Parenting during a pandemic: Walking with our kids through hard times

Parenting during a pandemic: Walking with our kids through hard times

Parenting during a global pandemic is challenging to say the least, as everyone is experiencing a heightened sense of uncertainty and apprehension. Children see and hear our worries – their routines have been drastically altered, their social connection reduced and their emotional outlets are limited. Acknowledging stress and hard emotions and prioritizing wellness gives caregivers the opportunity to practice healthy coping skills with their children.

Identifying Stress in Children

Signs of stress can be the same in children as in adults including sleep pattern changes, nightmares, changes in appetite and withdrawal from peers and family.

In children, age-specific signs of stress and anxiety include:

  • Preschool: fear of being alone, loss of bladder/bowel control, increased tantrums
  • Ages 6-12: clinging, irritability, aggression
  • Ages 13-18: isolation, loss of energy

Sign of stress in kids can also be:

  • Physical: constantly tightening muscles, hyperactivity with no diagnosis (i.e. ADHD), stomachaches (no medical reason)
  • Emotional: crying, panic attacks, worrying about the future
  • Behavioral: Asking “What if?”, having meltdowns or tantrums, constantly seeking approval

Please do not hesitate to call your pediatrician with any concerns you might have about your child.

Teaching New Skills

Every child is unique in the ways they express stress, anxiety, frustration, fear or any other emotion. During a stressful time, avoid labeling a child’s behavior as “good” or “bad.” Instead of categorizing, approach the behavior with empowerment and curiosity as an opportunity to reconnect, bond and build trust.

As our children’s brains develop, they are also practicing new life skills. We can give them, and ourselves, the chance to practice these life skills of patience, self-control and delayed gratification in a secure, safe and loving environment. Keep checking in with your children, keep asking questions and keep actively listening. Staying present and exploring emotions versus immediate punishment, time outs or sending them away e.g. “go to your room,” will provide the chance to connect with your child, tune in with their stress and anxiety in whatever ways they present and practice coping strategies alongside your child.

This does not mean we shouldn’t maintain healthy boundaries and expectations in the home. This is simply an approach to help us understand why children might be resisting picking up their toys, turning off their video game or any other challenging behavior and then brainstorming a solution with them.

Acknowledging Hard Emotions

In difficult moments with our children, we can demonstrate the ability to notice needs as well as give nurturing care. Name an intense emotion out loud. For example, “I am feeling mad right now. I feel hot in my face and tense in my muscles. I am going to _____ (fill in the blank for what works for you, whether it be 20 jumping jacks, 10 big belly breaths, drinking a glass of water, etc.).”

Putting a label on the emotion gives you the awareness of what is happening in your mind and body. Plus it gives you a choice on how you want to deal with it.

We can practice this labeling technique with our children by asking them what they are feeling in the moment, where they are feeling it in their body, and what they want to do to find a sense of calm and self-control.

Avoid “Running on Empty”

Adults and children need to prioritize wellness before feeling depleted. We cannot expect to operate with reason, logic and compassion running on empty. With time and practice, we can create space between our triggers and our actions; we can create choices. And as adults, we model this pause with children by how we choose to react to our own stressors as well our child’s behaviors.

Parents need to take care of themselves, too. You are a role model to your child as to how to handle stressful situations. Some methods of self-care and coping include:

  • Modifying your daily activities to meet the current reality of the situation and focusing on what you can realistically accomplish
  • Shifting expectations and priorities to focus more on what gives you meaning, purpose or fulfillment
  • Attempting to control self-defeating statements and replace them with more helpful thoughts.

Prioritizing wellness can be a fun experience with your child as you develop a go-to list of purposeful activities you enjoy. Some ideas include building a fort in the living room, playing your favorite music and having an at home dance party, baking together or even taking a moment to rest.

Finally, nutrition and sleep are vital for everyone’s mental, physical, and emotional health. Stay hydrated, eat regularly, avoid extra sugar and have a consistent bedtime routine.

Noticing Behavioral Changes

If your child’s behavior is changing erratically, becoming unsafe or extremely worrisome, resources within the healthcare system can offer assessments and support. Some children might experience different versions of regression during extreme stress or grief, such as a potty-trained child having accidents.

As we continue to journey through this unusual time together, take a moment to practice gratitude for the things that make us smile.

Let us make it a point to laugh with our children every day. And let this time, however challenging it may be, be a chance for us to stay connected with our children.

Additional Resources:

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