Under normal circumstances, family life in America is a “fire shower of stress, multi-tasking, and mutual nitpicking” according to journalist Benedict Carey, covering the results of a four-year-long UCLA observational study of thirty-two urban families for the New York Times. A survey funded by Sleepopolis a few years back discovered that kids have an eye-popping 4,200 arguments with their parents before they turn eighteen, averaging fourteen minutes long, with parents “winning” upwards of sixty percent of the time. I’m assuming “winning” meant parents successfully cajoling their kids to complete household chores, clean up bedrooms and shared spaces, and finish homework—the most common reasons for disagreements.
Under the pandemic, it’s not just kids’ homework that parents are placed in the thankless task of overseeing, but also their entire remote learning experience. Schools in the majority of states across the country have shuttered their doors, leaving in excess of forty-three million kids in grades K-12 housebound. Earlier this spring, as families sheltered in place, parents stepped in to manage their kids’ distance-learning needs. It was thought to be a stop-gap measure, even a novelty for many involved. There was the added advantage of having the “morning rush” eliminated, allowing for more sleep and less stress. This is notwithstanding kids winning back the free time they were used to sacrificing by being overscheduled with extracurricular activities. Family members hunkered down at home. Many parents I work with confessed during Zoom therapy sessions that they enjoyed the family togetherness. Working mothers, in particular, felt released from the guilt and anxiety they often carry juggling professional demands and domestic responsibilities, never quite performing either up to their standards.
Months along, the novelty has worn off, and parents are concerned about the ramifications of prolonged virtual classrooms for the quality of education their kids are receiving. A recent poll by the FM3 Research firm found that a whopping seventy-five percent of parents believed that distance learning was inferior to in-class instruction. Parents are concerned about the learning loss their kids face as well as the social drawbacks. Socially anxious kids may be the most hard hit because they are void of the social exposure that attending school offers, which over time provides them with the interactional practice and acquisition of social skills that renders them less socially avoidant.
Overuse of screens—especially videogaming—is more the bane of parents’ existence than usual. Virtual learning leaves many kids bored and undermotivated. A perfect storm arises—kids rushing through their schoolwork to maximize their videogame time and parents feeling hamstrung, capitulating when they know they shouldn’t, because their own job responsibilities working remotely from home leave them, understandably, otherwise preoccupied. Several months ago, nearly seventy-five million residents of California, Illinois, Connecticut, and New York were ordered to sequester themselves at home. Simultaneously, videogame play during Verizon’s peak hour of internet usage increased seventy-five percent from the week before. Being lax about kids’ videogame usage may be unavoidable. But it’s an arrangement that’s unsustainable since data indicate that most parents are deeply concerned about the risks posed to their kids while playing videogames—ninety-four percent, in fact, according to a McAfee study.
For high-school and college students, the struggles imposed by the pandemic are especially pronounced. Adolescence and young adulthood are phases of life that emphasize individuating from one’s family and venturing out into the world to build greater personal assertiveness and agency. Having teachers, professors, coaches, and other supportive adults to educate and mentor them strengthens the individuation process and fosters teenagers’ and young adults’ social competence and self-confidence. Millions of teenagers and young adults are now housebound, reliant on social media to stay in contact with peers and stuck having parents as the omnipresent adults in their lives to whom they feel accountable. Time will tell to what degree stay-at-home orders and remote learning have thwarted and delayed the individuation experience of this generation of teenagers and young adults.
How are we to stay sane during these insane times? Top of the list, for me, pertains to respectfully honoring spacial and emotional boundaries. Confined at home—often in close quarters—having to locate the ideal conditions for them to stay motivated, focused, and productive, it behooves parents and kids alike to be overt with their needs. Under the best of conditions, it is extremely difficult, even for adults, to assertively ask for alone time. Kids and teens often communicate their needs for separateness—to have physical and emotional space from a parent—indirectly through their behavior, conveying grumpiness, irritation, or defiance. Having a family meeting to discuss matters such as: how closed doors signal a wish to be alone; better ways to rearrange the physical environment at home to allow each family member access to their ideal working conditions; and the acceptability of requesting alone time in kind, assertive ways are all highly relevant issues.
The way we conduct our emotional lives and relate to one another as family members even has a bearing on the health or ill-health of our immune systems. Just like viruses, emotions are contagious. Partners “catch” each other’s stress, and there are adverse health implications. The good news is that partners also “catch” each other’s happiness. Cooped up at home to protect against the transmission of COVID-19, sharing humor and goodwill gestures will not only help avert the outbreak of a parallel pandemic—more strife in family life—but keep our immune systems well-toned.
About the Author
Enrico Gnaulati, PhD, is a nationally recognized reformer of mental health practice and policy. His latest book is Saving Talk Therapy: How Health Insurers, Big Pharma, and Slanted Science are Ruining Good Mental Health Care (Beacon Press, 2018).