There are good reasons you are experiencing difficulties with parenting right now.
The demands of parenting during this global pandemic are huge. We are confined to our homes. We have to "home school" our children. We have to work. We have to help support our children with their own feelings of anxiety, fear, and frustration. At a time when our children may have more misbehavior, greater needs, and less ability to regulate themselves, we have less time, less energy, and less patience. We have nowhere to go to take a break, and less time to get away. We have financial stressors. And of course we have our own stress, sadness, and anxiety about what is happening in the world.
We need a realistic interpretation of what is going on.
This is not home-school. This is not vacation. This is not an extended summer break. This is a global pandemic, which is stressful, scary, and is changing our lives in major ways. That means that all our high expectations for ourselves as parents and for our children, may need to be extremely flexible right now.
Children are being affected by this - and it may show in strange ways.
Even if your child seems oblivious to COVID19, they know something is happening. Children can sense that life has changed, and they know when the adults in their lives are under stress. Children who are old enough to understand the coronavirus may still have difficulty knowing or talking about what worries them. We are noticing an increase in nightmares, anxiety and phobias (fears), sleep problems, and misbehavior in children right now. Sometimes these things appear to be unrelated to the pandemic, but it is likely that any major changes in your child's mood, behavior, or sleep could be related to the underlying stress they feel.
One of the most important things for children right now is connection.
In normal life, our children have support and connection from many people in the community: teachers, friends, friend's parents, bus drivers, coaches, principals, piano teachers, instructors, extended family, and many others. In times of stress, connection with others calms children, helps them to process their feelings, and helps them to self-regulate. At a time when children need the MOST connection, they are separated from a huge part of their social support system. This means our children need even more support from us right now.
At the same time, parents are being pulled in a thousand directions, and are finding it challenging to give children the increased attention they need. If you have a household in which all adults present are working from home - you have a particularly challenging situation. Although there is no one solution that will fit every family, here are some suggestions to help give your children the connection they so desperately need during this time:
- Extend tuck-in time. Read to your children, cuddle with them, and give them space to talk about how they are doing. Follow their lead. Let this be a time where your attention is fully on them.
- Have dedicated "special time" with your child. It is not realistic to spend 8 hours a day doing this, but try to set aside time each day where you and your child do something fun together. Let your child lead as much as possible. Focus on them. Put your phone away. Being 100% present with your child, even for a short time, can have a huge impact.
- Give "gifts" throughout the day: Throughout the day, make an effort to give your child little "gifts" such as hugs, words of encouragement, acknowledgement of how hard things are, praise, laughs, or back-rubs.
Don't forget to validate.
As parents, we want to make things better for our kids. However, there are times we can't. Validating feelings simply means acknowledging how our children are feeling and providing understanding and support (e.g., "I can see you are really frustrated right now. This is a hard time. We are all feeling a little frustrated at times."). Children are missing events that are extremely important to them, such as birthday parties, sleepovers, get-togethers, school, vacations, etc. They are separated from loved ones. They are grieving the loss of normal life. We can't fix this for them, but we can use this opportunity to teach our children how to sit with difficult feelings, accept them, and eventually move on.
Here are some examples of validating statements:
- "I know you are really sad that you can't have a birthday party this year. You were really looking forward to that. It's OK to feel sad. We will do our best to have a fun day, and next year we will do a party."
- "It has been really hard being separated from your grandparents. I know you miss them. It's very hard to be separated from people we love. Should we write them a nice letter?"
- "I can see you are getting really annoyed with your brother. It's hard being around each other all the time, and when we are together all the time it's easier to be annoyed. It's OK to let me know you need some time to yourself. I will try to help you get that."
- "I can tell you are not your normal self today. You are getting really frustrated and having trouble controlling your behavior. Sometimes that happens when we are under a lot of stress. This is a really hard time because our lives have changed a lot. Some kids are also feeling worried, bored, and stressed. Those big feelings can make it harder to control our behavior. Let's read a book together to try and help calm down."
Help teach children how to be flexible and to manage uncertainty.
It is very hard to know what to tell children about the future. How do we answer questions like "when can I see my friends again?" "What are we doing this summer?" "Will I be able to have my birthday this year?" It is OK to be honest with children that we don't know how things are going to go over the next few months. Let them know that everyone is working together to figure out what is best for our whole community, and that we are going to start doing these things again as soon as it is safe for the community. Let them know it will not last forever, but that we are all learning as we go, and it may take time to figure out what the next best step it. Avoid making promises you may not be able to keep.
Teach children how to be flexible and accept things we cannot control. This will be a valuable life skill.
Help children accept and manage boredom.
Most of us are not going to be able to avoid feelings of boredom. Nor should we. Being bored is a normal emotion. Being bored can help spur creativity, imagination, and problem solving. Children are going to feel bored, and that is OK. In this digital age, we are used to filling every second of time with something engaging. However, teaching our brain how to slow down, be in the moment, and live without constant stimulation is a valuable skill.
That being said - we have to teach kids how to manage boredom. Here are some ideas to help:
- Have an "idea jar": Help your children make a list of activities they can do when they are bored, such as puzzles, writing stories, drawing, active play, legos, coloring, imaginative play, activity books, etc. Create a poster for the wall, or write each idea on a popsicle stick and place all the sticks in a jar. When your child is bored, encourage them to look at the list (or pull out a popsicle stick) and choose an activity.
