Liberty University

04/07/2020 | News release | Distributed by Public on 04/07/2020 16:18

Sociology professor provides tips for managing new family dynamics during COVID-19

April 7, 2020 : By Garold Smith/Liberty University News Service

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many college students are now at home taking online courses, children have transitioned to homebased education, and some parents are also working from home. As many families are reunited in this new paradigm, how they function in this crisis is a matter of managing shifting roles and applying basic rules of social wisdom.

Dr. John S. Knox, associate professor of psychology in Liberty University's School of Behavioral Sciences, said the family is the most important and influential socializing force because it is parents usually who are expected to teach their children moral codes, social parameters, and even political ideas.

He said as more families are being brought together as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, the immediate effect is a shifting of roles and expectations of each family member, evolving into a new family dynamic.

While at school, the child's role was 'student,' but now that they are at home, their role may evolve backward to also include 'child.' For the parents, who suddenly have a child at home full time, their primary role as 'parent' may also now include the role of 'teacher.'

Knox said these new dynamics may create some tension - called role strain - which happens when individuals are placed into roles that they do not normally play. Role conflict occurs as someone tries to take on two or more roles with competing expectations, like working parents trying to balance full-time employment with the needs of their children who are suddenly at home and requiring adult supervision.

'Role exit,' the term for the dynamic that Knox said will likely develop toward the end of the virus, is when people have grown tired of the situation and are ready to move on. College students especially are going to be at this stage.

'The normal thing with students is to get out and learn who you are and be an independent adult, but suddenly they are stuck at home in a very dependent position,' said Knox.

But as more family members assume their familial roles and responsibilities, parents will have more opportunity to model good behaviors.

'Children learn through modeling and observation, and with so many families living together for longer periods once again, parents have the chance to teach their children how to respond to something like this virus,' Knox said. 'Especially with younger children, seeing how their parents deal with this crisis will teach them how to deal with a crisis in the future.'

Balancing competing messages and teaching family members how to build their own perspective on a crisis can lead to another learning opportunity. Talking about the politicization of the virus versus its real dangers, caution and care versus overreaction and phobia, and family care versus hoarding are valuable lessons for parents to share with children.

Knox believes that decisions should be made based upon the three principles of compassion, contextualization, and Christian ethics.

Compassion is having an understanding of the emotions and motivations behind people's reactions during times of crisis and a personal vow not to respond in-kind.

'No matter how crabby people are, I try to not repay evil for evil,' said Knox.

Contextualization, like compassion, is having a sense of what is going on, thinking analytically, truthfully and logically about the situation and responding accordingly. Knox said this is not just about being emotional, but about asking, 'Why is this happening, what can we do, and what's a productive way to respond to this?'

Having a Christian ethic is about tying together compassion and contextualization and being merciful, kind, and sacrificial while also being honest, moral, and still holding people accountable in a just, fair, and redeeming way.

'In the Christian ethic, the Biblical precedent is that you take care of your family, but you also take care of their moral health by being generous to others, by sharing,' he said.

Knox believes that by consciously practicing the three principles, families and communities should be able to manage through most crises.

Helping his own students manage the crisis is his primary role as a professor, so Knox is working to help them function now that residential classes have been moved to an online format.

Knox has made his students' experience a bit more engaging by using Doodly, an online whiteboard animation tool. The animations are a companion to his lectures, in which he also uses the software Top Hat, Blackboard, and Microsoft Teams to interact and discuss topics. He said the feedback from his students has been positive.

In one of his classes, students are required to complete a series of three short surveys over the course of the semester. Instead of surveying people on and around Liberty's campus, which they would normally do, students will conduct their last survey, on religion, in their own homes and communities.

Knox sees this as a unique opportunity.

'Think about it: students are going to be able to talk to their parents or their siblings or their grandparents or possibly their neighbors about God and faith. And in the midst of everything that is going on with this virus, God still works all things for good.'