How Parents can Survive Social Isolation with COVID-19

In Relationships by Kelsey Nimmo

It’s surreal, isn’t it?

Grocery stores are sold out of toilet paper and Clorox wipes. Milk, potatoes, bread, batteries, soap, and rice are all flying off the shelves.

We’re each hyper-aware of any cough heard throughout the store. We glance judgingly into each other’s carts and internally label people as either “doomsdayers” – or we decide they are ignorant and unprepared for this state of emergency.

We obsessively scroll through endless news articles and facebook posts – most of both only minimally reputable – to see what is happening in the world.

It is shocking. All of it.

Yesterday was my son’s birthday.

And yesterday was the day that all of the restaurants, fitness centers, bars, community centers, movie theatres, and libraries in Michigan closed for the next three weeks or more.

These are strange times.

My work as a therapist has become extra interesting over the last week. As things have quickly changed (literally overnight) in response to COVID-19, my sessions with clients are mirroring it back to me.

Everyone is talking about…

  • Loss of income
  • Lack of toilet paper
  • Lack of childcare
  • Change in work hours, setting, and communications
  • Cancellation of medical check-ups and procedures
  • Cancellation of planned trips, events, and special occasions
  • Increased isolation and loneliness
  • Increased obsessive phone use
  • Increased anxiety and concern for older relatives
  • Endless grocery lists

But what about all of the unspoken parts that this will change for us?

We NEED to be talking about…

  • Loss of self-care routines and outlets
  • Loss of independence and freedom
  • Increased time spent with spouses, partners, and other family members
  • Decreased patience with children and other family members

With the CDC recommending 8 weeks of quarantine to prevent COVID-19 from overwhelming the healthcare system, it’s important to find a way to not go crazy stuck in our homes with our families.

Especially with our children. Here are some ideas.

Video call with friends every week (or more)

Community is one of the most powerful things around us. It reminds us that we are part of something bigger. It creates companionship when we are lonely. And it completes the holes where we are lacking.

While we all may be isolated from one another physically, find some friends you can set up regularly scheduled video calls with. Better yet, set up a tripod with a camera and just hang out for a couple hours with both of your messy, chaotic living rooms and loud children flashing brightly across the screens.

Creating a community of parent friends is literally the only thing that helped me survive my transition into parenthood – both times.

 I met my best friend in the check-out lane at Meijer. It was my first full grocery shopping trip alone with my daughter after she was born and as many of you know, leaving the house with a newborn has always felt overwhelming – even before COVID-19.

I was feeling competent and proud of this solo trip until we went to check out and it seemed like waiting for the two customers in front of me was taking forever. My baby started fussing and even the swaying

I was tempted to leave my shopping cart full of food and go home.

The woman in line ahead of me told me she had a daughter the same age at home and understood what it was like. She let me go ahead of her in line and while we waited, we got to talking. Before I left, I nervously gave her my phone number, saying how hard it was to make parent friends and I would love to get together sometime.

She has been one of my closest friends for four years.

Creating a community with her during the most lonely moments of my transition into parenthood truly helped me survive it.

In the beginning, I was out of practice with staying connected to friends.

My first few months as a mom had turned me into a loner.

But eventually, I found my footing again and would go visit her for tea and snacks once or twice a week. We would sit and relax together, getting to know each other and watching our babies lay, roll, crawl, cruise, and eventually run.

We talked about life, past and present. We talked about parenthood, questions and frustrations. Together, we traveled the uncharted territory of solid foods, refusals to nap, potty training, choosing extracurricular activities, overwhelming tantrums, changes in our relationships, and dealing with the ever-present world of mom guilt and doubt.

My community of one friend and her family changed my life.

That’s all it takes.

Just one.

This social isolation will feel foreign to us for so many reasons. But we are all in it together and even if we are out of practice in staying connected to friends in a truly meaningful way, we can start now.

Even if “building a community” sounds exhausting, remember that you only need one person.

Here’s the coolest part: One will grow to more.

When I had my second baby, I wasn’t so out of practice in staying connected with friends. I knew a little more about being intentional with friends and creating space and time for them.

