The following piece was originally published on Alexandra Harrison’s blog entitled Supporting Child Caregivers in August 2020, which can be found here.
I wanted to offer you some more thoughts about parenting during COVID. In Wordsworth’s famous autobiographical poem, The Prelude, he talks about “losing the props of my affection” when he was 8-years old. In saying this, he refers to the death of his mother. I have always thought that this way of describing parental function as “propping” was such an apt way of describing the way parents support their children in a quiet, typically unacknowledged, way. It reminds me of a preschool child sitting in a parent’s lap during a remote learning session, an elementary school child’s parent helping them with a school project, and a high school student’s parent stocking the fridge with her favorite snacks during exam time.
Parents deserve a little “propping” these days also! They are under a great deal of stress. They are worried about how to do good work at their job– either remotely or safely outside the home. They are worried about how to manage household chores with children under foot. They are worried about how to help their children learn remotely or whether it is safe to send them back to school. In the background of all those concerns is the fear of illness and death. These are very difficult times.
In addition to “propping”, there are other ways parents can turn the hardship of the pandemic into opportunity. I hesitate to add anything to the burden of parents, but I am taking a risk to suggest that they try very hard to look beyond the stress and austerity and recognize a new chance to help their children grow. I often talk to parents about how boundaries and limits are good for children, how “good discipline” grows children’s brains. In fact, I have recorded a series of podcast episodes and shorter Youtube videos about “good discipline”. I have done this because discipline is the most popular topic that parents ask me about as a child psychiatrist.
American culture does not make it easy for parents in this domain. In fact, our culture seems to capture parents between a rock and a hard place—expectations that you keep your children’s behaviors within societal bounds while at the same time encouraging their autonomy! During the pandemic, and to the degree that there is still social distancing with its associated losses—the constraints of freedom and treats like visiting friends and family, play dates, going out for to eat – parents may struggle even more to set limits on their children’s behavior. They sympathize with their children’s distress, and they put up with more whining and even tantrums.
Now, I have stated in podcast episodes and videos that it is important to lower expectations for everyone—children and parents. I think lowering expectations is crucial in order to adapt to these new challenges without excessive frustration and self-criticism. However, it is also a chance to help children grow, by helping them learn how to respect boundaries. You can teach your children that– in this hard time– different rules apply. I would first tell your children that you are all in this together. Explain that this is a special time, a time when everyone has to work together. This stance embraces children as important members of the family.
Then I would apply the Ury and Fisher’s book, “Getting to Yes”, that I have discussed at greater length in the podcasts. The main idea is that parents have negotiating power, just as children do, and that in these negotiations both parents and children define “firm positions” and “flexible positions” at the outset (Ury & Fisher, 1981). The firm positions are nonnegotiable and the flexible ones can be negotiated.
The pandemic offers parents an opportunity to learn to establish “firm positions”. Contemporary parents often have difficulty with this. One of the reasons parents taking firm positions is helpful to both them and to their children is that it takes problematic doubt out of the equation. Parents can get anxious when their children challenge them, and they can begin to waffle, doubt themselves. This waffling undermines the children’s belief that there are some things they cannot change to their (short-term) advantage. The truth is that their long-term advantage is being able to deal with inevitable frustrations and disappointments without falling apart.
Remember that once the firm positions are established, they should not be negotiated. The support the pandemic gives parents is the pressure of necessity. Parents have to get their work done. They must hold to their firm positions, while being willingly negotiating their flexible ones.
Children are also allowed “firm positions”, although parents must scaffold their choices. For example, depending on their age, children might stay firm on having screen time (the amount of screen time and the timing of screen time may be something parents insist is “negotiable”.) The main idea is that parents are supporting their children in learning how to tolerate “no”. This, as I said, is extremely helpful to children. Once they learn to accept that there are limits in life, they can turn their attention to their more “flexible”–read “possible”– ambitions and put their heart into them.
Ury W, Fisher R (1981). Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In, Penguin.
Alexandra Murray Harrison, MD is a Training and Supervising Analyst at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute in Adult and Child and Adolescent Psychoanalysis, an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School at the Cambridge Health Alliance, and on the Faculty of the Infant-Parent Mental Health Post Graduate Certificate Program at University of Massachusetts Boston. Dr. Harrison has a private practice in both adult and child psychoanalysis and psychiatry. In the context of visits to orphanages in Central America and India, Dr. Harrison has developed a model for mental health professionals in developed countries to volunteer their consultation services to caregivers of children in care in developing countries in the context of a long term relationship with episodic visits and regular Skype and video contact. Her blog Supporting Child Caregivers gathers important information on parenting and education of children during the pandemic. Listen to Dr. Harrison’s helpful tips about child development and parenting issues in her new podcast The SCC Pod or watch a series of short episodes about “good discipline” on her YouTube Channel.
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