Dr. Mike,

Our children are having a very difficult time with the quarantine.  Our 9 year old son has ADHD, and his behaviors are much worse and his ability to focus on school work is just not there…thank goodness the school year is almost over!  It’s too bad because he was doing great academically and with his behaviors before all of this happened.  Whatever we ask of him now, if it doesn’t involve Minecraft or YouTube, he won’t do it or he’ll only do it only after a lot of fighting.  Then there’s our 18 year old daughter who is in her room ALL THE TIME.  My husband and I think that she’s addicted to social media, but when we tell her to get off of it after hours upon hours a day, she tells us, “What else am I supposed to do?”  We know that she’s upset about how her senior year of high school turned out, but she doesn’t want to talk to us about that or anything at all really.  It seems that all we do is fight with our children these days no matter what we try to enforce and it’s pretty much unbearable in the house.  My husband and I tried to put a schedule in place, but all we did was argue and fight with them so we decided that it just wasn’t worth it.  I’m sure we’re not alone, but we’d love, love, love some advice.

Upset in Loudoun

Dear Upset,

I’m not surprised that your son is struggling, and I’m also not surprised that he was doing well prior to the pandemic.  Research has shown that children with ADHD do best with structure and a schedule, and his daily routine was in place and predictable before in ways that it’s not now.  That, along with all the changes and uncertainties with COVID-19, is likely too much for him to handle, so he’s retreating into what feels good.  Your daughter, although older, is likely doing the same for herself – there’s comfort in social media for her, and it provides her with an escape from the upsetting every day realities of not seeing her friends, not finishing up senior year the way she had wanted, etc.

Certainly, there’s loss and anxiety for your children, but allowing your current dynamic to continue is not a good idea.  You write that your children don’t want to follow a schedule, but as parents you are in charge and as long as your schedule and expectations are reasonable you need to take control of the situation.  I would start by having a family meeting to discuss your concerns as you see them as parents in a loving but firm way; you can supportively talk to them about how difficult this has been – and continues to be — and how you plan to improve things for you all as a family.  In terms of getting them onboard, technology is important to both of your children, so I would let them know that they are only allowed to use technology for pleasure after their responsibilities are completed.  You may have a few rough hours or even a few rough days with that new ground rule, but again, as long as your expectations are reasonable they should want to manage them well enough so that they can earn their technology as a privilege.  At 11 and 18 their schedules (and your expectations of them) will be different, but in my opinion, the schedule should support a balanced day where there’s academic time, technology time, movement/athletic time and family time.

More specifically, at 11, I recommend breaking up your son’s time into a morning, day time and evening schedule.  You can write down time specific tasks that he can check off as he goes.  He’ll likely need your presence and guidance in order to succeed at first.  For your daughter, as a teenager, she will likely prefer a schedule that gives her a sense of freedom and autonomy.   So, rather than giving her time specific tasks, I recommend that you instead give her a time frame to complete things.  Having a schedule, even a loose one for you children, will give them a road map for their day, and getting things done should begin to feel good.

Lastly, yes you are not alone, and many of us are having difficulty managing the quarantine, as well as the manifold other ways in which COVID-19 has negatively impacted our lives.  Thus, I also recommend that you try to keep things in perspective.  The world is upside down right now and it’s been that way since mid-March.  So, while a schedule and structure is very important for our children, equally important now is our loving presence and availability to them.

Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice. He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America and several other outlets. He can be reached at 703 723-2999, and is located at 44095 Pipeline Plaza, Suite 240, Ashburn, VA 20147.