When sheltering in place puts parenting on display: Dealing with judgment during COVID-19

I’ve noticed an interesting trend in my therapy sessions with parents over the past few weeks. While most aspects of their lives have become far more private (they’re not leaving their homes or seeing anyone, after all), their parenting seems to have become more public. Now, there’s a whole new audience to observe and potentially judge their interactions with their kids: their partners and their kids’ teachers.

“He keeps harassing me about the video games.” This is one patient of mine, a stay-at-home mother of three boys. Pre-COVID, this mom watched her kids solo until her husband returned home at 8 PM. Now, her husband is working from home and observing her every parenting move. He often comments that he thinks their kids spend too much time playing video games. But he still maintains his normal work hours, which means that he’s not doing anything to change the video game situation.

My patient isn’t actually concerned about the video games, though. Her sons have always played video games after school as a way of winding down from the day. She considers these games to be even more important for them now, as gaming serves as a means to connect with friends. And the gaming provides her with some desperately needed time off every day. Her husband, who’s never been home to see their kids during afterschool hours, doesn’t understand any of this, yet he continues to judge. She frequently asks her kids to run around outside when she knows her husband will see them, hoping he’ll think she’s making an effort.

Another mom recently shared that she had “failed” as a homeschooling parent. She forgot about one particular project assigned to her first grader, remembering only when she received a somewhat stern email from the teacher. “I felt like the teacher was giving me an F,” she complained. Other patients have been forcing their heavily protesting kids to complete difficult assignments, not because they’re worried about their kids falling behind educationally but because they don’t want their kids’ teachers to think they’re irresponsible parents.

Even in the best of times, parenting for an audience is a problem: if you’re focusing on what others are thinking, you’re not focusing on what’s best for your kids, or, critically, for yourself. And now that it’s certainly not the best of times, it’s even more important that you pay attention to your own needs and the needs of your children, rather than how you’re being perceived by others.
If thinking about partners or teachers (or both!) judging your parenting decisions has become a significant source of stress, here are some ideas to help you cope:

1. Ask yourself what you are sacrificing to appease your judgers: To determine this, try using a classic cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) strategy, making a benefits/drawbacks list. Returning to my patient, the only benefit she could identify of cutting down video game time was appeasing her husband, while the drawbacks were considerable: providing her with some free time, connecting her kids with their friends, and giving her kids a much-needed opportunity to relax. Based on this list, it was clear to her that, despite her husband’s objections, her video game rules were working just fine for her and their sons. You can make a similar list of benefits and drawbacks of fighting through a particularly punishing school assignment (with your kid’s mental well-being likely being an important drawback).

2. Remember that you are the expert on your own kid: If you’ve historically been the one in the trenches with your kids as they complete homework and navigate afterschool time, you’re the one who knows how they work most effectively and what they need to do to let off steam. Partners and teachers may have expectations of your kid, but you’re the one best equipped to determine whether these expectations are reasonable. Don’t doubt your own expertise.

3. Communicate with partners and teachers: Instead of privately seething or complaining to friends about how your partner or your kid’s teacher is judging you, might I suggest you talk with your partner/teacher instead?

If you’re concerned about your partner, engage them in a conversation about the issues you perceive are bothering them (note that I used the term “perceive;” sometimes, my patients will talk with their partners and find out that their partners weren’t actually judging them at all). Once you and your partner have identified the issues, discuss whether it makes sense to address any of their concerns. If it does, spend time devising a specific plan for how you will implement changes together. For example, my patient and her husband ultimately agreed that he would take a “lunch hour” each day and devote that time to some outdoor activity with the kids.

Having an open dialogue with your kid’s teacher is critical, too. If your kid is struggling to complete assignments, either because they (or you) lack the bandwidth to get it done, be sure to talk to your kid’s teacher(s) about it. Don’t just push through the work every day out of fear of receiving a stern email. Try to collaborate with the teacher to make a homeschooling plan that makes sense for your child and for you.

4. And most importantly, Focus on your priorities: Take a minute to list out all of the things that are most important to you as a person and as a parent right now. And use this list—not others’ expectations—to guide your parenting decisions. This will ensure that you’re parenting according to your values, and making the best choices for your family during this incredibly fraught time.

Honestly, if there was ever a time to stop focusing on how others are perceiving you, this is it. Endeavor to parent according to your own needs and the needs of your family, and use your expert knowledge of your own kids to guide you. You have enough to think about right now without adding others’ opinions to the mix.

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