While holing up at home to avoid the Coronavirus, many families are coming down with a bad case of cabin fever. The closing of schools, restaurants and public amenities such as the zoo and library have wiped out accustomed opportunities to get out of the house for a change of scenery. The necessity for social distancing has put the kibosh on playdates and teen get-togethers. The uncertainty of the situation creates anxiety not only for children, but for their parents.
In response to a flood of questions, the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) in Kensington, Maryland is offering parents tools and strategies through webinars and online workshops at pepparent.org. Here are a few of PEP’s tips for parenting through these uncertain times.
You’ve heard the old British motto: Keep Calm and Carry On. Paige Trevor, a PEP-certified Parent Educator, agrees that the most effective first step for parents is to calm their own anxieties. Kids pick up on their parents’ moods, and a calm parent is more likely to have a calm child. Keeping a lid on anxiety also improves our ability to remain patient and understanding under pressure. As Paige puts it, parents need to become “beanbag chairs of empathy.” We don’t need to have the solutions – just the time and attention to listen to and acknowledge our kids’ feelings. Giving them a chance to vent will take their emotional temperature down a few notches.
When you sense that tension is on the rise, it can be fun to practice calming exercises together. Young kids can learn to “smell the flowers” (take a deep breath) and then blow out the candles (exhale deeply). Older kids can practice square breathing: gently inhaling through the nose to a slow count of 4; holding the breath for a count of 4; exhaling through the mouth for a count of 4; then holding the breath for a count of 4.
Without realizing it, we are all carrying tension in our bodies, so it’s helpful to teach kids to take a few moments each day to consciously tense and release their muscles. Try making a game of it – contorting your facial features into fierce expressions by clenching every muscle, holding for a few seconds and then releasing with a loud “lion’s roar” exhale. Do the same with the muscles of your body.
Exercise is a sure-fire stress-buster, so put your school-age children in charge of finding an online exercise class they would be willing to try with you. Setting family fitness goals can also be a great way to make good on deferred New Years’ resolutions. Making progress toward goals will also boost everyone’s mood. Each family member can create his or her own goals and track them on a calendar or chart posted on the refrigerator.
Be sure to make time for family fun. Throw an impromptu, 10-minute crazy dance party, or a (gentle) pillow fight. Sit outside and look at the clouds or listen to the birds together. Host a mike-free karaoke singalong with a cooking spoon.
Connecting with friends
Without the opportunity for in-person get-togethers, kids of all ages will miss their friends – and that goes for adults, too! Encourage your teen or tween to group-watch a movie with a friend, read chapters from the same book or graphic novel and then get together for an online discussion, or do a doodle exchange. For younger kids, you can set up virtual playdates on a daily basis using an online app (such as Skype, Zoom or Facetime). Encourage them to draw or build Legos “together” or have their dolls or mini-figures “talk” to each other through the screen.
Parents can take good care of themselves by scheduling periodic calls with friends and family – especially those who make you laugh. Use the internet to socialize with people you know and love, rather than to anxiously scroll through pandemic news.
Create a new routine
It may seem counterintuitive, but the days will pass more pleasantly if everyone sticks to a flexible routine – even if you end up changing it every few days. Make some time for engaging playfully with your kids, some time for working on useful chores with them and some time to be free from them. Our nervous systems respond well to order, so in an uncertain time like this, it is especially helpful to stick to a reasonably orderly schedule for waking up, eating meals, doing work, playing with kids, getting physical exercise, having quiet time and so on.
To maximize buy-in from your kids, involve them in making the schedule. Not only will they know what to expect ahead of time (which will provide a calming sense of order and normalcy), but it will improve their willingness to cooperate. Let them know that you will reassess the schedule together in two or three days and readjust as necessary.
Screen time is likely to become a bone of contention in most families, and adults as well as children need to be mindful of keeping it within reasonable bounds. Sit down with your kids and admit that you, along with everyone else in the family, need to set limits in this area and work out a compromise about what a reasonable amount of time would be. Put your child in charge of posting reminders on everyone’s screen and thank them for being so helpful.
But what about little kids – what can they do ?
Keeping younger kids happy and occupied all day long requires planning, flexibility and thinking outside the box. Pre-school age children are always interested in learning to do new things -like peeling an orange, scrambling an egg, separating laundry or loading and unloading the dishwasher. Take some time to train them in how to do one or two simple household tasks as a way of spending quality time together, rather than as a means of getting work done. It will be several more years before they master these skills, so aim to be positive rather than picky, and expect them to lose interest quickly at first.
Household appliances hold a particular fascination, so they may be excited to learn how to maneuver a vacuum cleaner, use the blender or load and operate the dishwasher. Young children also love spray bottles, so cleaning cabinets and countertops is fun -not work. You can use a child-friendly commercial product or fill a bottle with water and instruct them in spraying and wiping away messes. When they’re finished, be sure to notice the pleasure of the process, as well as the end product. “Wow – that was fun, and look how shiny you made the floor/countertops!” Experiencing household tasks as a fun way of “playing” with a parent will encourage kids to stick with a task for longer and longer periods of time until they eventually master it.
Water play is a natural de-stressor. Fill a sink or large tub with soapy water and arm your child with culinary tools such as a whisk, turkey baster, sieve or measuring cups so that he or she can “cook.” Provide a sponge, scrubber or bottle brush and turn the chore of washing dishes into a game. Fish some plastic bottles out of the recycling bin and let your children practice their motor skills by filling, pouring, squeezing, squirting and shaking the foamy water into the sink. Add food coloring or water-soluble paint and create a science experiment. Hand your child a washcloth and declare bath time for action figures and dolls. Don’t worry if some of this exuberant water play spills onto the floor. Kids will be happy to go with the flow, sopping up the water with rags, paper towels or a mop. For even more fun, kids can become human mops with oversized athletic socks on their feet and hands and T-shirts over their clothes. When it’s time to stop, open the door to future experimentation. “That was fun. Let’s do it again soon.”
The concentrated attention kids receive through these one-on-one activities will strengthen your relationship with them and lead to better cooperation and cheerfulness throughout the day. After engaging closely with a parent, they are more likely to comply when you need time to yourself, or when the routine chart says everyone needs to take a break for Family Quiet Time.