Parenting in a Time of COVID-19

We became a family in October 2010. As time has gone forward since then, I have needed to blog less frequently as a way to process everything that was happening in our parenting journey. There are certainly things we are still learning--our kids are the most profound teachers--but these days, Nick and I have a larger toolbox we can dip into in the midst of parenting challenges; a toolbox borne of necessity, desperation, research, training, and the support & ideas of other parents there in the trenches with us.

Parenting ANY child is challenging, important work; some would contend it's the most important work one can do. Parenting children with special needs--those with physical disabilities, developmental disabilities, mental health issues, early childhood trauma or Adverse Childhood Experiences, and others--well, this parenting brings with it an added layer of complexity.

In our family, we have had to learn a kind of parenting called Therapeutic Parenting. And it is very much what it sounds like: as one of the people who not only knows their kid best but also spends the most time with them, therapeutic parents work to heal their children in addition to raising them to be productive members of society. In other words, our kids don't have the same wiring in their brains as do kids without these challenges, and so it takes a different type of parenting to help them rewire.

It's REALLY difficult to parent in this way. It's often at odds with one's "instinct" in the heat of the moment, and it is a skill I am still honing, even this many years in. But in addition to being hard to master, it's hard because from the outside looking in, it often doesn't look like we are being "good" parents. (You can replace "good" with your favorite descriptor: responsible, disciplined, strong, effective, normal, stable, appropriate, able....) We are doing the right thing for our kid in a particular moment in time, but it does not look that way to others. Unfortunately, when our actions are not understood, it often causes even more tension in an already tense situation.

As a result, we have had to become skilled at being extremely flexible, at rolling with the punches, and at holding things lightly.

What I mean is this:

Image result for letting go of what isn't important
We might be at a family event--say, a birthday party--and one of our kids is triggered by something that causes him to be extremely dysregulated. Sometimes we don't even know what it was that set him off, but we're already headed down the path, so it doesn't really matter at that point. Our attempts to help him regulate his emotions aren't working, or we do not have the space to get the child out of the spotlight, as it were, so we have to scuttle our plans and prepare to leave quickly. And we do. We gather kids and their various accessories, say our goodbyes (or at least one parent attempts to), and we get in our car and head home. Because home is where our kids feel safest in a world that often feels scary, and being home usually helps them (and us parents!) regulate faster. Yep, we're missing out on extended family time. Yep, I didn't want to leave right at that moment (they didn't even cut the cake yet!). Yep, I'm probably being judged and/or "discussed" right now back at the party; but in that moment, I did the right thing for my kid and for our family, and that's what is most important.

In my quest to help my kids heal, I have had to let go of so many things over the years that I believed to be important; things I wanted, things I valued, things I enjoyed doing, things I expected out of life for me or for my kids. I've come to realize that helping my kids learn the skills now that will help them be successful later in life is the most important thing I can ever do as a parent. 

And now, we all have COVID-19 staring us in the face. During this bizarre and unprecedented time in history, we are all trying to be more flexible, attempting to roll with the punches, and holding things lightly. Many parents are trying to work from home whilst managing their kids' "distance education." Others are on the front lines, caring for those most at-risk, and in the process are putting themselves and their own families at risk for contracting the coronavirus. Closings, cancellations, and social distancing has everyone feeling more stir-crazy than usual, especially those of us in northern climates!


We are all feeling the stress from so much uncertainty, and we all are feeling grief over what has been lost. Weirdly, as others have pointed out, this is a singular point in history where we all, separately in our own homes, are collectively sacrificing our own comforts for the sake of our neighbors, our friends, even strangers. It's lonely, though, and many of you have found yourselves alone in a whole new parenting trench for the first time.

As I have had some time to think over all of this in the past week, it has occurred to me that perhaps we: the parents of kids with special needs, might be in a position to support some of you: the parents of neurotypical kids, because of our prior experience in the trenches of unpredictability. It's kind of familiar territory for us, and maybe we can help you navigate it. In the hope that something I say is helpful to those of you who are struggling right now, here is the advice I can offer:

Grades don't matter.
Image result for quadratic formula funny
(Okay, yes, they kind of do in the broader sense of obtaining a diploma and getting into (some) colleges, and I completely believe that education overall matters a great deal.) But ignoring a few unfinished assignments in favor of supporting your kid's mental well-being? Allowing them to Google the answer so they can relax and maybe even go outside? That's what's important, and I'm willing to bet you it will not ruin their entire education. Let them have a break sometimes. Remember that having a good relationship with your kids is the most important thing. It's more important than memorizing the Quadratic Equation or diagramming sentences or labeling the internal organs of a frog or building truss bridges or any of the other (good, but less important) things they will learn in school. So don't sweat it, don't battle over it, don't force it. It's okay if it's not perfect. Because it won't be. This is new.

Give yourself grace. 
You're not going to be yourself sometimes. Extroverts: you're running low on energy because you can't spend time with ALL.THE.PEOPLE! Introverts: you're running low on energy because your family is around ALL.THE.TIME. What I've learned from this parenting gig is that that's okay that you're not yourself sometimes. I am going to act contrary to who I am (or who I want to be) sometimes. It's okay because it gives me the opportunity to apologize and repair the relationship. There is no better teacher for our kids than what we model for them. Over the years I have had a LOT of opportunities to model how to apologize after I yelled, threatened, handed out consequences I couldn't follow through with, said things in anger...I could go on and on. So don't worry: you will definitely screw things up. Just take a bow when you do, make things right, and move on.

If Plan A didn't work, don't sweat it. The alphabet has 25 more letters.
I totally read that somewhere. And it's true for parents like me: I have learned how to become a creative problem-solver and also just to not sweat the small stuff. Don't want to wear your jacket? Okay, how about a hoodie? No? How about just a hat? No? Okay--give it a try with none of these things. It's not going to kill my kid to be cold (by their own choosing, might I add); and I can always bring the gear in the car if I need to, in case of emergency. (However, there is far less driving these days, so...problem solved!) Don't like it when I tell you what to do? Fine--Alexa will tell you from now on. (We actually do this in our household, and it works! Check out the Alexa app to set up Routines, Alarms, Reminders, etc.)

Put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others.
No, I don't mean one of those facemasks for COVID-19, but if you need one of those too, that's okay. What I mean is that it's no good if you pass out before you can help your kid get their oxygen mask on. Take care of yourself. And not just in the lip-service way--really do it! Find something that makes you laugh every day, find something that makes you feel loved, something that makes you feel rested, something that makes you feel secure. If you don't, you'll burn out. (Trust me; I have already done that so you don't have to!)

If I sat here longer, I'm sure I could think of many other examples. But at the end of the day, it comes down to these things: am I and my kids safe? Are we healthy? Do we have a roof over our heads? Do we have enough to eat? Okay--that means we're going to be okay. Everything else is bonus.

Note: some of our neighbors can NOT answer yes to all of these questions, and that's where the helping each other part comes in.

Image result for look for the helpers

Finally, just breathe. When my kid is in the middle of an emotional meltdown (and/or when I am), this is the one tool I always have with me no matter what.

So today: just breathe. This moment: just breathe. No--I actually mean it; do it right now: stop reading and just take three or four big calming breaths, and see what happens in your body.

Did you do it? If not, I'll give you one more chance...right...NOW.

Still stubbornly holding out? You asked for it then:

(See? Things like that make me laugh.)

I don't know what the future holds, but I do know this: we are all in this together. And so we should support each other in these trenches; it's just the right thing to do. So...reach out--let me know if you're struggling, and I might have a tool in my own toolbox that can help you.


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