This column is the fourth in a series providing information and suggestions about parenting through the COVID-19 pandemic. Therapists, authors and child experts Jim Wellborn, Ph.D. and Stacy Jagger, LMFT will be helping parents explain to their kids what is happening as well as how to deal with the various challenges of having kids home for the next month or more. They will be giving you suggestions and advice about setting up schedules, dealing with bored and irritable kids, continuing their schoolwork from home, keeping them occupied, maintaining friendships and social connections, managing and monitoring screen time and taking care of yourself so you can take care of your kids.
This virus is creating pandemonium and chaos — in my LIVING ROOM! "What part of 'You can’t go out' did you not understand?"
“No, you can’t meet up with your friends. We are trying to stop a pandemic here!” (Although according to us, you shouldn’t use the term pandemic to keep from scaring the little darlings.)
“Can Mark come over?”
“I’m bored. Can I ride my bike to Carmen’s house?”
“Can we go to the park? The sun is out!”
“All my friends are meeting up to go for a walk. Can I go?”
Social sacrifice. There have not been conditions that require this kind of sacrifice of essential freedoms, liberties and luxuries by the entire country since World War II. There has not been this kind of disruption of the economy since the Great Depression. We are all going to have to endure some significant sacrifices. Isolation and social distancing is just the first of these. Your kids need to know that this is a big deal. This requires a framing of social distancing and isolation as something we do for other people, people we may not even know. For children, this means mentioning that they are doing this for the sake of others.
“We are doing our part to make extra sure that our family and friends and those around us stay well. Until we know for sure, we are going to wait before we play with other kids.”
Educate. Your children need to know about the social distancing and isolation that will be required of them, especially because there is every reason to believe we all will be required to continue this for months to come. It is better to give your kid accurate (but age appropriate) information rather than to try to avoid the topic (which makes them think it is worse than it is) or to try to reassure them with inaccurate information (because when they discover the truth they will doubt what you tell them in the future). Here are some great resources with really good information.
- Forbes Magazine has gathered some excellent resources on the virus and social distancing that will help you educate your child yourself or using some of the great videos on the list created by various organizations.
- The National Association of School Psychologists has a great section on the virus.
Once your kid has information about social distancing and isolation, they will need to understand what that really means: not leaving the house and not playing with their friends. This is where your ongoing education about making sure people stay well and don’t get sick will come into play.
“This means we will need to make sure everyone is well before we spend time with them. They can’t come over to play and we can’t go over to their house to play.”
It is also good to continue to reassure them that, by combining temporary social distancing with good nutrition, hydration and physical exercise, we are giving our immune systems the opportunity to keep our bodies well and free from sickness.
Sympathize. Kids are going to be frustrated and confused about not getting to spend time with friends or go out and do things in public spaces. They will need a lot of sympathy. Sympathizing with your kid will be yet another way for you comfort your child as well as help them identify and understand all the different feelings they are feeling.
“I know this is (going to be) really hard. It is really sad when you don’t get to see your friends.”
“It is disappointing when you don’t get a chance to play with other kids.”
“I know you feel angry that we STILL can’t have people come over to the house.”
This could open up a discussion about who you can connect with in the meantime and how to creatively interact through social media and phones.
“Well, Janie, let’s see when Mary can FaceTime with you so you can share what you have been doing lately.”
Children can interact with their friends with online video person-to-person chat programs, even playing together over the internet with dolls or other toys. They can show off Lego creations or other creative projects. One of our boys has been having Rubik’s Cube competitions over video chat with some of his friends. Get creative. Ask your child(ren) who they would like to connect with and make an effort to arrange it.
Sympathizing also provides a good opportunity to combine both actual sympathy with emphasizing the importance of character (i.e., being the kind of person you expect them to be).
“I know this is really hard. There are times when we have to be patient even when we don’t want to be. I am proud of how you are making the best of not getting to do some of the fun things you usually get to do. Sometimes thinking of others first means we have to wait before we do what we want.”
Then there are things you can do to help them manage their feelings. For young children we recommend a technique Stacy calls “birdie talk” (found in her book 30 Day Blackout). It is a technique to both connect (by restating your child’s feelings or wished to show you understand how they are feeling) and redirect (by providing some simple information about the situation and then offering an activity that can occupy your child in a playful or productive way, preferably together with you).
Johnny: “I hate this germ storm. When is this going to be over?!”
