Whether you have a 1-month old, 1-year old, or 10-year old, chances are you are currently parenting very differently than you were mere weeks ago before schools were closed, events were cancelled, and you were asked to practice social distancing.
Parenting under a pandemic is uncharted territory for pretty much all of us. It’s not like a “snow day,” or “summer break” where you can fill your days with park playdates, trips to the pool, or overnights at Grandma’s. There is also the emotional stress of worrying about friends and family members who may be ill or working on the front lines of the healthcare system—all this puts pressure on the family unit.
Before you think about caring for your children, it is important during this time to be gentle with yourself. We’ve never done this before, and there are a lot of grown up worries to attend to. It is no small feat to set those aside and create a positive, fun learning environment for your children, quality time together, and mitigate the stress of the state of the world. Give yourself a high five for reading on, for continuing to hold your positive parenting as a high priority.
Reassure your children that your family is your top priority.
There are a lot of things right now requiring your attention: following the news; caring for the home; possibly working from home; and helping your young children with distance learning. It’s a lot to juggle. Keep your sight on what’s most important right now: making your children feel safe and loved. For your older children who have concerns about the spread of Covid-19 or are more sensitive to change or prone to worry, you can use gentle phrases like: “I’m your parent, it’s my job to keep you safe and we are doing everything we can.”
Maintain everyday family routines.
In the first weeks of quarantine, you may have allowed your family to slack on your routine a bit, staying up late, sleeping in, not worrying about too much screen time, cookies for breakfast—“Who cares? We’re on break!”
Fast-forward a few weeks, and now the kids are getting restless and irritable (and probably so are you) and the whole family could use a bit of routine. Routines help children feel safe. Doing the same things at the same time every day helps kids know what will come next, and it is this predictable routine that provides safety. As much as possible, try to keep to your family’s usual wake-up time, mealtimes, and bedtimes.
You might also consider writing out an age-appropriate daily plan of activities for school-aged children who are at home. Get their help in planning their routine. Would they like their exercise after breakfast or after lunch? When will be their learning time? How much screen time is reasonable, and when will it happen? When kids have some control over their routine, it helps them feel a sense of importance and builds their self esteem. They develop confidence.
Have plenty of interesting things to do at home.
Busy children are less likely to be bored and disruptive. With your child, help create a list of 20 activities they can choose from when they feel “bored.” Examples could be: reading, drawing, painting, taking a walk, a neighborhood scavenger hunt, or writing a letter to a family member or friend. With preschoolers, remember that “less is more.” It’s easier for toddlers and preschoolers to make decisions when there are fewer choices in front of them. So it may be helpful to say, “Do you want to read right now or do some coloring?”
That said, we all need unscheduled time to “do nothing.” When we have quiet time to integrate our feelings and experiences, we actually become more creative and productive. Consider giving all your children time to rest during the day. Right now, emotions like anxiety and uncertainty are everywhere, and they may need time to breathe deeply and “turn off” all the stimulation.
Take notice of behavior you like.
Think about the values, skills, and behaviors you wish to encourage in your children at this very difficult time. There are many opportunities to teach your children important life skills (e.g., being caring, helpful, cooperative, getting along with siblings, taking turns). Use plenty of praise and positive attention to encourage the behavior you like. For example: “That’s a lovely card you have written to your grandmother. That’s so kind. How do you think she will feel when she gets that in the mail?”
Be available to talk.
This tip sounds easy enough in theory, but between household duties, work, meals and snacks, walking the dog, bath time, you might find yourself saying “Not right now,” or “Let’s talk about it later,” more often than you’d like.
It’s important that your children know they can come to you at any time to talk about their feelings or concerns. When possible, stop what you are doing and give your child extra attention when they want to share something with you. If you are in the middle of a work call or making dinner, just give a little extra care to your response. For example, “I really want to hear about the dream you had last night. It sounds like it was a little upsetting for you. Let’s make some time to talk about it after I am done with my phone call.”
You may be able to head off some interruptions by letting your child know when you are available. Before you make an important work call or participate in an online meeting, let them know you will be busy for the next little while. Is there anything you can do for them before the call? This can also help them anticipate their needs and plan ahead.
When you have a moment to talk with your child, validate their feelings instead of telling them how they should feel, and let them know it’s OK to feel worried, anxious or upset. Help them find a word for what they are feeling. We know that naming the feeling helps us develop the capacity for coping with it. We are teaching our kids to move through the primitive, feeling part of the brain to the cognitive, thinking part of the brain. This is where we can make decisions about ways to cope with what we are feeling.
Answer your child’s questions truthfully.