So I reached out to a friend I had known for many years and had always wanted to be closer with. We had met at work before parenthood and then had our first babies within three months of each other. But life was busy and kept us apart.

But community grows exponentially. The skills I acquired in my first parent friendship translated into this one and as life kept moving, I brought her with me.

Last summer we began having weekly family dinners, alternating homes and chef responsibilities (I think they are much better at the chef part than we are!) and we have continued it ever since.

When we miss a week or two, we always know we will get back on track. The reliability, trust, and comfort between our families feels so incredibly safe.

In the years since that first grocery shopping trip, my Meijer friend has moved to another city and I clear one day a week to visit her whenever she’s available. Another night a week is reserved for family dinners with my long-lost friend from work.

Community is all around us if we create it.

Luckily, we can now “hang out” without needing to be in the same city – or even in the same space. With an 8-week quarantine ahead of us, I’m downloading Skype and planning to stay in touch via video with my friends in other cities. I’ll set up a tripod and even though we are in different rooms, it can still be just like old times.

Practice social isolation responsibly. Stay away but not absent.

Contact that friend you haven’t talked to in six years.

They’ll be happy to hear from you.

Split custody of the kids

In my pre-parent and pre-therapist life, I once heard someone tell me that every couple should split custody of their children as though they were divorced.

I now strongly adhere to this belief – especially under quarantine.

t sounds a little harsh at first but hear me out. When parents are divorced, they split physical custody. This means that sometimes, one parent has the kids and the other is off duty. Then they switch roles.

We all need a break from parenting sometimes.

My daughter has been throwing incredibly overwhelming and crazy-making tantrums this week. She is four and completely unaware of what is happening in the world… but she is really effective at making my partner and I feel like the world might indeed be against us.

With schools and all spaces and events closed, many parents are feeling literally trapped inside their homes.

And while we love our children, there is only so much of them we can handle.

If you and your co-parent counterpart are living together, I encourage you to split custody of the kids.

This does not mean that you split custody by setting a schedule and getting different homes and vacating the premises when you’re off duty. Not even close.

It just means you’re off duty. We all need some off duty time.

I discovered a couple years ago that my way of relaxing was very different from my husband’s.

To recharge, he needed to be out of the house, in a separate room, or protected under sound-cancelling headphones.

This did not work for me as effectively.

For me, leaving the house usually meant running errands.

Going to a different room meant distractions with a new list of to-do items.

And while I love a mean tabletop game, I’m not a video gamer.

Plus watching TV can feel like a nice numbing but doesn’t help me (or most people) feel recharged.

But I made a discovery.

I could recharge even in the same room on the same couch as the kids – as long as I was off duty. Knowing my partner was in charge of all shenanigans put me at ease. If they asked for water or needed to go potty or wanted to show us something, he was the one who would respond.

I think there are a couple beautiful things about being off-duty.

First, we can be lazy. Let’s not undersell that one.

Second, we can witness our partner being an amazing parent. We can see that even if they parent differently than us, they can handle it. Even if my husband is not as prompt in responding to the kids as I am, he still responds.

It helps me learn to trust him and – fun fact, it can even make me find him more attractive!

Apparently, research suggests that in heterosexual couples, women witnessing their partner parenting increases their feelings of desire towards their partner.

 Unfortunately (and unfairly), it does not work in reverse. Seeing your wife as a mom does not seem to send the same sexy vibes that fatherhood does.

During this quarantine, you’ll have more time with your children and therefore less patience. And perhaps (it might feel like) less sanity.

Talk with your partner and find ways to ask and offer time off. You can make it as structured or as unstructured as you’d like.

