During the pandemic, most parents made choices they never would have under normal circumstances.
I, for instance, declared long ago that our home would be a video game console-free zone. But then we were staring down an inert middle schooler and a winter spent in isolation in 2020, and I remembered how much she’d enjoyed playing Just Dance at a friend’s house. So guess what family got a Nintendo Switch for Hanukkah?
I was hardly alone in doing a complete “parenting 180” at home. Kids who’d previously had strict screen-time limitations were suddenly on them for hours on end — for school, to talk to peers, or to simply give parents the time and space to do their work.
“The joke that I came up with was that [my 3-year-old son] was getting his Ph.D. in Pixar studies,” says Carolyn Harmer, 41, a copywriter who lives in the Detroit area. “He went from being in daycare and doing activities and all these wholesome things to just being deposited in front of the television. It became a victory if we timed it so that he only watched two movies a day.”
Sleep schedules and food habits also got out of whack. Beth Morley, a professor in San Antonio, had a teenager who experienced a breakup and a flooded bedroom just as quarantine began. “For a 16-year-old girl, these were signs of the apocalypse,” Morley said. “Her only way to manage was by eating chips and queso, working jigsaw puzzles and insisting that I sleep with her. None of these things are normal.”
But since kids aged 5 and older and their parents have been eligible for vaccination, things have been looking and feeling more normal than they have since the initial shutdown. While we’re not in a post-pandemic world, and we may never be, schools and other institutions are open again, we can resume family visits, birthday party invites are flowing and we’re back in the rhythms of some kind of family routine once more.
So the question arises: Should we, as parents, now attempt to claw our way back to pre-pandemic rule norms at home? Or is that even possible?
First off, give yourself a break.
As a starting point, Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist (The Tantrum Survival Guide) and parenting coach, suggests that parents let go of any lingering feelings of guilt.
“You made these choices under duress for a reason, and regretting them now doesn’t make any sense, because you would do them again if you needed to,” says Hershberg. “I think we all have to approach where we are now with compassion for ourselves, as opposed to that attitude of, ‘Ugh, I can’t believe I was weak and did that, and now look where I am.’ You’re not stuck. You have a path ahead that you have to decide what you want to do with. I would view this time almost like a reset.”
Ann-Louise Lockhart, PsyD, a pediatric psychologist, agrees that we need to cut ourselves a break. “Usually we respond to situations based on a file system in our brain from prior experiences,” Dr. Lockhart says. “In psychology, they call it our ‘schema,’ and it’s like our big filing cabinet that we go to when we’re faced with a situation and we have to figure out what to do. And the pandemic — probably 100% of us can say that we’ve never gone through a global pandemic like this, so we didn’t have anything to go to.”
Now that the time of sustained collective panic has largely passed, though, experts suggest that parents should probably venture into a new, updated conversation about the family’s values.
“You can be thoughtful and pause and say, ’Okay, here’s where we are with junk food in our house right now. Let’s think about where we want to end up, and then let’s think about how we want to get there,’” Dr. Hershberg says. “I think that’s going to be different for every family.”
Get a buy-in from your kids when trying a rule reset.
Dr. Hershberg and Dr. Lockhart agree that this conversation shouldn’t just happen between parents, but should be expanded to include the school-aged kids and teens in your home. This way, parents can hear about what’s currently important to them, and why, and discuss possible changes and plans to move forward.
“I’m not saying that [the kids] have the final say, but we want the conversation to be collaborative, because that’s really important,” Dr. Lockhart says. “If they feel like they have a say, and that their opinions and viewpoints were considered, then they’re more likely to buy into the new ground rules.”
A family meeting is also an opportunity for kids to reflect on activities or hobbies that make them feel fulfilled and happy, versus those that don’t. Dr. Lockhart suggests even having a whiteboard on-hand to take notes.
