As we navigate through these uncharted times, it’s important to continue provide a level of sensitivity and comfort to our kiddos, without setting ourselves up for failure. You – and only you – are the expert on your family and your kids. It’s important for me to stress this at the start because psychology and the field of parenting have become a multibillion dollar industry. It’s easy to lose your way as a parent when you rely solely on what books or “experts” say.
1: Create a Framework for What We Are Going Through
Over the last 5 weeks, I have seen more of a demand and increase in the need for families to create a framework for their children regarding exactly what it is that we are experiencing. One recurring theme I have experienced in my work is the difference in syntaxes – the smallest change in the words that build this framework can make the biggest impact on a child.
Some kids are in a really heightened state already. They exhibit higher levels of anxiety and fear, and typically their families do too. Parents sometimes use the word “quarantine” to define why the family is unable to leave the house unnecessarily or why the child is unable to visit friends and some family. We see this a lot in the media as well, which offers another layer of challenge. I try to get these parents to shift their language to use “shelter in place” to describe the situation. This is a really different thing. Quarantine is something that is forced upon you when you are compromised by the virus. What we are doing is choosing to shelter in place as a preventative measure to take care of ourselves, our friends, family and loved ones. We are making the decision as a family and as a state to abide by the regulations described by the shelter in place order and be proactive.
This switches the situation from “It’s happening to me” to “We are empowered, we have a choice, and there is a reason why.” That tiny little nuance makes a really big difference in the mind of a kiddo more prone to higher levels of anxiety and fear. Additionally, when you are communicating with your spouse or partner in front of your kids, be mindful of the language that you are using. This can be the difference between a sense of empowerment and safety versus a sense of helplessness and fear.
2: Don’t Overpromise
If we, as parents, get into the habit of using casual language regarding COVID-19 and shelter in place, and start saying things like “We should get back to normal pretty soon, and you’ll be back to school with as usual with all of your friends” – we’re going to find ourselves in trouble. Although it comes from a place of love and wanting to rescue our children from distress, this is something we want to avoid. We know they want normalcy. We even want it ourselves, so it’s easy to fall into this place of overpromising.
I have actually experienced this firsthand. Kids are asking “When can we go back to normal?” and when they hear a specific date, it becomes a moving target. Every time that we promise a set reality to a child and then have to re-negotiate that reality, we end up creating a sense of chaos, fear, and unpredictability that can lead to mistrust. Provide assurance, without overpromising.
3: Do Not Lean Into Fear or Worst-Case Scenario
Conversely, as parents, you do not want to say, “Well, it’s going to be like this for quite some time until we are more secure and that likely won’t be for another 18 months. Then, you’ll be able to see your friends again.” Do not head into that place of fear, dread and worst-case scenario. It’s best to stay in the framework of “Here is what we know right now…” Do not provide dates! Dates tend to backfire with something as novel as COVID-19. Kids can be anchored onto specific pieces of information, and when you reach the aforementioned date and have to reset your child’s expectations, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
4: Do Not Throw in the Towel
This the hardest, yet potentially the most relevant topic: don’t throw in the towel! My husband and I both work full time from home. We have a second and a sixth grader, three dogs, a cat and a guinea pig. We are working from home with mass chaos ensuring and sometimes it feels like we want to give up all structure and throw in the towel. Yet, we maintain structure in our household by offering our kiddos the opportunity to have a say in what gets done and when. Of course, we can’t negotiate the scheduled Zoom meeting with the class teacher, but we can negotiate if they work on their homework before or after snack. Offering your children the choice to choose the order in which the days required activities are completed will result in their “buy-in.” This increases the likeliness of them completing all tasks without constant check-ins from parents. This takes time to work up to, but it can be done.
If some families can make it through a day without a physical injury, they did it! If the kids are eating three meals a day and the parents are able to make it through a conference call, they did it! Other families may take a more structured approach to being at home by choosing a new theme for the day, playdates scheduled back to back via zoom, or setting a curriculum and rigid schedule for the day to get a list of tasks accomplished. Sometimes, these parents get stressed when their child has been assigned homework numbers 1-10, but the child can only get through 1-8 before needing a break. We are experiencing a global pandemic – it’s ok to offer flexibility and self-love and liberate yourself of these high expectations! On one end – I understand – we are all feeling a huge level of demands and you may feel handcuffed. Don’t quit!
There will come a time where you will have to reset and you’ll be in a much bigger hold to dig yourself out of if no structure or balance is maintained at home during this time. Do what you can, and offer yourself and your family grace where you can.
5: Lean In
What I encourage families to do is use this time to lean in. In the midst of countless challenges, put into perspective what values matter most to your family – and what don’t! It is important to lean in and utilize this opportunity to connect with one another. Keep your expectations reasonable and don’t totally throw them away. It is not easy to do as a working parent, but have family dinner each night. During this time, discuss clear expectations for each member of the family throughout the day and enforce them, even if you can’t enforce them in the moment. For example, if you are on a conference call and see that your child has started playing video games without finishing their homework – and that was the agreement – maybe you can’t enforce it at that moment, but don’t forget to have the conversation later.
The other thing is weekends! Really try to optimize and utilize the time that you all have together. Remember what matters to your family – these are our expectations, values, and what matters to us in our life. One of these things could be family contributions. How are your kids contributing to the overall health and success of our family? What are they doing that is not only for themselves, but for everyone in the family? Take some time with your coparent to figure out what is important to your household specifically and focus on the development of those things during the remainder of your time together at home.
Wishing you all health and safety!
Written by Dr. Surina Mazzola