How to create split custody during this social isolation:

  1. Talk with your partner about this “split custody” option – and be light hearted about it!
  2. Identify and discuss times of the day when either of you feel most overwhelmed. Maybe getting 20 minutes at the start of the day when you wake up could feel more helpful than even a full hour later in the day.
  3. Step into your strengths. Identify and discuss childcare activities that feel more draining to either of you. Maybe your partner finds bath time stressful while you dislike making lunch.
  4. Know what helps you relax. Know that activities using screens might help you disconnect from the world right now but it does not help your body physiologically soothe and tends to not feel recharging for most people. Drink your coffee bundled up on the porch, listen to some favorite music, go for a walk outside, take a bath or a shower, do some deep breathing, give yourself a hand or foot massage
  5. Have courage to advocate for time off – for yourself and your partner. It won’t happen if you don’t ask for it. And some of us find it easier to ask than others. This is an important time to show that you are a team against the world – and against the frustrations of parenthood.

Create adventures out of nothing

Our children won’t remember this quarantine – they’ll remember our response to it.

With libraries, community centers, and children’s events closed and cancelled, we will have to get creative about how to entertain our children. Legos, bath time, dress-up, puzzles, and books might only take us so far.

And we all know that when kids get bored, they start acting a little crazy. This means we need to get creative.

Creative does not mean extravagant. For kids, especially younger ones, a little goes a long way.

Almost anything can be turned into an adventure.

This is a skill that needs to be practiced and developed so be reassured that if it feels awkward or challenging at first, that’s okay. Since I don’t have this skill perfected myself, I asked my mom for tips and ideas. She seems to be amazingly skilled at creating magic anywhere she goes.

She said her inspiration often comes from kneeling down to look at things from the perspective of short bodies and trying to see thing for the first time.

She says the key is to make up silly stories about things, laugh a lot, use counting and familiar names to engage them, and be willing to use things in ways they aren’t meant for.

Important note: Be careful not to correct your child’s imaginative play (unless it is a safety redirection).

Ways to make magic and adventure for your littles

  • Throw a “party” by re-purposing bright colored items around your home. Kids don’t care if you have 2 or 20 people as long as you call it a “party” and act excited about it. Engage them in the planning and preparation. Let them help decide how to decorate and maybe even let them do some of it – even if you have different preferences than their style. Re-purpose plastic bowls as party hats. Drape socks or colored towels on string or yarn to create a fun decorative banner across the room. Put normal snack foods into different containers and dress the kids up in silly outfits.
  • Give them a task while you’re doing a task. While you wash dishes, put some dish soap bubbles in a shallow plastic tote. Throw in some small Tupperware dishes, a few spoons of different sizes, and be okay with cleaning up a little when they’re done. For this one, more soap and less water. Let it get sudsy.
  • Have a picnic on the floor with a blanket. Cut normal foods into small pieces and different shapes. Use different containers and plates than usual to help it feel special. Make comments about the pretend weather and do some imaginary play (snow angels, catching snowflakes on their tongue, stomping in muddy puddles).
  • Build a fort using blankets and furniture – or use an already existing closet. Create drama by pretending it is raining or snowing (or pretend they are hiding from someone). Encourage them to pick out their favorite books, puzzles, or toys to bring with them.

It can take a lot of energy to be present with our children in the way these activities require. Fortunately, when we can practice this art of mindfulness in any area of our life, we help our body get into a state of “flow.” This calms and relaxes our body, rejuvenates us, brings us joy and pleasure, and allows us to live fully in the moment.

Flow might be a perfect antidote for the stress of COVID-19 right now. To learn more about flow, check out this article and book review I wrote.

Don’t get stuck in the web of sticky thoughts

One of my kids’ favorite bedtime stories is called “The Hug Who Got Stuck” by the brilliantly beautiful Conscious Bedtime Story Club. In the story, hugs are created in factories within people’s hearts and (spoiler alert) one of the hugs gets stuck in something called the “web of sticky thoughts”.

The key to being a good hug was threefold (and for purposes of not copyright infringing or ruining the adventure, I’ll paraphrase): 1) breathe love, 2) focus on your intention, and 3) ignore the web of sticky thoughts.

I think these are the keys to being a good parent, too.

During this period of COVID-19 quarantine and social isolation, we all have a lot of sticky thoughts. Our webs are HUGE – and incredibly sticky.

When we are already struggling to make it past the web of stickiness and then our children aren’t listening to us, are screaming in tantrums, or are acting otherwise bratty and entitled, it can make us easily lose our patience and get stuck in all those sticky web of thoughts.

