Parenting During the COVID-19 Era: Increasing Our Capacity for Presence in a Time of Chronic Stress
Parenting can be a rewarding, and sometimes challenging, job. During this pandemic where the structure you worked so hard to implement has been flipped upside down, parenting is even more difficult and can be exhausting. You are not alone! Here are some tips to help you adjust, create structure, and make life a little easier.
Step 1: Forgiveness
A good first step for parents is to make a pledge to forgive yourselves for past parenting mistakes. Try reciting the following:
“I promise to forgive myself for past parenting mistakes. I promise to approach myself with kindness, as I learn how to parent during a pandemic. I recognize that parenting during a pandemic is new territory for everybody, not just me.”
Just a note on stress. Wear and tear on our bodies can happen when repeated exposure to stressors accumulate in our body. In this time of COVID-19 we have constant uncertainty and stress. This builds in the body and makes it hard to function. You might be experiencing chronic tiredness, difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite, increased irritability, anxiety, nervousness, and many other symptoms. Just take note, these could be signs that stress is overwhelming your body.
Step 2: Presence
While you work hard to support your family’s needs, it’s important to purposefully take time for yourself. This is known as mindfulness and happens when you pay close attention to what is happening around you, the activities you are doing, what is happening inside you, and how you are feeling. You can even include time each day for your children to practice mindfulness, which can help with their social and emotional development.
Set a timer and breathe for 2-5 minutes a few times each day. Count to 5 on the inhale, and count to 5 on the exhale. Even for adults, quiet down time can be the key to reducing anxiety. If your kids want to join you, let them! This practice of deep breathing as a calming tool can be good for anyone.
Everyone needs down time. Children and adults need time to wind down to rest. Scheduling down time after lunch can give you a break in the middle of the day. Down time ideas: taking a nap, reading, watching a movie, taking a calm walk or breathing with a timer.
Simplify your expectations. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents and caregivers are now expected to work from home while they are parenting full-time. There have also been major changes in childcare for many kids. You are a lot of things, but nobody is everything! It is okay to simplify your expectations of yourself and your children.
Step 3: Creating Structure for Your Children
What does your child need? YOU! Showing up for your child is the best thing you can do for him, especially in times of stress. How can you do this?
Kids tend to do better with routine and structure. Predictable days help people respond better to their environments. Create simple and consistent schedules to help give both you and your child structure. You can use the sample schedule below as an example.
• Family breakfast
• Free play
• One hour of structured academic work
• Scheduled Screen time
• Lunch time
• Rest / Nap / Quiet time
• Outside time
• Family Dinner
• Bedtime routine (same time every day)
Go outside and get moving daily! This will help with self-control and processing difficult emotions. Nature walks create structure and purpose. Fresh air and movement can help the body self-regulate and decrease stress! You can also turn your nature walk into a chance to learn! Play Nature Walk Bingo. Help your children create a list or Bingo square of 12 items (leaves, bushes, stop signs, birds, a friend’s house, bicycle, a car, flowers, and any other items you can think of).
Plan screen time strategically. During these uncertain times, it can be tempting, and even convenient, to depend on phones, iPads, and other screens to teach and entertain your children. However, your child learns best from free play and from YOU! The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children younger than 18 months only use screen time for video-chatting with family and friends. For children who are 18 to 24 months, the AAP recommends only using media together with adults. Setting limits is an important tool for children older than two years old. The AAP recommends only one hour or less of screen time a day.
Screen time can be a tool when used well. Put screen time in your daily schedule or use it as a reward for completing other activities, when appropriate. Just remember, once you set an expectation, make sure to stick with it!
Pro tip: keep it very simple and predictable.
Step 4: Praise
Everyone loves praise. Let your child know what it is that you love about what they are doing. Phrases like, “You are being such a kind, hard-working helper (sharer, artist, sibling, baker, gardener, adventurer)!” are really helpful in reinforcing behaviors you like. When your children know what they are doing well, they are more likely to continue that behavior. Positive praise from adults helps young children build the strong foundation they need to thrive!
The Child Health and Development Project: Mississippi Thrive! (CHDP) is a joint project of the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s (UMMC) Center for the Advancement of Youth (CAY) and the Social Science Research Center (SSRC) of Mississippi State University (MSU). The CHDP is funded by the Health Resources Services Administration (HRSA). Mississippi Thrive! is working to improve the developmental and behavioral health of children ages 0-5 in Mississippi. We are doing this by working with parents, early childhood professionals, and health care providers to enhance attention to developmental milestones and strengthen children’s brain architecture. This project is supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of an award totaling $10.5 million with 0 percent financed with non-governmental sources.
Eleanor Ezell, LMSW, is a pediatric behavior therapist who specialized in the treatment of anxiety and disruptive behavior disorders in children. She is finishing a two year Developmental Behavioral Pediatric Fellowship with the Mississippi Thrive! Child Health & Development Project team. She works at The Center for the Advancement of Youth at The University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC).