We all know these are unprecedented times. As one parent put it, “You can burn the old parenting manual because it no longer applies.” That is so true. All those parenting books have advice based on some sort of ideal that does not exist even in the real world, yet alone the pandemic world. Parenting books never imagined two or one parent(s) being stuck at home, hopefully working and not laid off, having to care for and help educate their children who are also stuck at home with them. We need to alter the playbook to meet the reality of the situation. Perhaps some of the ideas below can help you develop your new playbook.
Let’s start with you, parents. I realize this is an extremely challenging time for all of us. We have never experienced something like this before. We need to make sure we are handling the pandemic well before we can help our children. You can download an app like calm or headspace to help you relax and to use with your family. Keep conversations about your fears and anxiety with a friend or loved one. I realize this is more challenging if you are a single parent. You can message, talk, or video chat with friends. Some older teens or college kids can be supportive on occasion as long as you still monitor what you say and do not overwhelm them with your emotions. Keep social media posts positive and supportive. Do not spread rumors. Negative and untrue posts can trigger anxiety in others and tends to not make you feel better in the end. In addition, your children could see your posts and become anxious or confused.
There are some general tips that are helpful during uncertain times. Make sure to enforce the stay at home order. Do not let yourself get guilted into letting your high schooler or college kid go out to see friends. Avoid watching the news around preschool, elementary, and some middle schoolers. Visual images can leave a lasting impression on a child and frighten them. Middle schoolers and up have easy access to information via electronic devices, so we cannot as easily control what they watch and hear. In these instances, watch the news with your child so you know what sort of information they are receiving. Correct any misinformation your child may report. At every age level, answer questions factually and in a developmentally appropriate manner. Explaining to an elementary child that people are getting sick and medical professionals are working to get people better is much different than a conversation with your college kid about the percentages of people estimated to be infected and what groups are at a higher risk. Ask open ended questions such as “Tell me about your school work today” or “I’m curious about how you’re feeling today.” Then make sure to validate your child responses and emotions and provide reassurance. Finally, make sure you allow alone time for everyone and family time for everyone. We have been having nightly meals and weekly movie nights and board games.
While each developmental stage presents unique distress signs to look for, there are some commonalities across ages and stages. Watch for changes in sleeping. High schoolers and college kids are naturally going to want to transition to their preferred sleep pattern of going to bed late and waking up late. The type of changes I am talking about include a child having trouble falling asleep, waking up repeatedly at night, or not being able to sleep in their own bed. Also, pay attention to nightmares and if they have a repeated theme. Watch for changes in eating. Naturally many people are going to be snacking more and putting on a few extra pounds during this time. However, if your child will not stop eating or refuses to eat, then there may be an issue. Children at any age might show more clingy and needy behavior as if they are seeking more reassurance from you. They also may have more difficulty separating from you. We are all likely more irritable, but how that present will vary based on age. Adolescent irritability is not as cute as preschool irritability. An increase in somatic complains like headaches or stomachaches is a common way of showing anxiety and seeking nurturance. If your child starts talking about wanting this pain over with or more explicitly about ending their life, seek help immediately.
I’m going to write about five different developmental stages and some issues unique to each stage. Preschoolers are likely to pick up on the emotions of their caregivers and mimic signs of anxiety and sadness like crying for no reason or being more difficult to soothe. They may show regressive behaviors like wetting themselves. Let electronics like tablets and televisions entertain them more than usual if you have things that need to get done. When talking with your preschooler, get at eye level with them so you come across as comforting and not intimidating. Try to keep a regular routine such as waking up, meals, and bedtime. End the day with calming activities like a bath and bedtime story to help ease them into sleep. If they need you in the room to fall asleep, do that for now to provide extra reassurance as they drift off into sleep. Encourage them to do something to help others such as record videos or draw pictures for loved ones.
