Dear Therapist: What’s Your Advice to Parents Whose Kids Are Stuck at Home During the Coronavirus Lockdowns?

I’m making sure that our kids exercise, have a schedule, spend time outside each day, and try to maintain as normal a life as possible. What more can I do?

Bianca Bagnarelli
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Dear Therapist,

How can parents best help our children manage their emotional and mental health during the social distancing required to fight the coronavirus pandemic? They’re dealing with a lot of change, stress, and isolation as a result of the pandemic, and I would appreciate any suggestions on how to best help them deal with their feelings.

We’re making sure that our kids exercise, have a schedule, spend time outside each day, and try to maintain as normal a life as possible. I’ve also suggested journaling to my middle-school-age kids, and as a family, we’ve been having open conversations.

What else can we do?

Mission Viejo, Calif.

Dear Larry,

It sounds like you’re doing a terrific job helping your kids through this very difficult time. You’re providing structure, encouraging them to move their bodies and get fresh air, creating a safe space for their feelings, and coming together as a family that communicates openly. And now you wonder what else you can be doing.

That last part is what I want to address not just for you, but for all parents. Like you, many parents want some kind of official guidebook on helping their kids through this upheaval. They think that whatever they’re doing to help their kids feel safe and secure might be a good start, but still, they worry, maybe they should be doing more.

Generally, though, the parents who ask this are already doing plenty: They’re juggling the laundry and the dishes, their Zoom meetings and their kids’ Zoom classes. They’re preparing meals, creating schedules, wiping down counters, sterilizing doorknobs and light switches, checking in on family members and friends. And they’re worrying—worrying so much—about whether they should limit screen time or be more lax because kids need to connect with friends; whether to let their kids be bored or program their days with projects; whether to let kids see bits of the news or turn it off when they enter the room. But amid all the concern about their children’s emotional health, parents tend to forget that the most important thing they can do is take care of their own emotional health.

This is true not just now, in the “new normal,” but also in the former and future normals: How parents respond emotionally to a challenge, whether it’s a family crisis or a global one, greatly influences how their kids do.

Therapists call this concept “setting the emotional tone.” Here’s one way to think about it: Imagine that you’re on an airplane. Maybe you’re reading a book, watching a movie, getting some work done, or taking a nap. A typical flight.

Suddenly, there’s unexpected turbulence. You feel the plane lurch, and your anxiety spikes. Then you hear the pilot’s calm, measured voice: Hey, folks. We’re going to be experiencing some turbulence for the next 20 minutes or so. It’ll be a bit bumpy during this time, so I’m going to turn on the fasten seat belt sign and ask that you stay in your seats until we get through this rough patch. I’ve asked the flight attendants to hold off on serving food and beverages in order to keep the aisles clear, so thank you for your patience. I’ll be back with an update as soon as I have more information.

What the pilot has practiced here is a model for good parenting. She may not like the turbulence either, but she knows what she needs to do to get everyone through it: center herself and focus on navigating the aircraft through the turbulence. She can’t guarantee that the turbulence won’t get worse before it gets better—or that the plane won’t have to make an emergency landing. She’s aware, too, sometimes planes crash, albeit rarely. But if she goes into a state of terror, her passengers will too.

So what does she do? She regulates herself. That doesn’t mean she isn’t worried. It means that she can be worried and also say Here’s what we’re going to do during the turbulence. We’re going to take extra precautions by staying in our seats and keeping the aisles clear, and we’ll ride this out together.

Kids going through any stressful time want to know the same thing as passengers on a plane with turbulence: Even amid this uncertainty, someone is in charge here.

Many parents believe that the way to be there for their kids during a crisis is to sacrifice their own needs for their children’s. I’ve already seen this happen during the coronavirus outbreak. Parents are so focused on making things run smoothly for their kids that they’re running themselves ragged. Parents don’t eat regular meals, sleep enough, reach out to other adults for support, enlist their kids to help with the household duties, or take time for enjoyable activities like reading a book or taking a walk.

But nobody can function like this for long, and eventually parents’ own anxiety will become worse as a result. And if there’s one thing in a household that’s as contagious as a virus, it’s anxiety. Guess who’s in charge then? Not the person a kid wants in the pilot’s seat. In order to be present for their kids, parents first need to be present for themselves.

Of course, if you Google around, it’s easy to find basic guidelines on how to help your kids through this crisis, and these tips can be useful. But when parents ask me what they should be doing, I like to tell them this: Each family is different, just as each child in the same family is different, which means that there’s no one “best” way to do things. I say that, as much as change makes humans anxious, we are also an incredibly adaptable species, and evidence of this is everywhere—from an orchestra performing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” remotely from its members’ homes, to teachers demonstrating science experiments from their bedrooms, to museums letting us virtually bask in some beauty, to children eating dinner with their grandparents via smartphone, to health-care workers saving lives every single day under conditions nobody could imagine mere weeks ago.

I say to these parents that you, as the pilots, will have to reach inward before you can reach outward. Steady yourselves first, then listen to your passengers on this voyage, validate their feelings, communicate honestly as circumstances evolve, and be flexible about shifting course as conditions change. I say that if you take this approach rather than worrying about the right projects, the right amount of screen time, the right words to use, you won’t even need the PA system for your kids to hear the one message they need to feel safe right now: I’m here, and I’ve got you.

Larry, you’re doing great. Just keep flying the plane.

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.