Keep a routine. Experts agree that children thrive on routine and structure—especially during times of stress. Depending on the age of your child, develop a new routine that includes meals, bedtime, physical activity and schoolwork with opportunities for play and creativity. Hang the schedule up where everyone can see it (using pictures for young children). While a regular routine will help ground your day, it’s okay to toss out the original plan if a conference call runs too long or the sunshine keeps you outside exploring.
Encourage connections. Social distancing and isolation are particularly hard on children and teens. Writing letters and organizing visits that follow distancing rules can help your children maintain their relationships. Social media, Zoom and FaceTime can be great ways for your kids to stay connected, even if they weren’t allowed to use these platforms before. Setting ground rules and spending time introducing your child to these technologies can be a valuable and fun activity. Encourage virtual story time with grandparents, keep up with extracurriculars that have gone online, schedule virtual playdates and try out multiplayer video games. While these interactions are definitely not perfect, they will help us all feel a little less alone.
Use this time to bond. Despite the circumstances, the virus has forced us to slow down and pause. It can be helpful to see this as an opportunity to spend time together and do some of the things we have previously been too busy for. Ask your child what they want to do, try an activity jar or learn something new as a family. Game nights, obstacle courses, cooking challenges, household projects, picnics or dance parties are just a few ideas to get you started.
Lower your standards. While this is a chance to connect with your children, when you’re trying to do so many things, you can start to feel as though you aren’t doing anything particularly well. The pandemic is new for everyone and this isn’t business as usual, so try not to be too hard on yourself, or your kids. Expect that working from home with children will affect your productivity, remind yourself that a clean house is overrated, and remember, there are many ways to learn outside of the classroom. Be realistic, focus on staying safe and aim for just good enough.
Be open and honest. Avoiding talking about the virus will actually make your kids worry more. A good starting point is to ask your child what they know and what they are worried about. This approach will keep things age-appropriate, without overwhelming or scaring them. Celebrate what we are all doing to stay safe and be honest when you don’t have all the answers. For younger children, playtime, art projects and stories are all good ways to explore their big feelings. Separation anxiety, sleep issues, bedwetting, headaches, stomach aches and meltdowns are all signs of anxiety and stress in children. If you are worried about your child’s behaviour, reach out to a mental health professional.
Ask for help. If there’s another adult in the house, try to trade off child care responsibilities. It can feel like a 24-hour job, so “on” and “off” time will give everyone a break and a little breathing room. Make it a team effort by giving your kids age-appropriate jobs. Teens can watch younger children, tweens can be a big help in the kitchen and your toddler can clean up their own toys. Working together will help you feel less overwhelmed and set your family up for good habits after the pandemic.
Take care of yourself. One of the best ways we can help our children is to help ourselves. Children take cues from the grownups in their lives and depend on us to help them navigate their own emotions. Take time each day to do something to de-stress—it’s different for everyone! Get outdoors, do an online yoga class, read a book or connect with friends. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, step away and take a break rather than sharing your anxiety and fear with your children. But it is okay to acknowledge that this is hard.
Parents of Children with Complex Health Needs
If you have a child with multiple health concerns who is at an increased risk for complications, the threat of COVID-19 can be particularly scary. School and business closures may also have affected the therapies and supports that are available for your child. While everyone’s lives have been changed by the pandemic, you are in many ways better prepared. Diligent hand hygiene, infection prevention, avoiding crowds and having essentials on hand are not new practices for your family.
While you always wear many hats, being a parent, teacher, employee and caregiver during this stressful and uncertain time is an enormous task. Many of the parenting tips above, including prioritizing self-care, staying connected with family and friends, keeping expectations realistic, finding your new routine and asking for help are particularly important for you—now more than ever! Other tips specific to parents of children with medical complexities include having a back-up plan and detailed care instructions in case you do get sick, using online community resources and telemedicine whenever possible and recognizing the limits of homeschooling without any extra educational support. Caregivers are known to be flexible and resilient, creative problem-solvers and familiar with uncertainty. Try to take comfort in these hard-won strengths that will help guide you through this new challenge.
Take a Deep Breath
Parenting through COVID-19 is uncharted territory. It can be comforting to remember that no one knows what they are doing and everyone is figuring things out as they go. This is temporary, we are in survival mode and sometimes the best way to keep order is to break all the rules. While there are so many challenges ahead of us, our children may come out of this more creative, empathetic, appreciative and resourceful. Or, at least, one can hope!