There’s no question the coronavirus shutdown has been disruptive for children. How they weather the disruption may depend on the response they see from their parents, says California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris.
“They really get their cues about what this means from their caregivers,” says Dr. Burke Harris, a pediatrician and expert on child stress. “And so there’s an incredible opportunity for caregivers to be a buffer to the stress of the current situation.”
Many parents interviewed by TODAY about how their children view the crisis expressed frustration about not being present enough for their children. They worried about not getting enough work done and fretted that they weren’t making this time as enriching as possible.
Experts in child development encourage parents to relax and focus on bonding and connection.
“This is not about perfection in any way. This is about being good enough,” says Dr. Tovah Klein, director of Barnard’s Center for Toddler Development. “Be reasonable. What you could do before, you cannot do now and that’s OK.”
Here are 9 ways to help your children through the coronavirus crisis.
1. Lower your standards. No, lower.
This one might be hard: Lower your expectations for your children, who might be struggling in ways you can’t yet understand, and lower expectations for yourself as a parent, partner and employee.
Working parents simply can't do what they used to do at work for now, or be as attentive to their children as they would have been on a day when they aren't working.
“We have to set different expectations for ourselves,” says Jennifer Miller, a family educational consultant and author of “Confident Parents, Confident Kids.”
Parents shouldn't feel guilty about doing what they have no choice but to do.
“When your child is asking you to play and you can’t, I think it’s time for a really good hug and a move on,” Miller says.
2. Talk about feelings
Discuss what’s going on in kid friendly terms. Don’t try to pretend everything is fine.
“We know from research and from common sense that children can’t learn if they are having big feelings like fear and worry, and we know that they are having those feelings,” says Jennifer Miller, a family and educational consultant and author of “Confident Parents, Confident Kids.”
Miller says just acknowledging feelings is powerful. Then, help guide them to simple and healthy coping strategies, like stopping to put a hand on their chest and feel their heartbeats, breathing deeply or going outside for fresh air.
“Giving them messages that we’re going to be OK is really important and really will help children bounce back,” says Klein, author of “How Toddlers Thrive.” “Children respond to the adults in their life.”
One of the things I say frequently is, if this feels hard, it’s OK because it is hard. This is a pandemic.
Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, California Surgeon General
3. Practice self care. Really.
It’s become a cliché to say parents need to put on their own oxygen mask first, but it’s one that needs repeating, says Burke Harris, who emphasizes that “self care is not selfish.”
“Kids take their cues from their parents about how to react to the events that are going on around them. If they cue into their parents’ stress, that can activate the child’s stress response,” she says. “So it’s a little bit ironic that for parents, one of the most important things they can do to ensure their child’s well being is to practice self care for themselves.”
Burke Harris’s playbook to reduce stress includes regular exercise, a healthy diet, mindfulness and a regular sleep routine. She also stresses the importance of maintaining healthy relationships and seeking out mental health care.
“One of the things I say frequently is, if this feels hard, it’s OK because it is hard. This is a pandemic,” she says. “Right now is a really good time for people to reach out to get mental health support, because this is really an extraordinary time.”
4. Find moments of joy
Even in trying times, shared joy with a parent is “sustenance for children,” Klein says.
“It doesn’t have to be all day long. It never was all day long, but you have those moments of connection to your child and at least one moment a day where you shared a good smile or a snuggle,” she says.
Burke Harris is practicing “gratitudes” before dinner, looking with her family for silver linings.
Miller suggests creating a connecting ritual every day that you can all look forward to together. Maybe it’s a game or puzzle or a nightly bike ride.
That way, if throughout the day your child is seeking your attention, you can say, “I am so looking forward to our special time together. It’s coming up!”
5. Reconsider ‘bad’ behavior
If your toddler is having trouble sleeping, or your teenager is storming out in a huff, recognize that for what it is: a reaction to a stressful situation. (Regression is one common reaction to stress in children.)
“I think it’s really important for us to recognize that there’s an anxiety there even when we’re not acutely aware of it,” Miller says. “We can be more explosive, we can get more frustrated as adults, and our children can be more easily frustrated because of that.”
6. Use screens the right way
In some ways, parents have a new appreciation for screens as they help with distance learning or allow contact with distant friends or grandparents. While everyone agrees usual limits can be relaxed, experts say the extra screen time is still concerning.
Around the time teenagers started spending more time on social media and less time together, their mental health started to decline, too, says Dr. Jean Twenge, author of “iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.” She fears the effects of the crisis as children become even more dependent on screens.
Young children, on the other hand, might not have the patience for Zoom and end up melting down with too many screens, Klein says.
Miller suggests using technology wisely, to create virtual family reunions or small play dates. And she notes that for learning, research has shown that having an adult accompany a child made all the difference in helping children learn.
7. Create transitions
In this time of working and schooling at home, families lack the normal routines and transitions that move them through their day.
Miller suggests creating a new routine to start the school and work day. Instead of walking to school, maybe it’s a hug ritual, a morning dance or deep breathing to get ready for the day.
8. Have an emergency plan
At this point, you’ve probably perfected your home emergency/pandemic kit. But Miller asks parents to come up with an emergency plan for emotions, too.
Creating an “emotional fire plan” in the same way they you come up with an escape route for a fire helps prepare for the inevitable flare-ups.
“We know every household has emotional fires, and right now more often than usual,” she says. So what will you do when overwhelmed with emotion? Perhaps it’s deep breathing and taking a break, or saying “Mommy needs five minutes.”
Be reasonable. What you could do before, you cannot do now and that’s OK.
Dr. Tovah Klein, director of Barnard’s Center for Toddler Development
9. Get enough sleep
Twenge mentioned a potential silver lining for the crisis: the chance for kids to get more sleep.
Of course, that depends on a regular sleep routine, which Burke says helps fight stress hormones and inflammation.
“When we go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning, we train our brain and while we are sleeping, our stress response resets itself,” Burke Harris says.
If a regular bedtime is not happening at your house, Miller recommends sleep meditations on YouTube, or going through happy memories of the day at bedtime.
“The thing we know about children — you have a bad day and they wake up in the morning and they truly are happy to see you again,” Klein says. “I think parents just have to remember that over and over and over.”
More in this series
- 'I feel like I fail all day, every day:' Parenting has never been tougher
- Coronavirus through kids' eyes: Understanding the unseen monster in the room