Texas Tech University

Professor Explains Importance of Parent-Child Communication During COVID-19

McKenzi Morris

April 3, 2020

Narissra Punyanunt-Carter

Narissra Punyanunt-Carter provides tips and items for families to consider while spending more time at home together.

As cases of COVID-19 increase across the country, daily life in the U.S. has been altered for most people. Cities, counties and states are releasing shelter-in-place orders, causing many students to shift their studies online and parents to work remotely. With this, families are spending more time at home together than they might have previously.

One of those families includes Narissra Punyanunt-Carter, an associate professor and assistant dean for international affairs in Texas Tech University's College of Media & Communication, and her children. Through her research on family and parent-child communication, Punyanunt-Carter understands communication can sometimes be difficult during normal times, and that can be even more challenging now.

Understanding how a child best communicates is key as families spend increased amounts of time in close quarters during the pandemic, especially for the parents now serving as their child's teacher at home. To do this, Punyanunt-Carter said parents need to know how age, gender and family dynamics play a role in communication patterns.

This information can help ease any tension between parents and their children that may arise, create a smooth transition for everyone working and learning from home and, hopefully, bring families closer together.

What is the best way for parents to communicate with their child about the coronavirus?
First, ask your child what they already know about coronavirus. Ask them if they have any questions about it. It is important to understand what they have heard or what they are feeling to address their concerns appropriately. Offer your child reassurance, trust and honesty about their concerns that is age appropriate. Provide action steps for how your family is going to deal with the coronavirus. Children want to be able to talk to you about their concerns. They want to know they are being heard and you care, and they want to know you are following steps to keep the family safe.

How can parents and children ensure they are communicating effectively while at home for an extended period of time?
Parents should have "time for questions." Make time to have a Q&A session or make it a game. Kids can ask parents any three questions and parents can ask kids any three questions. We do this in my household before bedtime, and I am always fascinated by my kids' questions. Sometimes they ask about my childhood, and sometimes they ask questions about life. I might ask them about a friend at school or their ambitions.

Parents should create a time that will allow children to safely ask things on their minds without fear of rejection, anger or disappointment. By keeping the channels of communication open, children are more likely to ask and address their concerns. This can help make communication effective because both parents and children are listening to each other.

If your child does not like to talk, then you can always have "journal time" when your child writes about their day and their concerns. You can go back to it and address something they wrote about in their journal. You can either talk about it or write in their journal. It can be a way to practice writing, but it also allows for correspondence from you.

How do age and gender factor into the way parents talk with and to their children?
Research has shown that certain age groups and genders are more talkative with their parents. More specifically, females of all ages are more likely to communicate with their parents than males. Also, younger age children are more likely to talk to their parents than older children are. However, this is not always the case. Some families are more conversation-oriented and more likely to talk than other families. When I say conversation-oriented, what I mean is that these family members are more likely to be open to talk about all issues (e.g., politics, religion, sex). Children feel like they are being heard and not judged for just wanting to talk about their ideas and opinions.

How can parents use digital and social media to connect with their children while at home together?
Parents can use digital and social media to connect with older children who are more comfortable and familiar with communicating with this medium. You can look at old memories/photos or create new posts together. Jennifer Lopez and her family have been using TikTok to create some fun videos. So my suggestion is to use digital media to help connect you.

What tips do you have for parents and children to avoid miscommunication during this time – for example, expectations about work, daily schedules, etc.?
Kids need structure. Daily schedules can help build routines and structure. My boys and I created a daily schedule. We plan what we are going to do and accomplish each day. For instance, we might have a clean out the closet day, where we are going to devote three hours to cleaning out things we don't need or use. Hence, we know what they need to do each day.

We have a goal. This could mean an hour of reading or an hour of math problems, then an hour of game time. There are things we do together, and there are things that we do independently. Everyone has a job, and everyone helps around the house. I try to build in exercise time, academic time, creative time, fresh-air time, quiet time and free time as well.

What communication advice would you give to parents who are serving as their child's teacher?
Hang in there! I have seen so many posts from other parents that are now realizing how hard teaching is. I suggest parents find resources online. There are a ton of free websites that can offer educational, fun and free material (e.g., Prodigy, Khan Academy, Code Academy, NASA Kids Club, Nat Geo Kids, PBS Kids). Parents should also check in with their child's school district and see what guidance they offer. Several school districts have offered suggested schedules and learning activities.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
Some parents think that not talking is sometimes the best option. But please remember that as a parent, you are still communicating something when you choose not to talk about it. Children may think you are not talking about it because you don't care or you think it is trivial. It is very important to always keep the lines of communication open. It also is important to talk about things even if they seem trivial. Children need to know what you think is important and why.

Not having school right now is hard for some kids. Try to reframe your child's thinking into an adventure and make this family time important and cherished. Use this time to your advantage. A friend of mine used to say, "The best way to connect is to disconnect (from the internet, social media and technology)." I think this time to really connect with your family is a blessing. Sometimes we get so busy with work and life, we really miss out on some important moments with our family.