School’s out for….ever? We are all in a historic crisis that has turned our families completely upside down. For those of us with children at home, attending to their already great needs just became 24/7 – with no breaks and no clear end in sight. And as we all know, when children feel stress, they act out – and our own home becomes greatly disrupted.
The loss of important supports for parents is extensive: loss of structure and childcare provided by schools, loss of the workplace and income, support of extended family and friends, intimate partner time, time to recharge. And when our own leaders appear frightened, uncertain, inconsistent and disagreeing about the facts and the next steps, on some level we may all feel like a lost child.
Yet there are some time-tested ways that we can help ourselves and do our best by our children. Below are some tips and answers to questions about this challenging time.
My child’s bad behaviors are escalating. What can I do?
Children become increasingly difficult, defiant and oppositional when deep down they are feeling anxious and afraid, uncertain about important needs of love, safety and care. Using strategies that address these underlying needs can reduce acting-out behaviors.
- Spend one-on-one time with each child – even 10 minutes of sharing in child-directed play or comforting can make a big difference.
- Keep the usual routines – structure your children’s day like it was during school. This means keeping waking, sleep, meal, study, exercise and play time routines on a schedule. Knowing what is going to happen next can significantly reduce anxiety. This can include giving your children simple jobs and responsibilities at home that they have the skills to complete. If you are lucky enough to have extra space at home, create a separate “classroom,” only used for learning.
- Allow children to stay in touch with friends and extended family virtually if possible.
How can I use discipline at home?
- Focus on the positive by saying the behaviors you want to see.
- Consider: Can your child actually do what you are asking them? It is very hard for a child to keep quiet inside for a whole day but maybe they can keep quiet for 15 minutes while you are on a call.
- Redirect bad behaviors by giving the child a choice of two constructive behaviors.
- Try to stay calm when responding or giving a consequence – even if that means taking a 5-minute breather first.
- Use consequences that are clear and realistic: offer understanding and soothing for the feeling or dilemma behind the behavior, explain what difficulties their behavior creates for others, clear time limit for how long the consequence will last.
For example, “I know you’re afraid of feeling ignored, but I’m concerned about your brother’s safety when you hit. It’s up to you: we can go for a walk or sit and talk about your feelings instead. If you continue to hit, you will not get dessert for one day.”
- When the consequence is over, give your child an opportunity to do something good and give them praise for it.
Visit UNICEF’s Tips for Parenting During the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Outbreak for these tips and more information. The World Health Organization also offers these tips in a convenient poster format.
How can I better communicate with my child?
The school shutdown is also a chance to make better relationships with our children and teenagers.
Try using the Collaborative Problem Solving approach, an evidence-based strategy starts with the belief that all children are doing the best they can with the skills they have. Challenging behaviors happen when children don’t have the skills to overcome a frustrating situation.
The basic steps are:
- Identify and show you understand the child’s dilemma, do not focus on what they are doing wrong.
- Identify what skills they lack to address the dilemma by asking the child questions and then identify ways they can be learned.
- Share your concern about their behavior as it relates to health, safety, learning or impact on others.
- The child and adult brainstorm together to come up with a realistic and mutually satisfactory solution.
Visit thinkkids.org for more information and trainings.
How can I talk to my child about the Coronavirus?
- Answer their questions honestly. UNICEF suggests, “Silence and secrets do not protect our children. Honesty and openness do… It is fine to say ‘We don’t know, but we are working on it.’”
- Think about how much they can understand at their age.
- Ask them about what they have heard; some rumors and overblown stories are easy to bust.
- Ask them about how they feel, then respond with caring to the feeling. It is often helpful to hear the feelings behind a factual question instead of answering with facts.
- Remind them that health and school officials are working hard to keep everyone safe and healthy.
- Remind them they can talk with you at any time.
I’m at my wit’s end. How can I calm down?
As parents, we feel frightened for our children’s safety, overwhelmed, triggered, guilty about not living up to our expectations, angry, judged by others, helpless and sad in simply not being able to meet all the needs of our children.
- In this practical and emotional storm, it is most important to be kind to ourselves – this is simply a very hard time. We all are doing our best but asking for – and accepting – help is especially important.
- Do not wait to take care of yourself while you care for your children – it must be simultaneous. We need energy, enjoyment and relaxation to be parents. Children are emotionally and biologically designed to mirror our state of wellbeing or stress.
- If you have a partner at home, alternate shifts in parenting. Ask extended family to offer parenting virtually – reading a story through a video service can be more captivating than over the phone.
- Make sure you are doing your best to structure time for your own sleep, meals and breaks.
- Participate in therapeutic activities online – most therapists, yoga instructors and meditation groups are offering support through video services.
Visit Childmind.org for these tips on self-care and parenting.