- Reward children for times they are able to handle boredom effectively (e.g., times they are able to choose an activity to do; times they try new things; times they help to engage a sibling in an activity). Rewards may be positive praise (e.g., "I love how you went to the idea jar when you were getting bored"), a point or pom-pom that is part of your larger behavior system, or a special treat.
- If your child is old enough, work with them to come up with a general structure for their day. This may include a time set aside for school work, meals, fee play, screen time, etc. Your child can make a poster of the schedule, or set timers on Alexa (or other device) to remind them when to begin a new part of the day.
- Set times throughout the day for children to look forward to. Especially if parents are working and children are entertaining themselves for long periods of time, try to set aside scheduled times that parents will engage with children in special tasks (e.g., a mid-day walk; a picnic over lunch; movie night; etc). Children may be better able to entertain themselves while you are working if they have special time with you to look forward to. (note: schedules will likely need to be flexible with younger kids, as they are less able to anticipate future rewards. For younger children, be attuned to them and take breaks as needed).
Working from home with kids is not normal, not ideal, and no one's fault.
For parents working from home, with no childcare, this is a particularly challenging time. Both kids and parents need to understand that the current situation is not normal, not ideal, and no one's fault. I often work with parents and children to increase their understanding of how hard this is for each other. Kids don't want to hang out at work with their parents. It is boring, they can't get attention, and they don't like to feel like a disruption or nuisance. At the same time, parents don't usually take kids to work because they will be distracted, will want to pay attention to their kids, and will be stressed about not getting work done. Unfortunately, this is the only option for many families right now. It's good for parents to keep in mind that kids know they are bothersome, and they don't like feeling that way. Help kids to understand it is not their fault that this is happening, and that it is hard for everyone. Try to praise kids for times they are able to occupy themselves so you can work. Schedule breaks throughout the day (if possible) to spend time focused on the kids. Set timers or give children specific times you will, and will not, be available. Praise kids for their flexibility when this changes unexpectedly.
Make intentional decisions about screen time.
Decisions about screen time will depend on your specific family and circumstances. Although we generally recommend limiting screen time for optimal development, it is also important to keep in mind this is not a "normal" circumstance. It may be better to increase screen time in order to give parents a chance to work (and spend time with kids later), and allow children low-stress learning opportunities. Families that are usually strict with screen time may need to be more flexible. Families that usually have few restrictions on screen time may need a little more structure. We do recommend a combination of screen time and other play, learning, physical, creative, and social activities throughout the day. We also recommend no screen time at least an hour before bedtime, so as to avoid sleep problems. Also, it matters WHAT your children are doing on their screens. There is a difference between watching educational videos about space on youtube versus watching other people play video games. Give kids options for their screen time that you are OK with. You can also let kids earn screen time by completing their work, chores, or other tasks.
Siblings will fight - more than usual.
This one may not surprise anyone. Being stuck at home with a sibling 24 hours a day for months is bound to increase sibling rivalry. If possible, give kids some time and space to themselves. It may also help to have "special days" on weekends, when each child gets to do something with one parent/caregiver. Use sibling rivalry as a chance to teach children effective communication skills, like how to calm down and talk about their feelings, ask for their needs to be met, and compromise. Praise children for positive or prosocial behaviors (e.g., helping a sibling, talking in a calm voice to let a sibling know what they need, or involving a sibling in play).
Don't mess with sleep.
Although flexibility is key right now, bedtime is not something you want to be flexible with. Lack of sleep can make everything else harder - both for our kids and for us. Everyone in the family needs to get enough sleep, now more than ever. Try to have a consistent bedtime that does not fluctuate more than about 30 minutes (including on weekends), and try to get up around the same time each day. This means if your child's bedtime is 8:00pm, avoid letting them stay up past 8:30. Lack of sleep in children can cause irritability, attention problems, behavioral problems, and lack of motivation. Children ages 3-6 need about 10-12 hours of sleep per night, and children 7-12 need about 10-11 hours. This will vary a bit between children, and your pediatrician can provide more specific recommendations for you. Don't forget, you should limit any screen time at least 1 hour before bed for all ages.
Your sleep is important too!
It will benefit both you AND your kids if you are well-rested. Adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night, and you should follow the above guidelines as well.
Use your free time (as little as you may have) very, very wisely.
It's hard to find time for our own activities - activities that may typically help us to manage stress, stay energized, and recharge. There is so little time for us as parents these days, that we need to make sure we use our time wisely. If you can carve out a free hour, really consider how you want to use it. While it may be tempting to binge watch a new show, or get lost in social media, think about whether these things actually help you to recharge. Think about the activities that help to improve your mood and increase your energy level (e.g., cooking, baking, running, talking to a friend, painting, reading, walking, etc.) and choose THOSE instead. We don't have enough free time these days to waste it.
Most of all, have COMPASSION for yourself. This is a really difficult time to be a parent. And have compassion for your kids - because it's hard to be a kid right now, too.
Please note: this article was a joint effort of the child and adolescent therapists at WellSpring Child and Family Psychology, PC.