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How can families weather the corona crisis?

Suddenly everyone is at home, but this is not a holiday – far from it. Because work and school are ‘simply’ carrying on remotely. How can parents and children keep a cool head? Lenneke Alink, Professor of Forensic Family Studies, gives her advice.

As Scientific Director of the Institute of Education and Child Studies, Alink leads research into families in crisis situations.

Lennek Alink, Professor of Forensic Family Studies.

What can be the effect of the corona crisis on families?

‘The impact is huge. Parents are having to look after their children all day, supervise their schoolwork, usually do their own work – oh, and run the household too. And there are many worries about coronavirus and we have no idea how long it will all take. It can also be intense for children: not going to school, much less contact with their peers and teachers, no sport or other extracurricular activities… All in all, this can put enormous pressure on families and the intrafamily relationships.’

‘Accept of yourself and your children that things won’t be exactly how you want them to be.’

How can parents make the best of things?

‘Parenting, schoolwork and your own work all at home can’t all be done at the usual level and intensity. Don’t expect it of yourself. Introducing some structure such as a daily routine can help reduce stress. Uncertainty is a key factor in stress, so the more uncertainty you can remove in these already uncertain times, the better. Seek out the support of others, other parents or colleagues, for instance. Fortunately, there are many virtual ways to do this. It helps to share experiences and tips.’

What is your advice for children?

‘It’s important that they can exert some influence in this uncertain situation, so let them come up with ideas on how to structure the day, and reach agreements on this together. Some children have more difficulty with the new situation than others and can express this in difficult or rebellious behaviour. Accept of yourself and your children that things won’t be exactly how you want them to be.’

You conduct research into stress in families with problems. What are your main findings?

‘Stress in parents is often associated with parenting problems. Parents with higher physiological stress levels are at greater risk of child maltreatment, for instance. We also found that the relationship between stress and parenting problems is explained in part by stressed parents being more likely to interpret their child’s behaviour negatively. Of course, this doesn’t mean that stress always causes parenting problems or child maltreatment, but stress factors can make parenting more difficult.

‘Other research has shown that parenting problems are more prevalent in chaotic families and that children in these families are more likely to exhibit difficult behaviour, for example. But we don’t yet know whether these problems actually are caused by this chaos. That is what we are researching now.’

Which families are particularly vulnerable at the moment?

‘We see that it is often an accumulation of problems that makes parenting more difficult. A crisis such as this will mainly have a negative effect on families where other things are at play, such as financial worries, parents who have separated, families that have little support or parents who themselves have psychiatric problems.’

How are you managing to combine work and family?

‘I’ve got a five-year-old son and he thinks it’s cool to go to school at home. We’re trying to stick to the school routine as much as possible. My son has made cards of activities that he likes doing and we hang them up on a line every day. He gets to decide on the order. Our schedule at home includes regular school things such as lunch and outdoor play. I’m with him for half of the day and I try to keep up with my mail at the same time. The other half of the day I do my ‘real’ work, for instance, lots of online meetings that are actually going quite well. I do the urgent jobs that I haven't managed to do in the daytime in the evening.’

One last question: do you have any tips for employers?

‘I hope that employers appreciate that they can’t expect their staff with children at home to perform at the same level as usual. Communicate that explicitly and discuss with your staff how they can do their work as well as possible given the circumstances.’

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