COVID-19 just flipped your family upside down – Now what?

Last Modified: 3/18/2020

Social distancing family

This post was written by Brandon T. McDaniel, PhD, research scientist, Parkview Mirro Center for Research and Innovation.

Our lives are rapidly changing on a daily basis now due to the coronavirus (COVID-19), with more and more things closing down (including schools/childcare), remote work at home or perhaps even no work at all (even though we desperately needed that paycheck), travel or vacation plans canceled, extracurricular or fun activities canceled, fears about what is coming, and so much more.

The truth is, this situation is going to cause some degree of stress for everyone (both parents and kids), and we are probably going to be dealing with the coronavirus and its aftereffects for a long time. So what can we do?

OK, deep breath.

Step 1: Accept that life is different now and acknowledge your own and your children’s emotions.

Helping yourself

It’s natural to feel upset about how your life has changed in ways that you did not expect and did not want. It is also natural to feel like you have no control over what is happening and so you may feel angry, afraid, anxious, sad or all of these and more!

Take 2-3 hours, if you can, to allow yourself to vent, cry, talk with a trusted friend or spouse/partner, write down your thoughts, etc. It is important that you don’t bottle up all of your feelings, but be careful to avoid lashing out or oversharing details that are too much for young children to handle.

Helping your children

First, here are a couple of resources for how to talk to your kids about the coronavirus.

Your child is experiencing a ton of emotions, too. Depending on their age, they will express their emotions in different ways, which could range from simply wanting to talk to you about how they are feeling to changes in their behavior such as:

  • Withdrawing and not talking
  • Excessive worrying or crying
  • Whining or clinging
  • Lashing out, acting out, or screaming
  • Waking up at night or having trouble going to sleep
  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating
  • Avoiding schoolwork or e-learning
  • Doing things they had already grown out of (such as bedwetting)

It is so very important that we allow our kids to talk and express how they are feeling, and we need to give them opportunities to talk. This is much easier to do if you have already set this up before this all started, such as catching up as a family over dinner. But even if you are starting from scratch, you could set up a new time where everyone can talk about what is going on and how they are feeling (with no judgement).

Just as important, is noticing and coaching your children’s emotions in the moment. Here are some general tips for how to do this if you notice your child acting out or behaving in a way you don’t like.

Tips for helping your child with their emotions

  1. First, think about what emotion they might be feeling.
  2. View it as a moment when you can connect and teach (I know this can be hard!).
  3. Communicate your understanding and acceptance of the emotion.
    1. Validate them. You have emotions, too, and how would you like it if every time you had one someone just yelled at you to stop or told you that you shouldn’t do that or feel that way?
  4. If the child is young (or maybe even older children at times), help them use words to describe what they feel.
  5. Problem solve/help them come up with a good solution.
    1. Don’t jump right into problem-solving mode. This is often where we all want to start. For example, “What’s wrong honey?” “Why are you doing this?” “Oh, well don’t feel sad, let’s just put it back together and …” See how all these things aren’t talking about the child’s emotion?

What might this emotion coaching look like in the moment? Here are some good questions or prompts you can use:

  • Did that make you feel (emotion) when (whatever happened)?
  • Oh, it sounds like that made you feel (emotion)?
  • That would make me feel (emotion), too.
  • How did that make you feel?
  • It looks like you’re feeling (emotion).

Avoid dismissing or trying to control your child’s emotions. Let them have the emotion.

  • Note: You can stop the behavior, such as hitting, but address the emotion/feeling and help them with the emotion instead of only shutting it all down.

Here is a fun video that can help you understand emotion coaching.  


Helping your spouse/partner

Don’t forget your spouse/partner, and don’t expect your partner to react exactly like you.

Your spouse/partner is going through all of this, and they may be struggling, too. Listening, validating, setting up times to spend time together, etc. will all continue to be important and needed (just like in any strong relationship). Here is a good article to help you think through this a little more.

Step 2: Make a plan for self-care.

You can’t take care of your kids, your life, anything … unless you are mentally, emotionally and physically well. So don’t forget to set up some ways to regularly take care of yourself across the coming weeks, even if these things are small.

