How many parents have heard this impatient question while driving the family on a road trip? It is a legitimate question from a kid’s perspective if not annoying from an adult perspective. We probably can all remember asking this of our parents when we were young sitting in the back seat of the family car. My family set out on a road trip from New York to Washington DC. My eight year old mind was convinced we were driving instead to the state of Washington because it seemed to me that we were in the car for several weeks. How much longer would I have to endure being trapped in this car playing A my name is Alice and I come from Alabama and looking at my brother’s face and having his smelly shoes thrown over on my side of the car? When you’re a kid, time is one of two things, it is either very fluid or at a complete standstill where a minute seems like several, an hour seems like a day, and a day seems like forever.
If kids are happy and occupied and busy, they don’t seem to notice time except that it is going by too fast. But if it is boring and drags on they are painfully aware of it and want to make you painfully aware of it also.
Recently the concept of time for kids has changed drastically in a very short amount of time. Months ago they were on a schedule, getting up, getting dressed and going to school. They were riding the bus, seeing their friends, eating lunch with them, having PE and recess. They were talking to their friends in the hall, laughing, and having inside jokes. They were complaining about homework, talking about the next soccer game, basketball game, or lacrosse game. They were making plans for the weekend and birthday parties, dances, graduations, proms, the movies, and the mall. It was hectic, but it was their everyday normal life. It was day after busy day. They would come home from school, maybe grumble about homework, not eat all their dinner and slip it to the dog under the table. They would promise to do homework in their room and you would find them instead watching television or playing a video game. “ Hurry up”, you would say. “You have to get your homework done by tomorrow and put your dirty clothes in the hamper and give me what you need washed before the next soccer game”. You would supervise whatever nightly ritual you had with them whether it was reading them a book, praying with them and making sure they brushed their teeth and washed behind their ears. You would tuck them in. You would check in a little while after you put them down to see if they were asleep because tomorrow was another day full of schedules, events, places to go and people to see. That was their life a few months ago. It was predictable, routine and it was safe.
How in the world do you explain to your kids who have lost their routine why they are at home all the time, why they can’t see their friends, and why they can’t go to school? How do you make sure they feel safe? Especially when you as a parent may not feel safe?
REMEMBER TO PROVIDE SAFETY AND SECURITY FOR YOUR CHILDREN:
One of the most important things about being a parent is that in all ways and in all times, your child comes first. Being a parent is a selfless, all encompassing job which requires you to protect, comfort, reassure, encourage, support and love beyond measure. All these things contribute to a child feeling safe and secure.
I have heard people describe the Coronavirus as a storm. In many ways it is. In Hampton Roads, we are use to preparing for Hurricanes. They are forecasted in a decent amount of time so we can get supplies and hunker down until the storm passes. We head to Kroger, chat it up with the stranger next to us in line about how bad we think it may get, tell them to be safe, go home with our supplies and wait for the storm to pass. It does. Then the sun shines again and we come out of our homes and go back to life as usual. The Coronavirus has been different. It started out as a storm that didn’t affect us and was on the other side of the world. We had compassion, sure, but it didn’t really have any impact on our lives. Then it began to affect the other side of our country. A little concerning, but that was the west coast after all, a good 3,000 miles away. Our lives still went on and remained pretty much the same. Then like a tornado, the virus has picked up speed and intensity and destruction and it has taken many of us off guard, leaving us unprepared, and uncertain about how long it will last and when it will end. Now going to the grocery store we do not chat it up with the strangers around us. We keep a good six feet from them, maybe wearing a mask so we didn’t even breathe the same air. We go home with our supplies, but are left feeling unsettled as we do not know how long we need to hunker down, when this will end and when we can go back to being normal.
