Supporting Families with Children and Youth During the Pandemic

By Natalie Briscoe

It’s no secret or surprise: Families have it rough right now. We are struggling. Caregivers agonize over making educational decisions for the younger members of their families while, in many cases, choosing between income and adequate childcare. Misinformation continues to be rampant, and the virus continues to surge, especially in the Southern Region. From Florida to Texas, numbers are rising, and local governments seem lost. Mental health is seriously at risk, and the pressure continues to mount. Resources - both tangible and intangible - are running thin.

As Unitarian Universalist congregations who have continued to adapt and respond to our community’s needs during a time when social distancing is critical, how can we support families with children and youth?

There are clues to how we might be able to help within human development. The relationship between parents and children is unique in its intimacy. It is the closest, most intense relationship you’ll have in your life, be it healthy or not. These relationships are supported by the community through schools, sports, community programs, churches, and relationships with other family and friends. Time learning and growing outside of the primary caregiving relationship not only helps children and youth to explore their identities and practice appropriate independence, but it also acts as a pressure release valve in the very intense relationship. Time apart actually serves to bring us closer.

Now, during this global pandemic, that release valve has been removed. Where once there was psychological breathing room during the daily routine of work and school, now there is just togetherness 24/7, with no end in sight. It’s all intensity, all the time, and this constant closeness can feel exhausting for both parents and children.

In my home, which consists of two adult caregivers, a six-year-old, and an eight-year-old, we constantly experience what we lovingly deem “Proximity Aggravation.” Our personalities are just constantly bumping into each other, and tiny annoyances pop up every moment. My children, who are used to going to school, having after-school activities, and playing with their friends and cousins on the weekends, are suddenly stuck at home with very little stimulation other than screens, which means they turn to the adults for playmates. Because we have chosen to homeschool our children this upcoming school year, we are now teaching in the morning, designing lessons and curricula late into the night, desperately trying to meet their socio-emotional needs, and meeting the demand of full time jobs. Exhausting indeed.

When you add adolescence to the mix, it can feel like you’re inside a bomb just waiting to go off. As youth turn to desiring more of a relationship with their peers and less of a relationship from their parents as they explore their rapidly changing thoughts and feelings, the opportunities for that development to occur naturally is gone. While youth try to distance themselves from their parents, we are forced by a pandemic to have no distance. Peer groups can seem remote, and opportunities for expression outside of the home can seem few and far between - both of which youth desperately need for their growth and mental health.

We can support families by creating psychological space in their homes and in their environments. Even though we can’t be together, we can, if we really try, create a release valve for the pressure building up inside the home.

Congregations can support families and create psychological space within relationships by:

  • Giving children and youth something to look forward to in the near future. Time seems endless and meaningless when every day is the same. Giving children and youth something to look forward to at some point in the week or month can create a sense of delight, anticipation, and joy which, in turn, supports their socio-emotional development. You could post a set of trivia questions on Tuesday and answer them during the worship service on Sunday. You could make a “website bingo card” where children and you can find hidden graphics on your website and email it in for a prize which is sent later. You could upload a puppet show, story, or silly song to YouTube every other Friday. You could send a care package in the mail. You could have a peer meeting on Zoom once per week. There are so many creative ways to generate a sense of excitement and anticipation while strengthening the bonds of your community.
  • Offering relationships outside of the family, both with peers and other groups. Virtual game nights, poetry slams, reading groups, or simple Zoom hang outs all foster a sense of relationship with others while relieving the pressure on families. There doesn’t even need to be any programming; just giving children and youth the opportunity to see one another for a short time helps them feel as if they are staying connected. If you have the capacity for mentors, these relationships can also be immeasurably beneficial during this time. If you have a minister or if you ARE a minister, be sure to offer pastoral care and support to people of all ages, especially teens. Use what might be available to you: do some older children and youth play Minecraft, Fortnite, Animal Crossing, or other online games? Encourage them to connect and hang out in other virtual spaces as well.
  • Sharing narrative to help process these experiences. Storytelling is the most powerful tool in our congregations to help make meaning and meaningful connections. Engage in group story telling about this time in the congregation’s lives. Ask families how they are living their UU values at home, and have them share with one another. Tell stories of resilience and tender care during worship services, small groups, and religious education times if you are meeting online. Ask youth to be historians and journalists during this time, chronicling the lives of the members. Ask them to share their own stories. Ask for illustrators and photos. Design pen pals and send mail to children and youth. A sense of shared narrative will help strengthen relationships in your community, build UU Identity, and create a sense of creative purpose for those involved.
  • Creating opportunities for children and youth to participate virtually in whatever programs you are still doing. Speaking of creative purpose, don’t leave out children and youth when involving your community in your community rituals and offerings. Ask them for their art talent, their music talent, their reading and writing skills. Give them opportunities to practice their leadership and to display their passions in the community, wherever that may be possible. Create an online art gallery. Have a video poetry slam. Have a joke-telling contest. Ask youth to lead small groups and to teach younger children. Involve them in every way possible.
  • Giving children and youth something to do and be a part of that does not involve their families. Create “appropriate secrets” - psychological spaces that children and youth can hold on to that do NOT need to be talked about with their parents. Find tiny things that the children and youth could know and be a part of which build community between them while simultaneously creating psychological space between family members. Planning surprises for others is a fun way to accomplish this goal. Send thank you notes to the staff and board. Make gifts for others in the congregation. Hold an online surprise birthday party for everyone born this month and play silly games. Encourage children and youth to keep journals, and encourage parents not to look at them.

These five techniques can help your community grow in strength as well as provide much needed relief to caregivers during this very stressful time. In some cases, it could mean the difference between a manageable week and a terrible one.

And one final note: If holding relationships with your children and youth is a problem for you right now, then it was a problem for you before the pandemic ever happened. You might not have felt it so acutely because there was a common space to occupy. In the absence of that space, you can notice the ways in which the relationship is not held together. Your #1 aim should ALWAYS be to foster the relationship between children and youth and the congregation, and you can do these things when you aren’t in a pandemic. They just seem very important now that we can’t be physically together, and attendance cannot give the appearance of attention. Think about the difference between your close friends and your acquaintances. You miss your friends right now, but you don’t worry they aren’t your friends anymore. That’s because you’ve put in the work to build the relationship. Your acquaintances, on the other hand, might begin to drift away. People you casually saw at work or the gym don’t occupy the same space or make appearances in your life, and depending on the changes that occur during the pandemic, you may never see them again. That’s because there is no foundation to that relationship beyond habit and proximity. If we want to maintain and foster connections with our children and youth, we must put in the work toward building an actual relationship with them. During the pandemic and after. Now and always.

Resources to help you support families with children and youth during the pandemic: