By: Caroline Spearman, Psy.D.

Flatten the curve. Stay inside. Don’t leave the house if possible. This advice is now something we have been hearing for several weeks and it appears that we will continue to hear it for quite some time. While this may seem like simple advice and was initially an appealing idea for many, it also comes with a host of challenges. One such challenge is managing relationships with family members while in close quarters for an extended period of time.

These recommendations from the CDC have completely upended most people’s daily routines. As families spend more time together, there is more room for conflict, discipline, and arguments. However, there is also more room for praise, meaningful connection, and a deepening of relationships. History has shown that pandemics and natural disasters can drive people together or pull them apart. When confronted with conflict or power struggles, parents can follow the below guidelines to cope with their own stress while also fostering positive relationships with their children.

Respond rather than react- This is a tough one! When a conflict emerges and we begin to feel strong emotions, our sympathetic nervous system fires and we naturally go into fight or flight mode. The ‘thinking’ part of our brain switches off and we are prone to react with hostility, negativity, or avoidance. In order to reverse this process, parents should become aware of their triggers, monitor their emotional reaction, and take a pause. Figure out what works for you. Some parents tell their children, “I love you and care about what is going on right now, but Mommy/Daddy needs a quick time-out. I will be right back.” Some parents take a quick bathroom break to remove themselves from the situation. Others step outside for a breath of fresh air. In some cases, it may be unsafe or unrealistic to leave your child; in that case, parents can take a mental break from the situation while still being physically present with their child.

Regulate arousal level- Congratulations! You have completed the hardest step by refusing to engage in a power struggle and taking a time-out from the situation…but now what? This is when we figure out ways to self-soothe and regulate our arousal levels, which can have lasting positive effects on our brain’s response to stress. If you have practiced deep breathing, now is the time to put it into action. Try taking long deep breaths and making sure your outbreath is one second longer than your inbreath. A simple strategy is to count while breathing in and then add one or two to your count when breathing out. This type of breathing is proven to lower our stress response, which will enable our ‘thinking’ brain to come online and help us reason through the situation a little more clearly and rationally.

Reengage with your child- You made it to the final step! Now that we have taken our time-out, regulated ourselves, and turned on our thinking brain, we can reemerge and reengage with our children. By lowering the stress response and coping with their strong emotions, parents can now focus on their child’s strong emotions. Children often need help managing their own nervous systems, which parents can now do by naming their child’s emotion, validating their feelings, and problem solving with them. Maybe one solution is that children learn how to take their own time-out at the same time as their parents. After all, parents are the best teachers and modeling these three steps for their children can be an extremely effective intervention.

While there is no “one size fits all” solution for growing tensions during a pandemic, these guidelines are generally effective when navigating parent-child conflict or power struggles. However, these steps often need to be tailored to each individual household. Georgetown Psychology is offering 30-minute phone consultations to help parents traverse these new waters. We see this time at home as an opportunity for parents to foster close, meaningful relationships with their children and turn potentially negative interactions into healing moments.