The speed at which this has happened and is continuing to happen is accelerated and uncertain. Decisions that started with schools closed for two weeks accelerated to schools closed for an indeterminate amount of time to schools closed to the end of the year. This left parents scrambling with what to do with their children, how to continue to work, how to teach their children from home and keep their children on task with schoolwork. Businesses went very quickly from being open to shutting down which gave parents new worries and concerns about finances and how to care for their families. Restaurants, gyms, malls, and movie theatres were also quickly closed which led to most of the country being physically isolated from one another with the challenge of not having any outlets or distraction from this new sequestered normal.
PARENTS REMEMBER TO TAKE CARE OF YOUR SELVES:
Parents, it is normal to feel stressed and anxious about what is going on! These are uncertain and trying times that would even stress out Mr. Rogers! While putting your children first is paramount, you also need to take care of yourself. That includes physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. It’s important to eat right, take your supplements, get enough rest, relax, and exercise. It helps to focus on the positive, be grateful, connect more with your spiritual self, connect with nature, and connect with those you love. Dr. Sanjay Gupta said something I thought was quite helpful. We are not socially distancing, we are physically distancing. We still have access to one another socially. Thank God we live in a technological age where we can skype, text, and Facetime with those we love whether they are in the next city or on the other side of the country. We are blessed to have technology at this trying time. Most of us have computers, Netflix, Hulu and multiple ways to relax, and destress from where we find ourselves. The other night Hulu froze for several minutes while I was watching SNL. It was a parody on American Idol but with animals. Simon Cowell was telling a Golden Retriever that he didn’t make the cut in his snarky British accent. Hulu froze on the dog’s face which made me laugh for several minutes mostly because the dog had no idea what was going on. Even frozen technology can be a hoot.
REMEMBER TO TALK AGE APPROPRIATELY WITH YOUR CHILDREN:
In addition to providing a foundation of safety for your children and providing good role modeling for your children by taking care of yourself, there comes the task of talking with your children about what is happening. You know your child better than anyone and know how well they individually handle stress. Some children are more sensitive to stress and the stress of their parents. In this case, the more you can manage your own stress, the more calm your child will be when you have a conversation.
It is important to talk with children in an age appropriate way. While this sounds obvious, sometimes parents make the mistake of talking to their children in an adult manner that is not only inappropriate but can frighten a child. Conversely, sometimes parents talk down to their children in an effort to protect them. This usually backfires as the child knows when the parent is playing down a situation because it is scary and this can also frighten a child. An age appropriate, honest conversation from a calm parent is the best approach.
Children handle difficult situations incrementally. They will come to you and ask you questions and when they ask they want to know the answers right then. They may ask one question or several. Let them be the lead on your conversation. They may just ask one question and then be satisfied with your answer and go off and play. They may ask several questions until they feel satisfied. They may ask you one question everyday or several everyday. It is helpful to know this and not overwhelm them with information that they don’t need at that time or didn’t ask for.
Your body language and facial expressions are important to be self aware of. You’ll want to convey both a genuine demeanor yet not be anxious or fearful. Kids pick up on this energy. While this may sound like an impossible task, if you think back you have done this with your kids before multiple times. How many of you when teaching your kids to ride a bike did they fall off and scape their knee and they were upset and crying? You didn’t freak out and cry along with them. You reassured them and calmed them down and cleaned their wound and put a bandage on it. Imagine if you had freaked out with them? They would have never gotten on a bike again. The stakes are more important now. You want them to realize that you are there for them, taking care of them, reassuring them and when it is time they will get back to their life again.
Be sure to validate what they are feeling in an appropriate way. Let them know that it is ok that they are scared, but that you are here for them whenever they need to talk. Knowing that you are there is very reassuring. Knowing that they can come and talk with you whenever they are feeling scared or anxious or concerned provides safety and stability for them. It also role models for them how to respond to life’s ups and downs, good and bad, certain and uncertain.
