For many parents, the past two months have been a balancing act of both tasks and emotions.

“We’ve had some of the most amazing family time and we’ve been incredibly frustrated,” said Whitney Anderson, mother of 6-year-old twins and a 1999 international studies graduate from Virginia Tech. “Sometimes the experience makes you feel incredibly grateful; other times, you’re thinking, this is bananas.”

The internet communications manager for Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, Anderson has been working remotely while also helping her twins wrap up kindergarten from home since both the college and children’s school system began COVID-19-related closures in mid-March. By the 23rd of that month, Gov. Ralph Northam declared all Virginia K-12 schools closed for the remainder of the school year.

“That was just like a sucker punch,” Anderson said. “The logical part of me knew this was going to happen, but the emotional part of me just wasn’t ready for it. I think I understood a lot more the feeling that a lot of our students [at Roanoke College] were going through.”

The impact of the pandemic has swept across the globe and changed what daily life looks like for the majority of people. It’s also altered what parenting looks like for many mothers and fathers, as juggling a family’s basic needs with job requirements and at-home education have quickly become an unexpected norm and at times created some stressful dynamics.

“The parent guilt is strong right now,” said Cindy Smith, an associate professor and the director of graduate studies for the Department of Human Development and Family Science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “I think we all just need to allow ourselves some grace.”

Smith also runs the Children’s Emotions Lab at Virginia Tech. She and her husband are both currently balancing working remotely while also trying to help their 7-year-old son finish out his school year from home.

“It’s like a balloon; when the parenting side goes up, the work side has to go down,” she said.

Navigating this can be taxing, but Smith said parents looking out for themselves is actually one of the most helpful things they can do for their kids.

“Children are picking up on the stress around them; if parents are feeling overwhelmed, children can see it, and research has shown that parents who are feeling more stress tend to engage in less optimal parenting behaviors,” Smith said. “If parents are able to cope with their feelings, then they will be better parents to their children. If parents are able to still have interactions with their children that are high in positive emotions, the effects of stress that the parents are feeling might not be conveyed as strongly to their children.”

The specific challenges families face during this time can vary greatly depending on such factors as family composition, job flexibility, and income level. Smith emphasized that this reality means there is not one model that will work for all families.

“Not every strategy is going to work for every child,” Smith said. “You have to figure out what works best for your child.”

Still, there are some general guidelines that could prove helpful for many families.

  • Set up separate work spaces for family members.
  • Develop a family schedule.
  • Communicate when children are and are not allowed to interrupt parents.
  • Limit the child’s exposure to news.
  • Set achievable goals for work.
  • Set aside time to engage in activities both parents and children enjoy. This can increase the positive mood of both parties.
  • Recognize and accept that both parents and children will not be as productive during this time.

Smith also encourages parents to provide children with opportunities to ask questions and express their fears about the pandemic. She notes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published guidance for such conversations.

Closing in on two months of parenting twins while also trying to work from home, Anderson said trial and error have taught her what works with her family.

“Day one was an absolute disaster of epic proportions. It ended with me sitting on my front steps, weeping, after they went to bed,” she said. “After that, we basically set up a working schedule where we had shifts, and from then on that’s what we’ve done, and it’s really worked a whole lot better.”

Anderson said she’s learned to lower her own expectations and to be okay with not having a plan for every moment of her children’s day.

“We can’t do everything,” she said. “And sometimes you just have to let them be bored because you have no idea what they can come up with.”

— Written by Travis Williams