Life for many Tulsa families is in an unexpected upheaval right now. A growing number of Tulsans are ill, and a significant number of adults have lost jobs or had hours cut. Many families are nervous about what the future holds. A more immediate concern for many, however, is the (hopefully temporary) closure of schools and child care facilities around town.
The majority of parents in today’s society are either dual-earner couples or single parents who need to earn an income to sustain their families. During the COVID-19 crisis, many of those families are struggling with how to balance caring for their children at home while also finding a way to work outside the home, work from home or try to find work if they have experienced job loss or reduced hours.
It doesn’t take someone with my research expertise in work-family conflict, mental health and parenthood to know that many Tulsa families are feeling overwhelmed right now and that those feelings can spill over to affect our relationships and mental health in a myriad of negative ways. Navigating the work-family balance is going to be more challenging than ever before.
Many of those at home with children are also working remotely, sometimes for the first time. With that in mind, how can families manage caring for children at home during this challenging time? Here are some strategies that can help:
• Plan ahead: Children of all ages may be used to a busy schedule of school, activities and play time with friends. Staying home with less to do is likely to lead to boredom and potentially behavior issues. Planning activities for children can be helpful. Older children may be able to identify projects to work on during their time at home, such as reorganizing their rooms, building Lego sets, doing art projects, sending cards to family members or friends stuck at home, or cooking meals for the family.
• Set a schedule: Maintaining a daily schedule, including a regular sleep schedule, can help children better adjust to their current situation. For parents working from home, a schedule can also be helpful. Set priorities for both work and family needs and then block out time for each.
• Batch work when possible: Finding chunks of time to work, rather than working eight consecutive hours, may be necessary. Scheduling time to work when children are less likely to need attention is key. This may mean working different hours than a typical schedule; working early in the morning and later in the evening, and during younger children’s nap times or planned screen time may be necessary. Taking turns working and caring for children with another parent in the household can be immensely helpful. Project management apps or even simple “to-do” lists may be particularly useful when working from home.
• Be flexible: What works for some families may not work for others. You may need to try several different schedules, for example, before you find the best fit for your family. There are almost certainly going to be interruptions and challenges as families adjust to the current situation. Recognizing that there will almost certainly be some conflicts can help reduce frustration.
Juggling working from home with children is going to present some challenges — particularly among those whose children are quite young — but the flexibility and additional time spent with children can also be rewarding. If we work to make that time special and meaningful, we will help all family members feel less stressed and lonely during this difficult time.
Karina Shreffler is a professor of human development and family science at Oklahoma State University-Tulsa and a researcher for the OSU Center for Family Resilience at OSU-Tulsa. She is principal investigator of the HATCH: Holistic Assessment of Tulsa’s Children’s Health Project funded by the National Institutes of Health.