The Challenge of Sheltered-In Families

How Catholic parents can convert this period of forced family lockdowns into an opportunity to build up their children’s faith and to concentrate on the really important things in life.

The Erickson family  — (L-R), Xavier, Walt (holding Lucy), Liz, Ally, Eve Marie, Ezekiel and Isabella Grace  — have experienced benefits of stay-at-home life.
The Erickson family — (L-R), Xavier, Walt (holding Lucy), Liz, Ally, Eve Marie, Ezekiel and Isabella Grace — have experienced benefits of stay-at-home life. (photo: Courtesy of the Erickson family)

As coronavirus sheltering-in has stretched into weeks, Catholic families are recognizing the blessing and the bane of forced togetherness.

For many, said Dr. Ray Guarendi, Catholic psychologist and author, this has been a time of renewal and deepening of family relationships.

“They’re realizing they were into a go-go, get-get, do-do lifestyle … and now they can’t have that lifestyle, and they’re finding out that a slower pace can offer more,” he said. “Hopefully, after all this is over, they will eliminate some of the stuff that had their lives on fast-forward.”

Still, for others, the isolation, intensive togetherness and removal of escapes like sports and bars has spawned an increase in divorce, domestic violence, child abuse and suicide.

“Whenever there is a decision made for social or political reasons,” Guarendi said, “it affects a broad number of people. The intent is to bring good out of the decision, but there is a need to consider the unintended results. I think there are going to be all kinds of social pathologies that will increase because of this, and I would hope the people making those decisions would take that into account. I wonder about the divorce rate. I wonder about the suicide rate, the addiction rate.”

For Catholic families like Walt and Liz Erickson and their six children, however, living under Ohio’s stay-at-home order since March 23 has had some benefits.

“It has been nice to slow down and put family more front and center,” Liz said. Although the Ericksons miss getting together with friends and other family, they said sheltering-in has allowed them to better keep up with their children’s home schooling and has given them more time to pray as a couple and as a family.

“When you take everything off the table,” Walt said, “it’s amazing how much time you have to do the most important things.”


How to Discipline

In addition, he said working from home offered him new insight into one of his children. Although he had been aware of that child’s tendency to be bossy, being home during the day gave him an up-close view.

“Working upstairs, I’m hearing everything going on, and I’m realizing … she’s just consistently, nonstop, all the time telling my other children what to do, what not to do,” Walt said. “Even though I knew that was her demeanor and those are things we’ve worked on, I realized I’ve got to step in and end this now.”

He and his daughter talked, prayed and made some changes, such as whom she was sharing her room with, how she could pray about the situation and how she could better see Christ in her siblings.

“And we’ve noticed a difference,” he said. “That was two weeks ago, and we’ve been able to continuously, lovingly reinforce it every single day. … There has just been more joy, and we’re seeing the kids playing together better.”

That said, the Ericksons said they are aware that other families are struggling with being home with their children.

“Sadly,” Walt said, “there are some great moms and dads who have great kids that were just petrified at the thought that they had to have their kids home all day.”

Guarendi said the forced intimacy of stay-at-home orders can shine a light on parents’ discipline skills, creating a recipe for aggravation.

“If you have roughly two to three hours together on weekdays because your kids are at school and activities, it’s not so obvious,” he said, “but when you’re all there every day, frustration can kind of build, because you’re finding out maybe you need to be more consistent and firm.”

During such a time as this, Guarendi said the temptation for parents is to “screen babysit” by consigning children to a television or computer.

“Just don’t do it. It’s real simple. Don’t do it.” He said a natural byproduct of less screen time is more people time.

“That’s really what you want, but it’s up to the big person to take the lead,” Guarendi said. “You can’t look at the little person and say, ‘Why are they like this? Why are they irritating me?’ The question is, ‘Why am I getting so irritated?’ Look at yourself, not the kids driving you crazy.”


‘Mass Impact’

Greg Schlueter, a father of six who leads a family-focused apostolate called Mass Impact, said within a week of the coronavirus sheltering-in restrictions, he began noticing posts on social media indicating that many Catholic moms were pulling their hair out over having their kids at home.

Nonetheless, he sees the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity for families to more fully and truly recognize and rely upon Christ.

“He’s wanting us to rediscover that the ultimate project of formation for eternal life is not on the president, pope, pastors, priests or principals,” Schlueter said. “It’s on us parents. We have no greater purpose, no greater pursuit, no greater measure of our success on this earth.”

Through its “I Love My Family” program, Mass Impact encourages families to commit to weekly times of talking and praying over the Sunday Mass readings, using a “Live IT Gathering Guide,” which can be downloaded free online. The guide provides an outline with opening and closing prayers and questions designed to deepen family connections. During the coronavirus sheltering-in, “I Love My Family” also has been airing an interactive “Parental Pow-Wow” on Facebook and YouTube.

Bret and Ellen Huntebrinker, who use the Live IT guide for their weekly reflection, said although sheltering-in has been challenging for them and their five children, they’ve had support from a strong faith community. Also, their time of praying and talking about the Mass readings has helped their communication as a family and has given them opportunities to affirm and apologize to one another, if necessary, as they share their victories and challenges of the week.

Through doing the reflection, Ellen said she and Bret also have been able to have more honest conversations with their children: “Just helping them understand what we’re feeling — like, ‘I’m feeling frustrated’ — and sharing that with them.”

Bret added that during the family reflection, each person also says what he or she is going to work on for the next week. “I’ve been trying more intentionally to try to remind the kids of what they chose — like not arguing with Mom or Dad or a brother or sister, or sharing toys.”


Acts of Faith and Love

The Huntebrinkers advise families who are struggling with enhanced togetherness during the stay-at-home orders to do something to center on Christ, such as taking time to reflect as a family on a verse from the Bible.

“Make it small and make it your own within your family,” Ellen said. “We’re all in the same boat, as far as dealing with COVID-19. It’s not just one family isolated. Try to find a way you can make the faith your own, and let your kids see that.”

Liz Erickson added she would tell parents who are chafing under the sheltering-in restrictions, “Start praying together, and just love on your kids. Give hugs; give kisses. They’re gifts from God and treat them that way. It’s your job to get them and your spouse to heaven.”

Although the coronavirus can be seen as a civilizational calamity, Schlueter said, it can also be viewed as an occasion for families to become what they are called to be.

“As ‘corona’ means ‘crown,’ we’ve embraced this as an opportunity to be more fully under the crown of Jesus Christ, to be instruments of him, accomplishing the same for the world. At the heart, no one said it more emphatically than Pope St. John Paul II: ‘The future of humanity passes by way of the family,’ and ‘Family, become what you are.’

Register correspondent Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.