Finding predictability in uncertain times: 6 tips for parents

Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

Schools and daycares are closed. Playgrounds, restaurants, and museums off limits. Everyone’s at home, but this is by no means a staycation. Parents are asked to telecommute without adequate childcare, and are additionally expected to stomach rapidly intensifying demands to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Anxiety overwhelms the air, making even the healthiest of households feel like they are suffocating.

There is plenty floating around about recognizing coronavirus symptoms, how to flatten the curve, and the tanking economy. This article provides six tips for coping with this strange new reality and managing emotional health of parents and children.

  1. Keep calm and communicate. Whether living in a single, two-caregiver, or multi-generational household, children need clear and consistent information. Depending on their age and awareness, children are naturally curious about why life has changed so suddenly and when things will be back to normal. In turn, parents should expect some behavioral changes that might feel regressive, “needy” or clingy. Use age-appropriate language and recognize when you may be providing too much or too little information based on their verbal and non-verbal cues. The New York Times, Child Mind Institute, and SAMHSA have useful concrete suggestions on having these conversations. Although giving answers to inquisitive minds is important, remember: how you are when you talk to your children is almost always more important than what you say. This underscores the necessity of regulating your reactions so that you can provide a better holding space for your child’s response. New and uncertain situations inevitably create stress, and children rely on social referencing, or the practice of looking to trusted adults for guidance on how to cope. Notice if you are irritated, angry, or panicked — all are potential responses to uncertainty and stress — and give yourself a few moments to reset with a breath or two before you address your child’s questions. Be ready to say “I don’t know,” with the reassurance that you will share more when you know more.
  2. Take information breaks. It is nearly impossible to shield yourself from the constant barrage of updates about coronavirus. Closely monitoring news such as the rising number of cases can get anyone on edge. While fear is actually an evolutionarily necessary response that allows us to prepare for challenges, too much can overwhelm us to the point of paralysis. If you find this happening to you, consider turning off notifications, stepping away from your devices, and introducing other temporary distractions. Use active coping strategies such as reminding yourself of the measures you are taking to stay healthy — self-talk and making lists can be helpful. Replace anxiety-provoking apps and news with guided meditations, supportive podcasts or audio books that you have been meaning to listen to. When in need of a quick calming exercise (kids can do this too!) use the “Four-square breath” — a technique that I learned from my chiropractor, Barbara Berkeley:
    a. Start with an inhale for a count of four
    b. Hold for a four-second count
    c. Exhale four seconds
    d. Empty four seconds
    e. Repeat
    Return to several normal breaths, repeat 2 rounds of 4 square.
  3. Nourish your bodies. Worry and fear lend themselves to stress in our physical bodies. Getting enough sleep/rest, eating well, movement, and laughter boost immune functioning and elevate naturally occurring endorphins. With little ones to care for, parents are the most likely to override these basic needs. Practice self-care together if you don’t have time to do it alone. Here are some ideas, with more on our Parentline website; feel free to get more creative: Give each other back rubs and homemade facials. Take naps together. Bake a favorite dessert, or create a “restaurant” at home with your kids as sous chefs and servers. Move some furniture around to open up space for light exercise, yoga, or an obstacle course. Play charades, board games, or cards. Plan a movie night with a comedy or family classic. Brownie points if you can still find time to engage in individual self-care once the kids have (finally) fallen asleep. In this period of mental and physical exhaustion, an earlier bedtime for you might be the best reward.
  4. Maintain a routine. We are all creatures of habit, and children especially, thrive with structure. Without knowing when life will return to “business as usual,” it is crucial to employ a reasonable routine anchored to your children’s typical wake/sleep times and meals. Take a few minutes to chalk out a visual daily schedule that everyone can commit to. Include unstructured blocks of time (à la free play), as well as nap/quiet time, which will give caregivers a ‘break’ to get other things done or to rest, too. Scheduling screen time can help you stay within recommended bounds. Find these recommendations broken down by age group and more on Pediatric Advice Nurse Judy’s suggestions for managing the quarantine. Given that many of us are sheltering-in-place for the long haul, work in special weekly activities to help prevent days from becoming too monotonous (e.g., Monday is dress-up day, Friday night is movie night, etc.), and give everyone something to look forward to. For school-age kids, parents are feeling the added pressure of school closures. Partner with teachers who are likely already working hard to create an online curriculum, and set up a work space to help your child focus and feel motivated at home. Several companies have also opened up learning resources for free. At the end of the day, remember: rules and a routine add a sense of control in a time when there is so much unpredictability, but flexibility is ultimately the hallmark of mental health. Allow for exceptions and prioritize your well-being over adamantly sticking to the schedule.
  5. Create your community. As we are creatures of habit, we are social beings first. Social distancing and attempts at preventing virus transmission have the unfortunate effect of suddenly reducing human interaction that we took for granted, such as catching up with other parents at school drop-off and pick-up and bumping into friends at the playground. This is a time where asynchronous communication and scrolling through friends’ social media updates is not enough. Stay connected by scheduling video calls (“distance play dates” for your children and their friends) and sending/delivering snail mail. Commiserate over the new state of affairs, or challenge yourselves to avoid the topic altogether. Join an online parenting support community to vent, get validation, and trade parenting hacks. For parents in the SF Bay Area, Parentline counselors will facilitate free online expecting and new parent groups with Recess Collective for the next several weeks. Hetal Vasavada, baker, blogger, and former Masterchef contestant, has the genius idea of group cooking from the comfort of your own home. Follow her on Instagram, gather the ingredients with the list she provides 24 hours in advance, and tune in live to watch her make the recipe as you follow along — this is a great activity for kids too! Lean in to the technology we have available to truly see what a small world it is.
  6. Take time for gratitude. I leave you with this last tip, which may be the most emotionally impactful. Ironically, while parenthood is one of the most rewarding journeys that many of us experience, parenting in the day-to-day can feel like a slog. This is particularly true when we’re parenting in overdrive, sans the help we usually have from our village. Writing down and verbalizing gratitude is increasingly used as a psychotherapy intervention to improve well-being. Research also indicates links between parent and child levels of gratitude and suggests that parents can successfully instill this practice in their children. Take time with yourself and your family to voice your appreciation for the relationships, material goods, and experiences that you currently have even though your health, safety, and trust may feel compromised during this time. Give it a try and let your children pleasantly surprise you with their resilience, humor, and wisdom.

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