Parenting in a pandemic: a child psychologist’s 5 top tips

UNSW Sydney

Dr Georgie Fleming recommends five “pandemic parenting” strategies – including how to best use special play, praise, rewards, consequences and self-care.

I am a researcher and clinical psychologist specialising in childhood disruptive behaviour problems and when I first heard that schools in some parts of the country were closing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, my first thought was “oh man, what about the parents?”.

As part of my clinical research, I’ve spent the last six years in weekly sessions with families, helping parents develop strategies to more effectively manage their kid’s defiance and aggression. Parenting is hard. But parenting in a pandemic? Well, that’s next level.

This is because widespread closures of school and business mean that children will be spending more time at home with their parents, who are now not only responsible for parenting but also teaching. And all this is happening without reductions in parents’ own workload and with considerably fewer opportunities and outlets for self-care. Ultimately, the combination of increased parenting time and responsibilities and less self-care almost guarantees that parents will experience huge blows to their frustration tolerance alongside heightened feelings of stress and anxiety.

Parents experiencing these kinds of emotions are likely to become less patient, more punitive, or more withdrawn. Essentially, parenting is going to become less effective. And what we know from the science is that ineffective parenting can play a big role in creating and exacerbating behaviour problems in kids.

So that’s the bad news. There is good news, though. There are practical strategies that parents can use to stop their household descending into a Lord of the Flies-esque scenario where the kids are in charge and it’s your head on the stick.

But I’m going to level with you: the strategies that I’m suggesting are simple to write about but can be a lot harder to implement in Real Life. This is a Super Parenting approach that takes time and effort but is worth it because it works.

1. Do Special Play every day.

Special Play is a particular kind of play with your child. Special Play should be:

  • Child-led. This means following your child’s lead in the play: they’re in charge! You can follow your child’s lead by avoiding asking lots of questions, making suggestions, or giving directions (e.g., “why don’t we colour her hair in rainbow?”). Instead, you can reflect your child’s speech, describe their play aloud (e.g., “you’ve collected all the blue blocks”), and give them compliments on their ideas and behaviour (e.g., “you’ve built an amazing rocket!”).
  • One-on-one. This means no distractions (e.g., phone, news), no siblings, and only one parent at a time (if this applies to your household).
  • Creative. This means doing activities that don’t have rules like colouring, Lego, and kitchen or train sets.

You can

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