Elementary aged children tend to be more concrete thinkers who are aware of what is going on but have difficulty understanding events. They may show regressed behaviors like sucking their thumb or refusing to pick out their own clothing. As with preschoolers, talk with your elementary child by getting at eye level with them so you come across as comforting and not intimidating. Try to keep a regular routine such as waking up, meals, and bedtime. Include a daily task to help the family like cleaning their room or feeding a pet. Have a calming bedtime routine and reassure them by adding a small light or leaving their bedroom door open. Have them spend time outside each day to let out energy and get fresh air. These kids will require the most academic assistance, so try to set aside time during the day to supervise and help them with their schoolwork. Establish contact with peers with apps like skype or Facetime and through age appropriate video games. Have them help prepare simple kid friendly meals to encourage mastery, responsibility, and helping one another. Encourage them to do something to help others such as write chalk messages on driveways for elderly confined to their homes.
The middle school years are tricky times for kids. They are no longer little kids but also not teenagers. On top of that, their bodies are going crazy. Expect more acting out and temperamental behavior than you already expect from these kids. Some kids may do well to have a consistent routine; others may benefit from flexibility so they can go to bed later and wake up later. Include a daily task to help the family like cleaning a room or walking the dog that has to be done by a certain time. These kids likely will want to go outside each day so encourage it. Just keep them a safe distance from neighbors. At this stage, kids can do more of their homework independently and may only require additional help and check ins to make sure assignments are complete. Encourage contact with peers with apps like skype or Facetime and through age appropriate video games. Insist on daily hygiene like showering, brushing teeth, and getting out of pajamas. Have your child work with you to plan and prepare one meal a week and as they become more confident, plan and prepare a meal on their own to encourage responsibility and helping one another. Encourage them to do something to help others such as write cards for nursing home residents or loved ones who are far away.
High school students are in some ways easy to handle and challenging to handle in other ways. Whereas they require less supervision, part of adolescent development is difficulty with perspective taking and a sense of invincibility. Thus, they may minimize the pandemic or feel they do not have to follow the stay at home order. Allow their natural sleep patterns to emerge which means going to bed later and getting up later as long as they are not sleeping over 10 hours a day. Include a daily task to help the family like cleaning out the garage that has to be done by a certain time. Insist on fresh air each day even if all that means is going to the mail box. Set expectations for homework to be completed before activities like electronics and video games. They likely do not need much homework assistance, and let’s be real, how many of us can really help with math and science anymore. Let them have time on social media and video games. This is the best way for teens to stay connected. Insist on daily hygiene like showering, brushing teeth, and getting out of pajamas. Have your high schooler plan and prepare one or two meals each week to encourage responsibility and helping one another. Encourage them to do something to help others such as clean up an elderly neighbor’s yard.
College “kids” are the most unique group. They were out of the house and doing their own thing, when suddenly they had to return home. Remember they know how to take care of themselves and do not need us smothering or hovering. However, they are still members of the family which means there are certain expectations. They may want to go out and see some old friends. Enforce the stay at home order and remind them of all the other ways they can connect with old friends and stay connected to college friends. Let them set up their own routine that includes bedtimes, school times, and hygiene. Insist on daily hygiene if only because other family members have to live with them now. Require some activities like family meal times and family movie nights. Have them get some fresh air daily, even if that only means opening their bedroom window. Do not inquire about if their schoolwork is complete as until a couple of weeks ago, we had no idea what their schoolwork was like. Have your college kid plan and prepare one or two meals each week to reinforce responsibility and helping one another. Encourage them to do something to help others such as run errands for a homebound person.
This playbook ended up being a bit more like a manifesto then playbook. I guess I did not realize how much information was spinning around in my mind that I wanted to convey to help all of us parents. My best advice is to do the best you can and do not beat yourself up if you make a mistake. We can undo many things like excessive screen time and upended schedules when the stay at home order is lifted. We will do far more right things during this pandemic than wrong things. Remember to be kind to one another and help take care of each other.