As a child psychologist, I’m trained to help kids who are struggling with anxiety, depression, trauma, and a whole range of issues that can hinder their development and growth. But never have I experienced the situation we face in which every child — toddler to teen — is facing a new reality filled with incredible uncertainty. This is a new breeding ground for instability, fear, and a range of other mental health triggers. As a mom of 12- and 14-year-old girls, coronavirus has impacted every aspect of our daily life, and figuring out how to toggle between my roles as psychologist and parent has been a delicate balance, with some slips along the way, as well as important learnings.
I definitely don’t have all the answers, but I can share some takeaways from my family experience during the past couple of weeks, paired with my experience as a clinical child psychologist at Nemours Children’s Health System.
1. Build and keep a routine, not a schedule.
A routine offers families a set of guidelines to give structure to the day and a sense of consistency which can be comforting during stressful, chaotic times. Map out a routine that works for your family—include time for work, play, family interaction, and exercise or some type of body movement. Include the whole family and be sure to set expectations about screen time or video games, how to communicate with Mom and Dad when they are working, and responsibilities for household chores.
Getting your kids’ input will increase the likelihood of success and give them a better sense of control in their daily life. Even young children should be given options such as the order in which they complete certain daily tasks or activities. Set a “check-in” time three to four days into the routine to discuss what is working and what isn’t, and make changes as needed.
2. Let them sleep (but not too long).
Because we are physically distancing ourselves, staying at home offers additional flexibility. Sleep is even more important during times of stress, but when schedules become loose, our sleep schedules can become less of a priority. In my house, I’ve tried to strike a balance between allowing my kids to get additional sleep their bodies may need, while also maintaining a routine. As children enter teen years, their circadian rhythm changes, and they tend to stay up late and sleep later. So during this time of quarantine, we’ve allowed the girls to go to bed an hour later, and they’ve enjoyed sleeping in as late as 9 am. However, there’s no napping, the bed is reserved for sleep only, and a balance in maintained between screen time and non-screen time, including exercise.
3. You know your child best, so filter information based on their maturity and age.
It’s extremely important for families to lead the conversation with their children by first asking them what they know, what questions they have, and then answering them in an age-appropriate way. With my children, I’ve sought to understand their own personal worries related to the COVID pandemic. The conversations typically occur when news is released about changes in guidelines within our community. My 14-year-old has a social media account and, as typical for her age, she cannot always appropriately filter facts versus misinformation. So I’ve encouraged her to come to us with anything she hears. More than once she’s approached me with a “fact” from a peer that was inaccurate and anxiety-inducing. I’ve thanked her for sharing it with me and provided accurate and honest information in a way I knew she could understand.
In these difficult times, we have an opportunity to connect with our kids and reassure them in new, critically important ways. These three resources have been helpful in our conversations: Kids Health, Healthcaretoolbox.org, and CDC.gov.
4. Be supportive of your child’s feelings and share your own.
Parents want nothing more than to take away their children’s worries or negative feelings. But rather than trying to change their feelings or diverting into ways to make them feel better, simply start by validating their feelings. Ask open-ended questions that will encourage them to communicate what they’re thinking and feeling. Children and teens are more likely to share information when they feel validated, rather than pressured to feel better.
At my home, we’ve used dinner time and the occasional car rides for take-out to check in with how the girls are coping (car rides are a mom’s secret weapon for great talks!). My husband and I have shared with them our own trepidations, including how we’ve coped, so that the girls know we are all in this together. Each of my girls have expressed their deep uncertainty about that lies ahead, so I’ve focused on reminding them of what they can control, and I’ve helped them develop a sense of control within their new daily lives.
For example, my 12-year-old, a competitive gymnast, was saddened and worried about missing training time. So, we’ve planned time in her daily routine to include conditioning workouts that she designs and completes at home. My high schooler expressed anxiety about transitioning to virtual learning, which she called her “worst nightmare!” I found that simply listening and acknowledging the normality of her anxiety has helped her to feel better.
Remember, none of us have ever navigated a situation like this, and as parents, the best we can do is to let our children know that they can rely on us as a consistent source of love and support, even when the world around them seems uncertain.
Some days will be glorious—I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the extra quality time I’ve gotten to spend with my rising teens, who are more and more independent these days. Other days, you’ll want to rip each other’s hair out—and all the advice for cool, calm, and collected conversations will go out the door.
It’s also important to remember that sometimes outside help is needed. While some stress, anxiety, and moodiness should be expected, if your child is having difficulty sleeping, trouble doing their schoolwork, becoming disinterested in their normal activities, or you’re not able to engage them in a conversation, it might be a good time to consider seeking help from a therapist. Virtually, of course!
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