Parent connecting: “I see how frustrated you are sweetheart and I’m hearing that you really hate this germ storm and you are really wanting to know when it will be over. Is that right?”
Parent redirecting with two choices: “What we know is that for now we have to take life one day at a time because we just don’t know how long the germ storm will last. Would you like to take a walk with me or have a picnic in the living room?"
In addition to redirecting with alternative activities (like those found in Stacy’s book), you can also consider activities that will calm their nervous system like relaxation exercises and, especially, time spent in the natural world. And, just to repeat ourselves, keep the news OFF. And that means OFF.
Compensate. Even though your kid will have to make these sacrifices whether they want to or not, it is still worth providing some kind of compensation. Compensation can come in many forms. There are endless activities being posted across the internet and social media that children will find enjoyable, especially if they are things they have not done before (or previously have not been allowed to do). Not all compensation is money or things. Time with YOU is actually something your kid may find the most rewarding of all.
“You have been so patient and understanding about not being able to play with your friends. What is something special you would like to do?”
One way to provide time with you is to do parallel activities, to be near one another while doing separate tasks. This could be a child coloring or drawing at the kitchen table or countertop while you are preparing a meal, cleaning up or other household chores. If the child is young, make sure to notice what they are doing and make statements or observation (not criticism or suggestions) like: “I see you made the clouds red in your picture.”
Find some time, a couple of times per day, to be with your child in a play activity or playing a game together. This can help make the quarantine time (however long it is) a time of connection and special moments. Consider capturing some of these moments with your camera and save them, perhaps even posting or sharing them with friends and family.
Anticipate. It is important to talk about social isolation as longer term. It’s going to be happening for a while. Instead of saying “for now” or “it’ll only be for a little while,” it can help to plant the seeds that we may all be going through this for a while longer. Saying things like “as long as we need to” or “until we can all be sure that everyone will stay well” has an underlying message that this may not be short term. Another character building opportunity would be to include something like “we will do our part as long as necessary, even if it is difficult, because that’s how we do things in our family.”
Compliment. Another basic parenting technique is to recognize and encourage your kid when they show themselves to be the kind of person you expect them to be. They know what you expect by what you notice. So, when your kid is showing the qualities and behaviors you expect of them during this crisis, be sure to comment on it.
“You are being so patient."
“What a great example you are being to all of us (your little brother, sister, etc.).”
“That is how we all need to be right now.”
“I am so proud of how you find creative ways to have fun all by yourself.”
“I’m so glad that even though you are frustrated and feeling unhappy that you are making the best of it.”
By helping your child understand isolation and social distancing, it will make it easier (not easy, easier) for them to accept those limitations. Unfortunately, face-to-face online time with friends will not be very fulfilling to your child. They entertain themselves by doing things, not talking and sharing ideas. So, as you have already realized, YOU have now become their primary playmate! You know how people always say we need to recapture our childlike innocence and joy? Well, here’s your chance!
James G. Wellborn, Ph.D.
Dr. James G. Wellborn is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Brentwood focusing on adolescents and families. He is an expert on motivation, coping in childhood and adolescence, academic engagement, parenting and adolescent development. An invited speaker to groups, agencies and churches on parenting and teenage issues, he conducts workshops for parents, teens, teachers and counselors on parenting teens, teenage issues, adolescent development, motivating teens, mental health issues and intervention strategies. Dr. Wellborn is the author of Raising Teens in the 21st Century: A Practical Guide to Effective Parenting. Dr. Wellborn and his wife live in Nashville, Tennessee and are the parents of two grown children and, now, of two adorable grandchildren. You can learn more about Dr. Wellborn by visiting his website at www.DrJamesWellborn.com.
Stacy Jagger, LMFT, RPT-S
Stacy Jagger is a mother of four and a therapist to many. She is on a mission to restore wonder to childhood, connection to families, and intimacy to relationships. She is the architect of the 30 Day Blackout, a break from technology designed to bring parents and children closer together and unleash the natural creativity in all of us. A musician at heart, she designed Music with Mommie, a parent-child bonding class that utilizes instruments and play to facilitate connection. Stacy has spent the last several years of her career building Music City Family Therapy, her practice in Brentwood. She lives on a small farm outside the city with her husband of 20 years, a pony named Mister Rogers, a few dozen chickens and a gaggle of ducks.