We want our children to feel safe in this world; to shelter them from harm or scary things. But eventually they will come to you with questions on topics you may not feel ready to talk about. Always answer your child’s questions truthfully and to the best of your ability. For example, you could say: “What are you hearing about BLANK?”, “What questions do you have about it?” It’s OK to say “I don’t know” and to not have all the answers. If your tween asks why she can’t go to the mall with her friends this weekend, you could start by asking what she knows about the issue (in this case, COVID-19, and shelter-in-place), then answer her in a way that is simple and easy to understand, starting from the information she shared.
For a list of articles on taking to your child about COVID-19, visit https://www.lanekids.org/coronavirus-resources/ or https://parentingnow.org/parents/parenting-through-covid-19/.
Involve your children in the family’s “Plan of Action”
Parenting through uncertain times generally means that your situation is constantly in flux. This could mean cancelled travel plans, school closures, cancelled birthday parties, and changes to your child’s regular routine. When appropriate, include your child in making “plans” for any changes that arise. For example, with in-person schooling suspended for the remainder of the school year, create a daily schedule with your child that includes grade level, and age-appropriate activities, as well as things your child likes to do, such as reading or art. Providing your child with a routine they can depend on, not only helps them feel at ease but also helps to build their confidence and life skills. By contributing to or creating the routine themselves, they can feel more in control of a situation they have little control over.
When it comes to communication, follow your child’s lead.
While it’s important to be there for your child when they have questions or want to share their worries with you, it’s also just as important to follow your child’s lead when it comes to when and how they want to communicate with you. If they don’t feel like talking at the moment, don’t press the issue. Come back to it at another time when you can both be fully engaged in the conversation.
If your child doesn’t want to talk, encourage them to express their feelings or worries in another way. Maybe they like to draw or paint. Ask, “ What color would your feeling or mood be right now?” Maybe they like to dance, or make up stories. Encourage pretend play. You may be surprised by what you learn, and it can provide a starting point for more discussion.
The most important thing for your kids to know is that you are there for them, and they can come to you with their concerns, worries and questions. By listening and providing a secure base for them, they know you are on the same team. When they feel confident you are on their side, they know you will get through these uncertain times together.
Help your child work through their feelings of uncertainty.
Parents and children alike are feeling uncertainty about a number of important matters: “When will school start again?” “Will I get sick?” “What if I lose my job?” “Will I ever see my friends again?” Our children look to us for safety and security. As parents, then, we need to demonstrate a certain level of acceptance about our feelings of worry and uncertainty to our children. It’s OK to say, “We don’t know when this will be over. I know it’s hard not to know. Just remember that we are doing the best we can to stay healthy, and that the whole world is working together to solve this problem.”
Take care of yourself the best you can.
When we are feeling anxious, stressed, or angry, the last thing on our minds is taking care of ourselves. But in order to best support our children and provide for their needs, we need to take care of our own emotional and physical health. Some useful strategies for dealing with big, uncomfortable emotions include:
- Pay attention to your emotions and your thoughts
- Give your feelings a name. When we can name feelings, it settles our emotional brain so we can then have access to our thinking brain.
- Take a break from interacting with family members if you are not in control of your emotions: “I’m feeling upset at the moment and I can’t be as calm as I would like in this conversation. So I’m going to sit in my bedroom and read for 10 minutes to give myself a chance to settle down.”
- Talk to supportive friends and family
- Take a few deep breaths
- Practice mindfulness
There are many helpful and effective ways to manage uncomfortable emotions — singing, dancing, gardening, and drawing are just a few examples. And don’t forget to stay on top of good personal hygiene, eating well, getting enough sleep, and avoiding alcohol or drugs to lessen stress.
If possible, avoid behaviors that might increase your stress, such as constantly checking for new updates about COVID-19. Choose a couple of trusted sources for information, and check them once or twice a day. If these strategies do not work, consider seeking additional support. A list of resources can be found at https://resources.parentingnow.org/.
Reach out and connect with loved ones.
Many of us are missing our family and friends as we practice shelter-in-place. Social distancing is one of the best tools we have to bring down the number of COVID-19 cases, so while we wait for restrictions to be lifted, try making greater use of phone calls and text messaging, online communication tools (video conferencing), and social media to keep in touch with family, friends, and neighbors. This could also be a great opportunity for you and your child to hand write letters and drawings to send in the mail to pen pals or family members. Your older children may also love showing you or grandma how to use the chat functions of their phone or social media.
If you are able, check in on your vulnerable neighbors or family members who might need additional support right now. Ways you could help, while still maintaining social distancing practices, are to leave groceries or a prepared meal on a neighbor’s doorstep, ask if you can help with chores that need to be done around the house or if you can pick up something for them when you go to the grocery store or pharmacy.
This article is brought to you by Parenting Now! Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com).