Here are a few examples:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Do something small that you feel you can control
  • Enjoy a few minutes with a favorite hobby
  • Take a few minutes of alone time
  • Read a book you enjoy for yourself or to your children
  • Meditate
  • Go to bed at a decent time

Here are a few great articles on the subject:

I would also recommend that you …

  • Avoid exposing yourself to too much/constant information about COVID-19.
    • All that will do is stress you out even more. Perhaps limit your time searching for this information to a specific time of day when you know you will not need to be emotionally available to your children or when you will be planning for the next day.
  • Limit your scrolling of Facebook or other social media on your phone!
    • Think about your phone use and whether you are just getting on your phone or social media because you are stressed/bored or do you have a specific purpose in mind, such as connecting with a friend via texting, etc. Research tends to find that we are drawn to our phones and social media when feeling stressed, bored or lonely, but also that if we simply scroll through our feed (essentially wasting time) we feel worse or just as bad as when we started.
  • Set up virtual connections with friends or family.
    • For instance, you might set up a video chat or phone call that happens every week on Thursday night with a few of your friends to just chat and have some semblance of normal life.
Step 3: Make a plan for what you want your life to look like now (within reason).

Here are some questions to ask yourself to get you thinking. Then, once you’ve answered some of these, you can start creating plans, goals or schedules.

  • What do you value in your family?
    • For example, in our family we value building strong relationships and caring for each other, so this means I should try to organize something in my plans that contributes to this goal.  
  • What do you want your time with your children to look like?
    • How do you picture this all going down? At first, it may just seem overwhelming and all you can picture is a bunch of stressed out people stuck in the same home for forever. But push that thought aside for a minute and instead try to think about what are some ways you could do some things that would be positive with your kids?
    • Here are some potential positives:
      • Extra time to teach, read with, or play with your kids.
      • Time to talk with your child.
      • Can you think of other potential positives? Make a list if you can.
  • What do you want to gain or take away from this experience?
    • Yes, this may be a very stressful time, but when this all ends, wouldn’t it be nice if we could have bonded more as a family or become stronger? We will all change due to this experience. Come up with some ways you would hope to change in a good way. Then organize some ideas for how you might try to make that happen.
  • How and when do you want screens (TV, video games, phones, tablets, etc.) to be used in your home for entertainment, learning, etc.?
    • It’s OK to not be as uptight about screen time rules, although be careful because too much screens for entertainment can also often lead to more negative child behaviors once they get off the screens, which will only cause more stress!  
    • Also, not all content is created equal. You can use this site to help you figure out whether a game, app, movie or show would be good for your child’s age.
  • Is your school doing e-learning (home learning) and/or is there anything you would like to teach your kids?
    • This is going to be a completely new experience for many of us. It’s going to take time to adapt and it might be a mess for a bit, while everyone (including schools, teachers, children, and you) adjusts to e-learning or home learning. It’s ok to just do your best for a while. As you start to get the hang of what this might look like then you can make some goals for how e-learning best fits into your life. Talk to the teacher, school, and your friends who are in the same predicament as you if you feel like you need support with how to make this work or if you are having trouble with e-learning.

Again, I completely understand if these questions might stress you out at first. Take some time to think these through (perhaps at night after you get the kids to bed would be a good time), and then organize some goals for yourself and a basic schedule for what your days might look like. It’s also OK if you create something and then it fails and you have to try again (see Step 4 below).

I also recommend that you do not try to solve all of your problems or create tons of activities, goals, etc. You and your kids need structure, but if you try to do too much at once it probably won’t go very well.  Set up what you believe is necessary. Then, when you have that working, try to add in something else that is important to you, and add little by little.

By yourself and/or with your spouse/partner, take a few minutes each night to assess how things are going and adapt if needed. Here is an example schedule one mother created for her family.

Here are some ideas of things you could do with your kids. Of course, remember you don’t have to try to do a ton of activities. Just use these links to brainstorm some ideas:


Step 4: Be flexible, patient and forgiving.

Finally, realize that your best plans are probably not going to work out perfectly. What usually does in parenting, really? But having a general routine and structure will help everything go better for you and your children.

When the computer doesn’t work right for e-learning or the activity you had planned, when your child has a meltdown (for who knows what reason, but probably because everything is different now and stress is high in everyone), when you are feeling overwhelmed, when the kids don’t want to do what you had planned, and so on, and so on … Be willing to change and adapt as needed. Be patient as well. Change takes time. Don’t expect to be perfect right away.

When you make a mistake or lose your cool with your children, apologize and remember to forgive yourself, too. We’re all human and make mistakes. Forgiveness goes a long way.

Keep revisiting these steps over and over again, and things will get better!


IMPORTANT: If you are feeling completely overwhelmed and are wondering whether life is worth living anymore, please reach out for help through the Parkview Behavioral Health HelpLine at 260-373-7500 or 800-284-8439, anytime 24 hours a day, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or your employer’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

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