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Parenting during COVID-19: It’s a marathon, not a sprint

April 27, 2020
Man and woman running at sunset.

Parents and caregivers have plenty of experience balancing competing demands, whether working inside or outside the home. Parenting is a full-time job, and breaks from school or closures in childcare, under usual circumstances, create practical and emotional challenges. 

But most of us have no previous experience to draw on for what it is like to parent during a pandemic. 

Parents and caregivers are asked to not only be responsible for their children’s safety and emotional well-being but also to be classroom teachers, therapists, afterschool program coordinators and more. Often, they are juggling all of this while working remotely and meeting usual household obligations that have shifted but not stopped. 

One of the most important things marathon runners learn about during training is pacing. Given that no one has trained for this marathon, we need to shift our expectations and be realistic.

Here are some tips for pacing yourself during this "marathon."

Read up on the race

Before signing up for a race, most people look into what it involves – the course, timing, etc. It’s important to know what you’re getting into. The same is true for parenting in this moment.

  • Build a language within your family for what is happening right now. 
  • Provide information that is tailored to a child’s developmental stage. A young child will have a different understanding than an older child who may be watching the news or hearing from friends. 
  • Make sure to speak calmly, find out their questions, and provide simple information in a reassuring way. It is okay to say "I don’t know" but try to pair that with some reassurance ("I don’t know yet how long you’ll have to stay home from school but I’ll be here to help you figure it out each step of the way"). 
  • Model sharing your own feelings and acknowledge that it’s okay to feel sad, scared, etc. 
  • Watch this short video for parents on talking to your child about COVID-19.
  • Read Parenting teens during COVID-19.

Make a training plan 

Consider what you can picture right now and define your own "race." What does your new normal look like? This varies for each family. Then, prepare yourself mentally for this change and make a plan. 

  • Make a week-to-week plan or even a daily plan. And know that your plan might need to be flexible. 
  • Let your children know that you will look at your family plan regularly and tweak it as needed. 
  • Children can give input (either verbally or behaviorally) about what is working and not working.
  • Build-in rest days and breaks within a day. 
  • Movement breaks are especially important for children who have a lot of energy.

Find your breath

  • Sometimes it takes a while to find a breathing pattern that feels good. Once we do it helps us relax and settle into a new pattern. 
  • Yoga and meditation can help with this, and right now many apps and videos are offering free trials of yoga or meditation (try Calm or Headspace). 
  • Free online videos are also available to help children practice yoga skills.  

Mind(fulness) over matter

In a race, we pay attention to our form in conjunction with breathing – how quickly or slowly we run or what part of the foot strikes the pavement. 

  • Pay attention to your body and help kids do the same. This helps them become aware of their emotions and calm their bodies. 
  • Books like Listening to my Body can help younger children practice these skills. 
  • And make sure you are calm before helping others. 

Play brain games

A mental game, like telling yourself "if you run up the hill, you can walk when you get to the top," can help you build up enough momentum so that you don’t want to walk by the time you get to the top. We can play similar games with our brains to trick them into feeling calm and hopeful.

For instance, practicing gratitude (via a journal or app) has been shown to be associated with higher levels of happiness, relationship quality, and life satisfaction. 

Find hope to help balance the news of the day.  

Choose your cheer team 

Having cheering fans along the route makes even the hardest race a little more fun. Figure out who your cheer team is and make sure each person in your family has at least one cheerleader. Even the little ones need to connect with their friends. 

Once you know who your supporters are, let them know when you might need them. 

Make sure you have some good distractions 

Running with music is energizing and can be a distraction from the less fun parts of running. Find out what works for you.

  • Have a dance party in the kitchen, play games over a video conference platform, go for a walk, be silly, eat dessert for dinner. 
  • Identify some things that you and your family find fun and use them as motivators, rewards or distractions as needed.

Notice the scenery

Races can involve beautiful scenery that occupies the brain when you reach the harder miles.

We know nature and exercise help anxiety, depression, and even ADHD. Our bodies – and certainly children’s bodies – are used to moving a lot throughout the day. 

Take a walk, notice the beauty. Even during this bleak time, things are growing and blooming.

Appreciate the crowd

For this race, you get to cheer others on. Volunteering in big and small ways helps both adults and children feel useful. And when we feel useful, we are less likely to get trapped in the ‘downs’ of the pandemic. 

  • Check on neighbors by phone or text, volunteer remotely for the Census, help a sibling clean their room, etc. 
  • Look for the helpers – healthcare workers, teachers, and childcare workers are all rock stars right now. Bake them cookies or send them Thank You cards. 
  • Engaging your family in an activity like this can also inspire gratitude, a protective factor for mental health.

Accept when you have to slow down or stop

We can find joy and comfort in the moments that evolve from letting go, and there is no better time than now to practice. We need to allow ourselves the space to slow down or stop. 

  • Listen to your body when it reminds you of this. Some days won’t feel good. 
  • Know that this is real, and you are not alone.
  • Make space to sit with these feelings, but then remember that you’ll get a chance to try again.
  • Skip a day of distance learning if needed. Some schools have started a “DEAR” (drop everything and read) day to give kids a break. 
  • Scrap the plan for an elaborate dinner and make boxed mac and cheese. 
  • Have a pillow fight instead of folding the laundry. 

Drink your water 

  • In a race, there are water stops and many carry water bottles. This is literal. Remember to hydrate! 
  • We all drink less water when sitting in one place all day, and water will help to keep you feeling healthy and well.

Re-energize 

Runners often use energy drinks and snacks to get through a long race. 

  • What are your “snacks” (literal or figurative) that bump your energy back up? 
  • Aside from your favorite pantry finds, what ‘feeds’ you, feeds your soul? Music? Dancing? Nature? Crafts? 
  • Find things that fill your cup and your children’s cups and look for ways to incorporate them into your days.

Celebrate small all things 

This marathon doesn’t have a clear finish line (yet). But anyone who has supported a runner knows that the cheer team isn’t only present at the finish line. Cheer teams usually do a little running around themselves, trying to catch their runner at different points during the race. 

Find your cheer team (virtually) at multiple places along this windy course, and make sure to celebrate with them as you manage each day. Don’t wait for the big “wins.” 

Right now, getting through each day (sometimes each hour) is a win. Small things throughout the day are cause for celebration!

The finish line for this race keeps moving. Know that it will appear, and when it does we will all run across it together, yelling and screaming and cheering. It will be a giant party, and friends and families will celebrate together. 

Until then, create your own training plan and add your own marathon survival tips, knowing that we’re all on the same team, even though none of us signed up for this particular race.

Katherine Lingras is an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School Department of Psychiatry. She is a former scholar with Extension's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, and a licensed child-clinical psychologist specializing in early childhood mental health.

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