Welcome to Pandemic Parenting
Tantrums and meltdowns. Irritability and mood swings. Sleep disruptions and bad dreams. Clingy kids and angry tears. Bedwetting and biting. Withdrawal and isolation.
Tension mounts. Emotions run amok. Exhaustion meets us at every turn. Welcome to pandemic parenting.
Life as we knew it ended mid-March 2020, ushering in fear, confusion, and widespread panic. Yet what we initially thought would be a brief two or three week hiatus rather quickly turned into two months of a full-on shutdown of the United States. It brought with it face masks, social distancing, and sheltering-in-place. Now, as many states resume some semblance of normalcy, the struggles continue for many parents. Summer camps are on hold. Play dates and summer vacations remain uncertain. And there are no clear return to school plans.
Protecting Our Sanity While Protecting Our Children
How do we simultaneously protect our sanity while maintaining our safety, adhering to the ever-changing circumstances, and meeting the emotional and cognitive needs of our children?
The truth is . . . it’s complicated. In case you forgot, we are still operating in crisis-mode despite the re-opening. Threats to our physical health and emotional well-being persist. Our children are not oblivious to current events. By now, we’ve had conversations with them about the coronavirus. We have been reasonably honest about what we know and what we don’t know, but hopeful about the future. Nevertheless, our kids may be showing signs of stress.
Stress Symptom Breakdown by Ages
Infants (0 – 2)
- Fussy, trouble being soothed
- Trouble sleeping
- Changes in eating patterns
Preschoolers (2 – 5)
- Temper tantrums and emotional meltdowns
- Physically aggressive behaviors such as biting and hitting
- Crying spells and tearfulness
- More fearful of the dark, monsters, and/or being left alone
- Signs of regression: bedwetting after previously potty-trained, using baby talk
- Wanting to be held more often/clinginess
- Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
School-Aged (6 – 11)
- Anger and irritability, mood swings
- More arguments and fights with siblings
- Difficulty concentrating on homeschooling activities, lack of motivation to outright refusal to complete assignments
- Trouble sleeping, nightmares
- Frequent questions about COVID-19
- Worries about friends or loved ones getting sick or dying
- Recurrent physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, fatigue
Tweens and Teens (12+)
- Withdrawal, social isolation
- Moodiness and irritability
- Anger and frustration at being unable to see their friends
- Changes in sleep and appetite
- Difficulty concentrating on homeschooling activities
- Unwillingness to discuss their feelings
- Concerns about the future, frustrated by uncertainty
- Risk-taking behaviors like drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana, engaging in self-injurious acts (like cutting)
No matter how young or old our children are, many of them are experiencing emotional distress.
However, there are things we, as parents, can do. We can help guide our children through this trying time with the following tips.
Ten Tips to Help Our Children Navigate Their Feelings
- Manage your own emotional responses. We set the tone and atmosphere in our homes. Our children respond to the chaos or peace we create. If we are harried and tense, our children become harried and tense. If we are calm, reassuring, and solution-focused, then we empower our children to reflect the same. But if we find it difficult to quell our unease, then we need to intentionally adopt strategies to bolster our ability to cope with the stressors we are facing. Practice self-care daily. Schedule a teletherapy appointment or find a psychiatrist. We cannot adequately care for our children if we are not taking care ourselves. No pouring from an empty cup!
- Validate their feelings. Shakespeare’s oft-quoted statement from A Midsummer Night’s Dream fits well here: “And though she be but little, she is fierce.” Although our children are little, their emotions are real. And they are often fierce. Sometimes their emotions go from anger, sadness, and frustration to fear, worry, and impatience. Oftentimes they hurl their feelings at us like fiery darts. Other times they drip them all over the floor like a slow leak or try to squash them like a bug. No matter what, with whatever it is they bring, let the message always be, “I hear you, I see you, and I understand how difficult a time this is for you.”
