each day. If you don’t have a yard, supervise a walk or run in areas you think are safe. If you are in an area that has been hit hard by the virus, keep the kids in but be sure to get them active. Put on music and bogey in the kitchen. Make up an exercise routine together or set up an obstacle course. Organize a pillow fight.

Allow for active free play as well. Active imaginative play supports a child’s emotional and cognitive development.

Make the weekends weekend-y: Weekends are a time for relaxing the rules within reason — just as they are in more normal times. Plan a family activity like a picnic on the living-room floor; a dress up party; a cooking project — anything you can think of that will make the weekend days distinct from the weekdays.

If you are religious, tune into a child-focused service on television or make one on Sunday morning. If you’re not, find another way to express gratitude and lift everyone’s spirits.

Limit screen time: It’s seductive. TV, computers, and phones can keep children quiet and entertained for hours. It’s important to consider the long-time benefits and costs. Informational channels on television (like the History Channel and Nature channels) as well as computer searches can enrich learning, it’s true. But unlimited screen time keeps children passive, limits their imagination, and endangers their health. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen use to one hour per day of “high-quality programs” for children 2 to 5 years old. For children ages 6 and older, they recommend that parents place “consistent limits” on screen time and the types of media their children may access. It’s wise in terms of children’s long-term health and their development of good coping skills to stick to the AAP’s guidelines. Ultimately, you will figure out what works best for your family 

Let the kids be bored: Do remember that it’s okay for kids to be bored now and then. Boredom isn’t the signal to let them watch TV or that you need to come up with yet another fun-filled hour. Boredom often is the motive for creativity. Give them a few ideas and then leave them to it. Express your faith in their ability to come up with something interesting to do.

Stay in touch: Social distancing and self-isolation can get to anyone. Make use of video calls to relatives and friends. Help the kids do the same. People, no matter what the age, need people.

Parenting is never easy. In times like these, it’s especially difficult. Raising decent, smart, educated little human beings is a huge responsibility — made more so now by the lack of the supportive help we normally get from teachers, daycare staff, other professionals, friends, and family. Our big challenge is to resist the temptation to do what’s expedient and to stay focused on how to raise our children well.

Related articles:

Homeschooling Young Children During a Pandemic

Social Distancing Doesn’t Have to Keep You Socially Distant

Why Parents Should Resign as Boredom Busters

Parenting Pandemic Style

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). Parenting Pandemic Style. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 6 Apr 2020 (Originally: 8 Apr 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 6 Apr 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.