RESOURCES FOR TALKING WITH YOUR CHILDREN:
School Psychologist Resource:
REMEMBER TO LIMIT SOCIAL MEDIA EXPOSURE:
While it is important for you to limit your own social media exposure, it is also important to limit your child’s social media exposure to the Coronavirus. Too much focus on their part can cause anxiety and fear. This can lead to physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, and loss of appetite. It can also lead to emotional difficulties such as anxiety, fear of being separated from you, clinginess, nightmares, withdrawal, and aggression to name a few. While technology is helpful for staying connected to loved ones and distracting, it is not helpful to use technology to focus on the news all the time, the death toll, the lack of ventilators, the incredible contagiousness of the virus. This is not a healthy use of social media.
I have heard and seen so many positive stories of families spending time together that does not involve everyone in their own room on their own device. I have seen parents pulling kids in wagons down the street. I have heard of teenagers playing board games with their parents. There’s so much time now to really spend with your kids. Before you know it, this extra time will be gone. This morning on the radio I heard people calling in saying what they would like to continue once life gets back to normal with most responding with they want to continue to spend time with family.
REMEMBER TO LET KIDS DO SOMETHING FOR OTHERS:
Some kids when they hear what is happening will want to do something to help. This is very healthy as they try to make sense of things and learn to connect with humanity on a larger and altruistic level. This can also help them build a lifetime of being charitable to others. I heard a story of a teen who is hand making masks for those medical workers on the front lines. Her kind heart is making her take action and be part of the solution. Years ago when my son was five, he would not let me pass the Salvation Army bell ringer without insisting both he and I give whatever money we could spare. He insisted we do it both going in and coming out of the store. He would then stop, close his eyes and put his hands together. When I asked what he was doing he would say he was praying that the money we gave would help the people who really needed it. Kids will surprise you sometimes by how much they care about wanting to help others.
REMEMBER TO PROVIDE STRUCTURE FOR YOUR KIDS:
Kid’s lives and schedules have been turned upside down. Getting and keeping your kids on a schedule will help them have some routine in their lives. This routine will give them some stability. Have them get up and go to bed at the same time during the week. Have their meals at the same time. Have their school work at the same time. Whatever chores they were doing, they should continue to do. Make a different routine for the weekend so there is a division between the weekday and the weekend. This will help give them a sense of normalcy and remind them of what life was and what it will return to be.
Within the structure, it is helpful to provide rewards for adhering to the schedule. You may want to propose that If your child gets their homework done by 1, they can earn an hour to play a video game, or text with a friend, or watch their favorite show, etc. This will motivate positive behaviors and reinforce structure. It will also provide structure between a schedule and down time.
If kids are kept on some time of schedule during this time, then when they return to one it won’t cause a major meltdown. We are all familiar with kids going back to school after a break and the challenges that go along with a change in schedule.
For some children a regular schedule and structure is extremely important especially for those that may struggle with ADD. Structure helps minimize acting out and impulsive behaviors. This is key to their feeling safe and acting calm.
REMEMBER TO PROVIDE JOY FOR YOUR KIDS:
Besides safety and structure, you will want to provide some joy for your kids. Why not teach them how to bake some cookies from scratch? Why not go outside and play Frisbee with them? Why not let them play make up artist and manicurist and use you as the guinea pig? (Even more fun if you are the Dad) Why not play a game of go fish? Why not play a game of snowball socks? For those who don’t know what that is, you get a supply of rolled up socks and hide behind furniture and try to hit someone with your socks much like dodgeball only with furniture shields and with socks that don’t hurt. I highly recommend. Why not go camping in your living room? Why not make a fort? Why not learn how to make slime?
As parents one of our greatest joys is seeing our kids happy. Whatever you can do to accomplish that during this uncertain time will give both you and your children great reward.
Remember to provide safety and security for your children, remember to take care of yourselves, remember to talk with your children in an age appropriate way, remember to limit their social media exposure to the coronavirus, remember to let them do something for others, remember to provide structure for your kids and don’t forget to include some joy!
There are so many ways we can help our kids during this time. We can build lifelong memories of family and togetherness. When they are grown and they look back on this time in their life they will remember a parent who did their very best to make them feel safe and loved. What better use of your time could there be?
By Kelle Watson, Director of Clinical Counseling
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