Let’s take today, for example.

I want to get this article out because I’m hearing how alone and lost many parents are feeling. My partner had to catch up on classwork this morning. As a result of both of our responsibilities, we put the TV on for the kids for an elongated period of time (which is very rare for us and really uncomfortable for me). This distraction allowed us to get our work done (or mostly done) and then it was time to turn the TV off and make lunch.

We gave warnings that we were turning it off. They were agreeable at first and then acted like wicked monsters as soon as the screen went black.

We made lunch and they refused to eat it, instead running around the house with their pants off and moving their chairs all over the kitchen.

We tried to contain them and they became even more wild.

We told them it’s time for a nap and they laughed in our faces. The nerve.

Their wildness seemed to be growing exponentially. Who replaced our children with wild animals? Our patience was diminishing and our irritation towards them (and each other) was increasing.

My husband got his stern dad face on and started the usual attempts of bribery and explanation of natural consequences.

If you don’t eat now, you will be hungry.

This is lunch.

After nap, we can go play outside.

Listen to your dad.

But it wasn’t working – surprise surprise. And just as he was about to resort to “NAP. NOW.”, I placed a hand on his arm and gently told him about the brilliant idea I just had: “What if we play with them first? And then nap?”

It was a wild idea, just as wild as they had been acting. But as nothing else was working, he decided to give it a go.

I took a deep breath, stepped into the living room, put on my softer mom voice, and started looking around the room to see what adventures I could make.

We turned their play table into a dark cave and had to use an old vitamin bottle as a pretend flashlight to find the motorcycle that was lost under there.

We gave the babies a check-up from the doctor and put them to sleep with a dog babysitter.

We pretended daddy was a pirate who chased after the kids with claw arms and a strange gallop, unlike any pirate I’ve ever seen.

The kids laughed and ran and laughed some more.

Then we moved into the bedroom, set the tone with the sound machine and lamp, and gave them a felt board to play with to help quiet their bodies before settling down for a couple books and then nap time.

This was an amazing success story. Not all parenting moments look like this. And usually in our story, it is actually my partner who has more patience than I do! Together we make a great team.

But this experience reminded both of us that in order to be good parents for our kids, we need to be just like the cute donut-shaped flying hugs in the hug book.

We need to breathe. Period. When we get anxious and annoyed and exhausted we tend to get flooded (I explain flooding in this article) and when we get flooded, we stop breathing. So help model for your kids by taking a deep breath and creating a little bit of room for yourself to relax and make choices about your next response.

We need to focus on our intention. My intention was to get them to sleep so they could be more pleasant and enjoyable children for the rest of the day. What I was originally forgetting was that my intention was them. The children.

I wanted what was best for them, and I knew their little bodies would feel most happy and at ease if they were rested. But what they needed was connection. They hadn’t connected with us yet. Not really. Breakfast and playing near us hadn’t counted. They needed interaction and engagement. We played for 10 minutes total before managing to get them into the bedroom. Ten minutes and it worked! Now that is wild.

We need to ignore the web of sticky thoughts. There’s a lot of fear happening everywhere we look right now and it feels almost impossible to ignore. But we CAN choose how to respond. I originally was fearful of what would happen if they didn’t nap. Both myself and my partner are very aware that we likely have eight more weeks just like today with our children and if we can’t get them to nap or listen to us, it feels like we are doomed. It feels like we are looking at eight weeks of hard and frustrating and overwhelming. Those are sticky thoughts. And they were taking over our ability to see that what our kids really needed was connection – and they were going to act up until they got it.

So whatever your sticky thoughts are, know that we can only give them so much room to grow.

Video counseling available

If you’re having a hard time staying away from the web of sticky thoughts, or you’re losing your patience with the kids, or your relationship is struggling to keep up with the stress surrounding it, set up a video counseling appointment with Kelsey by emailing her at kelsey@kzootherapy.com or contacting her below. Like us on Facebook to catch the next article about COVID-19’s impact on your marriage.