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Parenting in a Pandemic

Damon Korb, M.D.
Mar 16 · 6 min read

Staying organized is the key to keeping your sanity.

It is a well-known fact that children thrive when there are routines. This time of year most children wake up, get dressed, eat their breakfast, head off to school where they move from class to class, come home and have a snack, do some homework, have some free time or participate in an afterschool activity, eat dinner, and then get ready for bed. The daily life for most children is pretty mapped out and organized. But, as children suddenly need to stay sequestered home due to this unprecedented response to the coronavirus, unless parents are planful, it is easy for the structure to fall apart. When structure falls apart, restlessness sets in and chaos can take over.

It might be easy for a parent to treat this break as a vacation for their children, letting them sleep in, watch TV, play video games, and stay up late. But, even during vacations children behave better when there is structure. Here are some strategies to make being shut-in a more harmonious experience for everyone.

Keep Routines

Routines can be used to ensure that children continue to learn and grow, and they help to reduce boredom. Now that your child is out of school, make sure that learning continues. Certainly, have students do any required on-line classes and homework, but also have them read, try a new hobby, or learn a new activity.

Routines help behavior. Children behave best when they are familiar with situations and know what to expect. When children know what to expect they are more likely to mentally prepare themselves for change, making the transition from one activity to the next go more smoothly. Routines also help to reduce the fear of boredom. The idea of being bored is terrifying to some children and when they are bored they tend to follow their parents around like a sucker fish on a shark. Children fear that the boredom that they are experiencing may go on “forever” causing them to feel anxious. Anxious kids often act out. But, when parents have a schedule in place, children know what to expect. They know that the end of their boredom is only the next activity away, and this makes it much easier to cope with their feelings.

To keep a happy household, parents should try to maintain their child’s daily schedule even though you all may be confined at home. Wake up and bedtimes should be set. Meals should happen at regular intervals. The routine should have quiet time for cognitive activities, like reading or doing homework. Plan time for exercise and there should be ample time for imagination, creativity, and play.

Older children should be encouraged to participate in the development of their daily routine. Allowing children to participate in planning helps to build their executive functioning skills. And, the more they participate, the more likely they will be to “buy-in” to the system.

Provide Outlets

People will get a little stir-crazy being stuck in their houses all day without visitors. Making things more complicated is the fact that many parents will need to continue to work from home. This creates the conflict between parental expectations and a kid needing to be a kid. It is unrealistic to keep a child quiet all day, so make sure the routine includes outlets to “blow off steam.” Outlets will vary from child to child, depending on their interests. Exercise is always an important option. If you are able to go outside at your home, taking breaks to spend time outdoors is very helpful in maintaining mental health. Take some time to explore nature, ride bides and take hikes. If you live farther from nature, pogo stick, jump rope, have a crazy dance party, take walks or play catch in the yard or on a non-busy street.

Creative play can be an outlet for some children. This includes doing art work or elaborate play with miniatures, stuffed animals, and dolls. Parents should not fear the mess a child may make during play — clean up can be a separate step in the routine. Music is another great outlet. For some, listening to music is satisfying, but even better, now can be the time to learn to play an instrument. There are great on-line music lessons for just about every instrument.

Maintain Limits and Rules

When you first heard that school was cancelled, you thought, “What am I going to do to occupy my child?” Your child thought, “I am going to play on the computer and watch TV all day!” Parents should make it clear that even though school is out, rules have not changed. There will still be limits on electronics, regular bedtimes, and expectations for hygiene.

To clarify, each child has a variety of need to-dos and want-to-dos. There are certain things all children need to do, like take care of their health (exercise, sleep, nutrition), hygiene (brush teeth, shower, wear deodorant), homework (or ongoing learning during the COVID-19 break), and household chores. The want-to-dos can happen if the need tos are getting done. Children can understand this simple designation of things that must happen and things they want to do.

But, be careful when the want tos are only electronic screens. After using screen time on phones, tablets or computers, many children are more stressed and irritable, because the games are designed to get kids to want more. To be extra clear about the boundaries and limits for screen time, create a family media plan, and refer to the guidelines established by the American Academy of Pediatrics that show more than two hours of electronics (television, computers, gaming devices) per day can be harmful to children.

Teach Life Skills

Part of your at-home learning routine can include teaching life skills. Young kids can learn to plant a garden, vacuum, set a digital clock, build something, and sew. Teach older kids how to do laundry, wash a car, and cook a meal. This break is an opportunity for all of us to get back to the basics and get out of our digital lives. Don’t look at these activities as just chores, but things that your young adult will some day need to be able to do on their own. While you are all confined together, this is an excellent time to practice practical everyday skills.

Connect with your Family

Being home together is a wonderful opportunity for families to connect. We all live such busy lives that sometimes we forget that the most important things are the family members who are quarantined at home with us. Set up your routines so that the family is in sync. Set similar sleep times. When the kids are doing quiet activities, parents can work quietly. When possible, share in the same outlets such as exercising or going on walks together. There are many fun family activities you can do together, like reading/story time, playing board games, sharing music or singing. If you want to do electronics, think about family activities like watching a family movie or playing a team video game like Dance Central or Rock Band.

The goal is not to just survive this break, but to thrive. If you are feeling overwhelmed, turn off any media for a while. Overexposure to frequent sensationalized news reports about coronavirus may be anxiety-provoking and stress-inducing, particularly for children. Instead, be mindful and think about the things that you can smell, hear, taste, feel, and see, and this will help move your mind to the present. Focus on the things that are in your control. The thing that you have the most control over is your home. Maintain normalcy for your family by continuing routines and setting limits. Try to find the positive parts about the pandemic shutdown and share your thoughts with your children. This is an unusual moment in time, but by keeping your family working together with consistent plans and routines, this unpredictable situation should be much more manageable.

Damon Korb, M.D., a Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician and the Director of the Center for Developing Minds in Los Gatos, California, is the author of Raising an Organized Child: Five Steps to Boost Independence, Ease Frustration, and Promote Confidence.

Damon Korb, M.D.

Written by

Damon Korb, M.D., is a Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician and the author of Raising an Organized Child.

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