- Offer frequent reassurance. There is still so much uncertainty and confusion, but what matters most is the safety and emotional well-being of our children. So when they ask question after question, answer those questions honestly but with hope embedded. Remind them of all the powerful things that the family is doing to keep themselves and others safe. This includes hand-washing, wearing masks, and physical distancing. Reassure them that most people are getting better. Thank them for contributing meaningfully to the safety of their community by being safe.
- Focus on what you do know and what you can do rather than the unknown. It’s okay to respond, “I don’t know” to those tough questions that lack answers. But it’s even more important to focus on what is known. Again, emphasize the steps that your family is taking to stay safe. Also, let them know that healthcare workers and scientists are working closely together to find effective treatments and a vaccine.
- Practice mindfulness as a family. Say no to the what-ifs and what-mights. Say no to multitasking. Focus on the here and the right now. Mindfulness is the practice of living and being in the moment. It requires awareness. It’s remaining in the present–not the past or the future. It is the radical acceptance of what is: it’s just the facts without the need for interpretation. Mindfulness leads to reduced stress, improved mood, and better sleep. This is something you can do it as a family. Perhaps you can have mindfulness sessions around mealtimes like after breakfast or before e-learning starts. You can do it in the evening as part of family wind-down. Deep breathing exercises, prayer, or mindful eating can all be very centering.
- Make space for conversation. No stuffing our feelings. This inevitably leads to implosions or explosions. Make it easy for kids to share by checking in intentionally multiple times a day. Get close, have good eye contact, remove distractions, and listen to understand rather than to respond. These measures let our children know that what they say matters and is important to us no matter how simple or complicated their words may be.
- Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. There’s a lot that’s wrong or difficult in this global pandemic, but there’s a lot that’s still good. I remember seeing a Facebook post from The Law of Attraction that really spoke to me. It said: “Not everything is canceled. Sun is not canceled. Spring is not canceled. Relationships are not canceled. Love is not canceled. Reading is not canceled. Devotion is not canceled. Music is not canceled. Imagination is not canceled. Kindness is not canceled. Conversations are not canceled. Hope is not canceled.” Redirect your energy to all the wonderful things that still exist like your health, the warmth of the sun, colorful blooms, FaceTime and Zoom calls, ice cream, mangoes, Netflix, and online shopping. Gratitude sparks joyfulness.
- Maintain social connectedness. Yes, we are expected to limit close contact by staying at least six feet apart from others, a practice I prefer to refer to as physical distancing. Physical distancing helps reduce spread of COVID-19, but social distancing in the purest sense leads to isolation and loneliness. Remain physically distant, but by all means, allow your children to connect socially. Let them FaceTime their friends and family. Schedule Zoom play dates. Create virtual celebrations or drive-by birthday parties. We miss our friends, and they do, too.
- Apply the 3 R’s: routine, relaxation, and rest. Children need structure, consistency, and predictability, especially during such volatile times. Attempt to keep regular mealtimes and bedtimes as much as possible. But still allow for some flexibility, because rigidity often creates more stress. Relaxation is key. Children need to play. Take family walks, host family game night or movie night weekly, or build forts. Nurture your child’s imagination and creativity. Play is restorative. Sleep is critically important. Lack of sleep is problematic leading to grumpy, irritable children, and children who struggle to attend and focus on their classwork. Make sleep a priority. Help your children incorporate healthy sleep habits like regular bedtime, tv-free bedrooms, and a wind-down routine.
- Don’t lose hope. We will get through this. Though life as we once knew has undoubtedly changed, we trust that it’s going to be okay. Charles Haddon Spurgeon says this about hope: “Hope itself is like a star–not to be seen in the sunshine of prosperity, and only to be discovered in the night of adversity.” Amid the despair of COVID-19, hope still springs eternal.
What has worked to keep stress down for your family during this pandemic? I’d love to hear in the comments below! After all, we’re all in this together.