When schools started closing their doors to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, parents nationwide suddenly found themselves trying to home-school their children, work from home, and keep everyone fed and clothed while maintaining some semblance of sanity.
Two early childhood researchers at Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences are offering guidance for how to make the best of these challenging times.
“We’re in new territory right now — for all of us,” says parenting education specialist Shauna Tominey, an assistant professor of practice at Oregon State and state coordinator for the Oregon Parenting Education Collaborative (OPEC).
“We have to stop and recognize that we’re all experiencing more stress than usual, children and adults alike.”
All that new stress and the disruption of routine means that both children and adults are running short on sleep, she says, which tips us more easily into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode and makes us more likely to say and do things we don’t feel good about.
To minimize tense situations:
- Prevent escalation by identifying stress early on: Is your heart beating fast? Are you breathing more quickly? Are your muscles tense?
- Take some deep breaths
- Plan what you can do during the day to manage stress, with actions like:
- Going for a walk or exercising (while social distancing)
- Sticking to a routine with plenty of sleep
- Making healthy eating choices as much as possible
- Staying socially connected via phone calls or video chats
- Reading a book (even for a few minutes)
- Getting into nature or looking out the window
When confrontations occur, Shauna says, use them as teaching moments: Tell your child you feel bad about what you did, explain why you were feeling so angry or frustrated (without blaming them), ask how they were feeling and brainstorm together about how to avoid future conflicts.
“Going through this process helps teach your child that we all have feelings and that’s okay,” she says.
While it’s important to be honest about how you’re feeling, it’s also crucial to make sure kids know what you’re doing to manage the anxiety.
Help children devise their own coping strategies, such as:
- Focus on what we know and what we’re doing to keep our bodies healthy and safe, and to keep other people safe
- Reassure children that they’re with family or caregivers who care about them
- Talk about what we can do to be a helper
Parents should also talk with their kids about the importance of handwashing and social distancing, as well as healthy eating habits and sleeping.
Going forward, Shauna advises that parents work on setting up a routine for themselves and their children; that they focus on flexibility, differentiating between the “must-haves” and the “nice-to-haves;” and that they keep realistic expectations for their children and themselves, and can forgive each other when those expectations are not met. A daily gratitude practice can help, too.
Parents of children with developmental disabilities may be facing additional challenges right now, including need for respite, keeping schedules, and adhering to medical and behavioral needs, says Megan MacDonald, an associate professor and the Early Childhood Core Director at the Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families at Oregon State.
As for explaining to kids what is happening in the world right now, Megan says parents know their own children best and can make this decision based on their specific needs, though there are resources and planning guides available.
Physical activity is crucial right now for both physical and mental health, she says — though families must obviously adhere to local social distancing restrictions.
It’s also good to give kids choice in what movement they engage in, whether it’s walking around the block outside or following a yoga video indoors. In addition, Special Olympics has a website of adaptable at-home exercises, with instructions for what materials you’ll need to perform them.
And parents, remember to take care of yourself, Megan says.
“Take a few minutes every day to check-in with yourself and acknowledge the work you’re doing to take care of you and your family,” she says. “You’ve got this!”