“It’s about tapping into what everybody in your family really values and enjoys,” Dr. Lockhart says. “Then it makes it easier to get into a better routine, and to do things differently, rather than just staying stuck in the same routine from these past two years.”
Some pandemic-era parenting choices feel more permanent than others — see “the video game console I’m just resigned to owning now” — but ultimately, we can choose what we simply make peace with and what we feel compelled to walk back.
And “walking” is key, as opposed to a “quitting cold turkey” approach that’s likely to backfire.
“It’s about gradual change,” Dr. Lockhart says. “Phase it [out] slowly. Decrease it so that they can get used to a new routine and new hobbies and a new thing that they could be interested in.”
Walk the rules back gradually, and cut plenty of slack.
We’ve all, of course, been changed by the pandemic, and we have to keep this in mind when having these family conversations and making adjustments.
“Be patient,” Dr. Hershberg says. “This is going to take time. We have all been through a collective trauma, and nobody benefits if we pretend it didn’t happen. To that end, be gentle on yourself and gentle with your kids, and keep the lines of communication open about the changes, and why the changes are happening. I think always prioritizing the parent-child relationship is important, and recognizing that if, as a parent, you feel an urgency to suddenly [say], ‘No more mister nice guy! We’re done!’ — that’s your own anxiety. Understandable anxiety, but something that’s not actually going to help.”
Indeed, we, as parents, have be extra mindful about adopting changes, both in terms of modeling behaviors and in recognizing that “our kids, in many ways, are lagging skills that we need to be understanding of,” Dr. Hershberg says, citing specifically the ability to deal with boredom.
“They’ve lost their fire,” Dr. Lockhart says. “They don’t know what else they’re passionate about. A lot of kids are not dealing well with this transition, going back to school. A lot of them feel different. They don’t feel as outgoing, they don’t feel as comfortable. So I think just noticing that and normalizing that experience [helps].”
Dr. Lockhart often explains to her clients that when you avoid something, that avoidance feeds anxiety, and lockdown, of course, was the ultimate kind of avoidance. “Although we did it for good reasons, our brain still doesn’t know the difference, so a lot of people then got the message of, ‘OK, in order to stay safe, we withdraw, we isolate,’” she says. “So, in the process of staying safe from the virus, we really messed up a lot of our social skills, our people skills. And it’s been very hard for a lot of kids to reintegrate because of that. So I think parents need to educate their kids that one of the things that we know makes our mental health suffer is when we’re not in connection with other people, or with nature or the things that we enjoy. So we want to get back into life. And the way to do that is to start doing it. And that’s why I’m getting you off the screens and back into life.”
Morley, the mom of the teenager, meanwhile, seems to have been witnessing this phenomenon firsthand. “My middle child, my son, instantly shifted his focus online,” she says. “He did his schoolwork online and played video games online with his buddies. All day. And I mean sun-up to sun-down. What that resulted in was this weird, distorted view of friendship. His dude-friends, no longer inhibited by having to see people’s faces, suddenly became more dick-ish. Name calling, rude behavior was suddenly far more permissive, gradually creating an online environment that grew increasingly toxic. I feel like all three of my kids got drunk on social/digital interactions during quarantine, emotionally vomited and are now wary of taking in too much.”
Morley’s family is now focused on shifting away from a comfort food diet of frozen pizzas, take-out and sugary cereals to more “routine” meals with vegetables. (Yes, it’s a struggle.) But as is true for us all, there’s at least one thing that probably won’t be changing anytime soon: the dining room that’s covered in Lego sets and puzzles and crafts. “I have not been able to reclaim that space,” Morley says. “For now, it is a lost cause.”
Similarly, I ultimately reached a detente with the Nintendo Switch in our living room. The middle schooler who inspired its purchase quickly lost interest in Just Dance — because of course she did — and my then-fourth grader has gone through several phases of being obsessed with Mario games she checks out of the library. But frankly, of all the changes this pandemic has wrought, that’s one we can live with.
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