Structure plays a key role in helping kids understand and set schedules and expectations, and approach uncertain times with more flexibility. That’s why so many families have been struggling throughout the pandemic, as they face disrupted school and home schedules.
Routines aren’t just for kids, explains Stephanie Rohrig, Ph.D., assistant attending psychologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and instructor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine (WCM).
“Whole families can struggle with unpredictability--when schools may be closed one day and open the next, or when one child is home and another may be attending school in person,” Dr. Rohrig says. “It’s hard when it’s out of our control, and those day-to-day changes may have ripple effects that affect parents’ ability to work. It can be a stress for the entire family.”
Dr. Rohrig suggests ways families can adapt and cope together.
“When we normalize things, it validates the emotions we’re experiencing,” she says. “We do this be reminding ourselves of the reasons why we’re feeling a certain emotion. That can help reduce stress, and we can give ourselves a break, and not be hard on ourselves for feeling overwhelmed or frustrated.”
She adds that it’s helpful to remember that many families are in the same boat, and that difficult feelings make sense during this unprecedented time.
It’s also important for parents to ask for help, wherever that help exists. Families that have nearby friends or family can seek support there, Dr. Rohrig explains. Additional community resources often can be found via day care centers, schools, and houses of worship, for example, even though many have moved from in-person to online support.
“I encourage families to try to wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day, whether school is in person or remote,” she says. “Sometimes a pleasant activity in the morning or evening--taking a walk, reading a book, or listening to music--can set an organized, positive tone.”
The Youth Anxiety Center at Weill Cornell Medicine also helps families with parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT, McNeil & Hembree-Kigin, 2010). For many families, that can include a recommendation for parents to devote (at least) five minutes of special time with each of their children each day.
“We can put the phone aside and let dinner sit: It’s scientifically proven (Eisenstadt et al., 1993) to improve rapport and behavior when parents are tending to their children for those five minutes,” Dr. Rohrig says. “Just talking about and doing what your children are interested in can have a big impact on their behavior, and the parent-child relationship.”
Some children respond well to school-style visuals—an actual, posted schedule—so they know what the day will bring.
“Some families like to use a large calendar or shared family white board to stay organized,” Dr. Rohrig adds. “As kids get older, that can change to a shared calendar app.”
Still, despite our best efforts at family routines and organization, anxiety can surface. When that happens, Dr. Rohrig recommends a three-pronged approach: check the facts; understand how our thoughts make us feel; and try to reframe them.
“Often we’ll have anxious thoughts that are not always accurate—sometimes we look at worst-case scenarios,” Dr. Rohrig says. “But we can learn to catch and reframe those thoughts. For example, we can reframe worried thoughts about the long-term impact of this pandemic on our kids by focusing on the resilience and obstacles they’ve overcome so far.”
Dr. Rohrig also reminds families that there’s hope in remembering the temporary nature of the pandemic and the disruptions it causes. Second, we should remember our inner strength.
“We all have a source of resilience. People have adapted effectively, if not happily,” she concludes. “We are moving forward in the face of difficult moments—it’s important to look at how far we’ve come, and to know that we can continue to push forward through this really hard time.”
Eisenstadt, T. H., Eyberg, S., McNeil, C. B., Newcomb, K., & Funderburk, B. (1993). Parent-child interaction therapy with behavior problem children: Relative effectiveness of two stages and overall treatment outcome. Journal of clinical child psychology, 22(1), 42-51.
McNeil, C. B., & Hembree-Kigin, T. L. (2010). Parent-child interaction therapy. Springer Science & Business Media.