Pandemic Parenting and Differentiation of Self

  • August 05, 2020
  • Jane Adams, MS

My daughter-in-law recently called me after her school district’s superintendent announced tentative reopening plans for the upcoming school year. Like parents the world over, she and my son are torn among the varied options to provide a safe school reentry for their children in light of the pandemic. Parents in their district have been given a firm deadline to inform the school of their choice.

As parents, we are all hardwired to protect our children in the face of danger. It’s not surprising that my son and daughter-in-law are struggling with such complicated decisions about their children’s education and wellbeing. Are in-person classes really most effective in helping children learn? And if so, does the danger to health override this “Cadillac plan” for academic growth? If my grandchildren stay at home this fall, how will their parents handle childcare? They’re finding it quite challenging to address and prioritize all these conflicting circumstances.

Healthy growth and development are universally challenging for school age children as they navigate academic and social tasks that require increasing levels of emotional maturity and independence. If children are to eventually “lift off” into adulthood, parents must have enough self-confidence to provide the right amount of protection and guidance without overwhelming their children’s drive toward independence and maturity. This balance that is so essential to effective parenting is neatly captured by Bowen theory’s concept of differentiation. Well differentiated parents separate emotional feelings (such as fear for their children’s safety) from their realistic beliefs and thoughtfully formed principles as they make decisions. When parents can do this consistently, their children learn to do likewise.

The developmental arc of separation, individuation, and ultimately achieving a solid level of differentiation is a complicated and challenging process for parents and children in the best of times. Some parents and children will employ life-long strategies of distancing or lack of engagement to cope with family stress. Other parents, when anxious about their child, may swoop in and overfunction, doing far more for their child than she actually needs. When this is the case, some children may react without pushback, and as a result, become less capable and independent. Other children may react by rebelling in a poorly crafted attempt to “grow up” and be independent. Bowen theory suggests that better differentiated families will be more grounded in reality about the risks and effects of the pandemic and thus more able to avoid extremes of overprotection and laissez-faire in navigating school reentry choices.

To address so much “white noise” and anxiety-driven opinion about what is the absolute best and safest solution for school reentry, accepting that there is no risk-free or perfect answer to this troubling question can be a useful way to start. If we can remain flexible enough to let go of that expectation, we will be in a calmer space to collect facts from reliable sources and devise clear strategies that work best for our families’ individual situations. This will in turn keep family relationships more relaxed and open enough for our children to navigate the coming school year’s changes and challenges without undue stress. Happily, children are typically far more resilient than we adults are, or give them credit for.

So as my son and daughter-in-law search for strategies that take into account the physical health of their children, their social and emotional wellbeing, and the practical issues of childcare, they’ll have many issues to balance. They’ll find a safe and realistic path forward if they can identify the relevant facts, appraise their relevant feelings, and use well thought out principles in making their decision. And as a parent and grandparent, I can help them most by responding calmly to their concerns and showing confidence in their decision-making.

I’m interested to hear how others are thinking about the parenting challenges of this time and the ways you are finding to cope. We can learn from each other’s ideas!

Jane Adams, MS – Child Development
WPFC Faculty Member

2 Replies to “Pandemic Parenting and Differentiation of Self”

  1. Thanks for your take on this thorny dilemma, Jane. That calm self-confidence you describe as an optimal mindset for parents and grandparents can be hard to muster these days. Sometimes I’ve operated by the “fake it til you make it” principle, believing that if I can respond in a calm, apparently self-confident manner to some parenting challenge, it will help me grow into that attitude more authentically. Or sometimes when confronted with an anxious child’s quandary – whether that child was still living in my household or approaching me as an adult – I’ve simply acknowledged my own anxiety and lack of “the right answer.” A guideline that I still work to embody after many years of studying Bowen theory is to avoid doing for my child what he/she could do for self. This involves eschewing the role of “the one who knows what to do” – as seductive as that role can be.

    1. The role of “the one who knows what to do” is definitely a seductive one. The phrase, “I’m doing this for your own good,” comes to mind. The question here is whose “good” is it actually for. I think one of the biggest parenting challenges to sort out when stress is high, is whose best interest is being served by our words and actions. If we can remain calm, we will have a better chance of separating our own fears and wishes from those of our child.

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