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Expert Tips for Managing Family Conflict During Quarantine

When sheltering in place feels like a ticking time bomb

Published on: April 27, 2020

frustrated woman leaning against a window having a moment to herself

While the stay-at-home order has alleviated household tensions for some, many families are experiencing an intensification of challenges that predate the pandemic. Parents rely on the respite provided by school, extracurricular activities, child care and jobs outside the home. Suddenly stripped of these activities and support systems, many families are experiencing a tremendous sense of upheaval.

For parents who were already struggling, whether because of child-related difficulties, personal issues or a high-conflict marriage, the stay-at-home scenario has created a state of crisis. These families need a broader range of survival strategies that target their specific pain points. But even families with low levels of conflict may appreciate some of these strategies that aim to improve household harmony.

Read on for ideas on parenting disagreements, schoolwork, behavior challenges, sibling issues and high-conflict marriages.

1. Parenting disagreements

In homes with two parents, families may find that an earlier equilibrium in their division of labor has been destabilized. Where one partner may have taken the lead on day-to-day parenting decisions, both parents may now find themselves jockeying for position on the front lines.  How much screen time should be allowed? How much sugar is too much? How closely should schoolwork be monitored?

It’s common for parents to become polarized in their perspectives, where each assumes a more extreme position to compensate for what they see as the other parent being too relaxed or too rigid in their stance. This tendency is human nature. On closer inspection about contentious topics, however, most partners will notice that their values and wishes for their child are more similar than different.

Strategies for managing disagreements:

  • Reflect on the narrative that you want your child to recall when they later look back on this period of quarantine. Years from now, what do you want them to remember the most about home life during the pandemic?
  • Flexibility is key.  Most daily parenting decisions are not going to make or break your child.  Loosening your grip on the specifics of what is decided can help to diffuse conflicts. Chronic strife about parenting decisions will have a more powerfully negative impact on your child than arriving at a compromise that perhaps stretches you outside of your comfort zone.
  • Nurture your partner in the wake of parenting stress points. Most parents are finding themselves quicker to lose patience with their kids during this time. Rather than criticize your partner for yelling at the kids, take such outbursts as an opportunity to soothe your stressed partner and connect around your challenges. Are negative emotions running too hot to succeed with this? Give each other space and opportunities to self-soothe.

2. Schoolwork

One of the hot-button topics resulting from the stay-at-home order is the stress felt by parents who are suddenly tasked with supervising and even running their child’s education. Parents can feel an especially intense sense of pressure if their child experiences learning challenges.  Even with the online systems that are evolving to support distance learning, parents are finding themselves in schoolwork struggles with their children.

The classroom is a powerful structure that creates favorable learning conditions. It’s impossible to mimic such a setting at home. Low student motivation is the norm. In the best of circumstances, parents and homework rarely mix well — most children are irked by their parents’ involvement in their schoolwork. If you find yourself drained from your child’s pushback, you might want to consider making some adjustments.

Strategies for managing schoolwork:

  • Prioritize certain material or subjects. The law of diminishing returns applies to parents and schoolwork, so you’ll want to get clear on when you will hold your child accountable and when you will let things slide.
  • For parents of older children and teens, consider holding office hours during which your child can come to you for assistance. Such a structure gets you off the hook from exhausting patterns of prolonged schoolwork struggles and encourages your child to take initiative in seeking help.
  • Make use of reward systems to motivate your child.  Contrary to a widely held myth that rewards undermine intrinsic motivation in education settings, there is substantial evidence that rewards can actually increase intrinsic motivation when tasks provide a child with a sense of accomplishment. Keep the focus on rewarding your child’s efforts with subjects that they avoid as opposed to subjects they already enjoy. When designing a reward system, take care to avoid common pitfalls, such as setting the bar too high or having too long of a delay before the reward is given.

3. Behavior challenges

Without the usual structure of school and child care, many parents are exhausted by the relentless effort it can take to manage their children. For families that have children with challenging behaviors, such as intense tantrums, aggression, defiance or emotional outbursts, each day may feel like a marathon. While there are no magic wand solutions, there are strategies that can grant quick relief and reduce a sense of crisis.

Strategies for managing behavioral issues:

  • Decrease demands on your child. It’s normal for parents to make many requests of their children, but this can create endless battles. Count how many times you make a request of your child in a single day. If you’re in the double digits, scale back the demands. It’s okay to prioritize only a few requests each day. This is a time to let some things go, especially if you have a child who is highly emotionally reactive. Maybe a tantrum over tying shoes or wearing a jacket isn’t worth it. There will be time to work on your child’s self-regulation skills once you are on the other side of the pandemic.
  • Ignore mildly negative behaviors in the category labeled “attitude problems.” Parents in fact have little control over attitudes in their children. If your child is complying, even with some serious grumpiness, chalk it up as a win.
  • Annoying behaviors are another area where families might benefit from adjusting expectations. If ignoring the behavior is too painful and you find yourself constantly telling your child to “stop” a behavior, try a different strategy.  You might have more success if you instead tell them what they can do. For example, instead of saying, “Stop bouncing that ball in the house,” you might say, “Please take the ball to the front porch for bouncing.”   
  • Reduce punishments such as taking toys and privileges away. Punishment is easy to overuse and more often exacerbates than helps the problem. The effective use of punishment is a fine art, and a period of lockdown might not be the time to employ this instrument. If you do need to give a consequence, don’t pick something that also punishes you (maybe you need your child to watch that TV show while you prepare dinner). Limit a privilege loss to a 24-hour period, at the most.
  • Eliminate strategies such as lecturing, reasoning, explaining, pleading, cajoling and moralizing. These strategies don’t usually work and instead contribute to feelings of exhaustion and helplessness in parents.
  • Increase chances of compliance when making requests of your child by saying your child’s name, getting eye contact and standing within an arm’s length when you make the request. Don’t expect cooperation if you call out to your child from another room. This strategy applies to teens as well!
  • Set limits with children who insist that one parent over the other does things for them. It’s common for children to prefer one parent to assist them through certain daily routines, such as bedtime. While accommodating these demands might be manageable in the best of times, parents risk serious burnout if they perpetuate such patterns during stressful times. Set a plan, prepare your child and keep to a rotation. Don’t be surprised if the “preferred” parent needs to briefly leave the house for new routines to be successfully adopted.
  • For serious problems, such as frequent aggressive behavior or a child who is self-harming, consult a professional.

4. Sibling conflict

Siblings can be a terrific source of company to each other during this stay-at-home mandate. If there is one thing that is universal to families under quarantine, though, it’s an increase in sibling disputes. Most parents struggle with knowing when and how to get involved in these squabbles.

Strategies for managing sibling conflict:

  • Allow siblings to resolve their own conflicts, whenever possible. Ignore the verbal sparring. Try not to reinforce tattling behavior, but it’s okay to coach a sibling who is asking for help with problem-solving.   
  • “Teaming up,” where multiple siblings side against a single sibling, should not be allowed.
  • Do not allow siblings to be physically aggressive with each other. While there are many issues that you can let slide, aggression needs to be contained 100 percent of the time. Siblings who use aggression are more likely to resort to aggression in the face of peer conflicts. Be consistent, keep your emotions out of the equation and get professional advice if you need guidance about limit-setting for aggression.

5. High-conflict marriage

Experts are predicting a surge in divorce rates after we emerge from lockdown (partly based on data that is coming out of China). Some couples who entered this quarantine period already on the brink of divorce may have decided to maintain a shared household due to the logistical obstacles involved in separating at this time. These couples are especially in need of survival strategies.

Strategies for managing marital conflict:

  • Keep to a schedule where each parent has clearly defined blocks of time to oversee aspects of child-rearing. Depending on the level of overt conflict, parents may find it’s best to divide their time with the children even while living together under the same roof. This strategy can be helpful even with couples in high conflict who have no plans to separate. While it might feel strange to function separately within the same home, it is probably worse to expose your children to chronic conflict and emotion dysregulation.
  • Grant each other extra opportunities to practice self-care. Day-to-day life in a high-conflict marriage generates incredible stress — emotional support outside of the relationship and refueling opportunities must be prioritized.

If you feel that you, your partner or your child needs professional resources or help, talk to your family physician or pediatrician. 

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