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August 1, 2020

Tips for Helping Families Shelter-in-Place During the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Sarah McEwen, PhD

Although leaders in science, medicine, and government are closely monitoring and seeking solutions for disease outbreaks, the best way to protect one’s family is through staying informed while also practicing good basic hygiene and preventive measures. It’s equally important during times like these to monitor your own physical and mental health and stay pro-active on that front by engaging in fun family activities to help manage stress and keeping a positive outlook on the situation.

Staying psychologically well during the quarantine is additionally imperative for families since research has highlighted that in parents and children these may be more vulnerable individuals to psychiatric distress. One study found that children were 4x more likely to suffer PTSD symptoms and 28% of parents reported psychological trauma as a result of the quarantine.

During previous infectious disease outbreaks that necessitated quarantine common stressors included being ill-informed and fearful, frustrated, and bored. As parents, we need to be pro-active about minimizing this stressful and potentially traumatic experience for our children.

Be informed and be honest with your kids

To reduce fears regarding this infectious disease it’s critical to stay well-informed from reputable sources, such as the CDC, WHO, and American Academy of Pediatrics, to allay any fears which are unsubstantiated by science and facts (including you can’t catch it from someone passing by coughing near you). Don’t hide the severity of the illness or downplay or dismiss their worries from how they are experiencing this situation. Just be mindful of their age and personality type when conveying the facts about what is happening and you as a family are protecting yourselves.

Don’t set unrealistic daily schedules

With a disruption in our regular activities and school schedules, today’s parents feel the need to be hyper-involved in structuring their children’s day. This sets us up for failure and frustration if work or other unexpected events come up and we don’t check all the boxes for the day. Children do thrive with a predictable routine, so lay out an outline of a daily schedule for yourself and your kids, but let it be flexible and don’t feel the need to cram every hour with structured tasks and deliverables. 

Make exercise a family fun activity

To keep boredom at bay and also manage stress levels and maintain your health having at least 30 minutes of daily exercise is critical. Every family has different schedules and space limitations, but what works for us is most mornings is after breakfast we try to literally “Kick Start” the day by a backyard soccer game with my kids. No agenda or scorekeeping just time for us all to spend some outdoor time in the morning moving and having fun together. The US Department of HHS recommends that kids actually need more exercise than adults, so make sure the kids get in an additional 30 minutes of physical activity daily.

Don’t take social distancing too literally

To mitigate stress and boredom, and maintain good mental health it’s essential (not optional) to stay socially engaged and activate your social network, be it through social media or personal or group video chats where you can connect with others in similar life situations, which has been found to be validating and empowering during times of quarantine. Make it of value for parents and kids by having group Zoom video playdates where the kids can do a collective group activity, like Lego Building, while the parents can talk and listen to music.

Teach your children the value of altruism

A recent review study of past quarantines during pandemics concluded that we can all adopt a proactive and altruistic mindset to provide the rationale as to why we are doing this. It’s quite demoralizing when health and government officials keep pushing the quarantine further out, but maintaining a positive mindset is something we do have control over.

Keep reinforcing to yourself and family members that we are doing what is needed to keep others safe and not overwhelming our healthcare system. This also teaches your children the lifelong value of altruism and doing something selfless for the greater good.

About the Author

Sarah McEwen headshot

Sarah McEwen, PhD

Sarah McEwen, PhD, NSCA-CPT, is a Cognitive Psychologist and the Director of Research & Programming at the Pacific Brain Health Center. Her specialty is the study of physical activity and cognitive enhancement interventions to investigate biological, behavioral and health-related outcomes in patients suffering from cognitively debilitating disorders.

Last updated: August 3rd, 2020