Don’t keep your kids in the dark
As scary as this all feels for adults, it can be even more frightening for kids. Children need us to show them that things will get better, that we will find a vaccine, and that most people who get sick will get better. The first thing you need to do is to tell them that everything is going to be okay, that your family is safe; and that they will be safe.
Explain to your children that most of the changes taking place, such as school being closed, activities being cancelled, and playdates being postponed are preventative in nature. Tell them that we’re doing all this out of an abundance of caution—to be as safe. We’re staying home to prevent those who are more vulnerable to the virus from getting sick. If they have questions about anything you tell them, try to give “just enough” answers that are concise and clear, rather than detailed explanations.
Normalize emotional expression
Children learn by watching adults. That’s why it’s so important that we reassure them that sometimes we get scared too, but that we know it’s going to be okay. Try to keep more intense emotions in check around your kids, as full-on sobbing or panicking can scare them. If you’re crying in a calmer, more controlled way, and are still able to communicate clearly, this is important for kids to see. They need to know that emotions are okay to have and to show.
Feel your feelings, but try to focus on the positive and find the silver lining. Tell your kids that even though we’re scared, we get to spend much more time together as a family and try out new, fun activities that we wouldn’t normally. Keep the home environment as light as possible while still acknowledging and validating their emotions.
Put your kids to work
Have your kids write cards or draw pictures for their grandparents or elderly neighbours, send their friends pen-pal like messages over text (with parental supervision), or help you cook or bake. Keep kids busy and engaged in a variety of activities and look into things you might not have before (for example, learning how to read and play music from YouTube videos, learning a new language). Kids want to feel included and need to be stimulated, so get creative and find fun things to do in downtime that will give them a sense of agency and self-efficacy. Finding new ways to spend time is also a good way to keep screen time in balance. More time at home will likely mean increased screen time for kids, especially if we adults are walking the working parent tightrope of trying to work from home with kids out of school.
Create and stick to a routine
This is the time to master the art of time-blocking. For those of us whose children are still on Spring Break, let your kids have time off for fun, relaxing, and playing. Don’t panic and try to get them learning right away until they would normally be going back to school. Kids thrive on structure and routine, and it’s vital that we maintain this aspect of their healthy development even in such uncertain times. Time-blocking our own schedules as adults is important too—this will help us stay focused and on-task when we’re inevitably surrounded by endless distractions.
When Spring Break is over, the best thing you can do is to structure your kids’ days as much as possible. Write the daily schedule down on a whiteboard or piece of paper and put it on the fridge. As much as appropriate, include your kids in creating their daily plan (for example, allowing them to choose whether snack time is at 9 a.m. or 9:30 a.m.). Your kids will learn their new routine, and this will give your whole family a sense of being grounded and present. If we wake up every day with only a vague plan or intention for the day, we’ll quickly all start to feel a little chaotic, disorganized, and irritable. In times like this, maintaining as much normalcy for kids (and ourselves) as possible is the best way to go to manage mental wellness.
Put your oxygen mask on first
Kids look to their guardians for direction. This means that if you aren’t showering or feeding yourself properly, or aren’t attending to your kids like you should be, their lives (and everyone else’s) are going to be a lot more difficult. Remember that you are their backbone and that you set the tone for the days and weeks to come. If you’re not feeling well mentally or physically your kids will notice and it will affect them. So as hard as it may be, we need to find ways to rally to be as strong a role model as possible.
It’s extra important that we get what we need as partners, adults, and parents during this time. Having everyone together in the house for an extended period of time will undoubtedly push some of us to our limits. To avoid snapping or being unfair to them or our partners, we need to ensure that we’re meeting our own needs too. This means having virtual happy hours with our friends or coworkers, calling our family members to check in, doing that YouTube exercise class, or finally taking that online course. Or maybe it’s just each of you getting at least 30 minutes of alone time while the other partner takes the lead.
We’re all in uncharted waters here, and it’s okay to make mistakes as long as we deal with them effectively. As parents, we’re finding ways to keep our kids engaged and happy at home, and as workers, we’re trying to keep up with our workload despite our changing environment and daily activities. Make sure you take as much private time as you can to connect, vent, or laugh. Call your friends when you feel lonely, and see this extended time with your kids as a rare opportunity to spend meaningful time together. We will all feel frustrated at times, but with some patience, camaraderie and creativity we can get through it together.