Parents have been challenged as they try to address prolonged school closures and social distancing with young children. COVID-19 has pummeled various regions of the United States in different ways at different times. To add to the mix, the messaging about social distancing is not especially child friendly. Young kids will not have the intellectual ability to make the leap of how their quarantine (no school, no friends, no familiar routine) will flatten some abstract curve and protect the health of someone in a nursing home two states over.
This post grew out of a rainy morning several weeks ago when I was watching a handful of children I just adore collapsing via text message from my phone. The weight of their sorrow was too much and it looked like actual sorrow, a quality that is unusual in a child. There was a hint of the expressions I remember having seen on refugee children. In other words, it did not look like anger or frustration. I have been sitting on this post ever since because I have wanted to share the complex wisdom it contains, but with a sense of hope.
The ramifications of the crisis have challenged American families. As we begin, in some areas, to emerge from the most immediate onset crisis, it becomes important to extract the lessons we can use in the future. Give InKind sat down with developmental pediatrician, David Fenner, M.D.
More than Anxiety I asked Dr. Fenner about how to help children deal with COVID-19-based anxiety and as we started to toss that around, it quickly became clear that anxiety was not the root of the problem. These children may be experiencing or manifesting anxiety which can be defined as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes," but there is more to it than that. Anxiety implies a fear of something unknown or uncertain and while there are elements of COVID-19 that are both of these things, the children growing up in COVID-19 are something greater than anxious.
Confusion The children growing up in COVID-19 are also confused. They feel out of control. They lack the vocabulary to express the emotional complexities they internalize as their lives are upended by this once-in-a-century pandemic.
Limited Choices The children coping with COVID-19 are understanding that their choices are constricted. This generation of parents often is encouraged to ask children how they feel and to make choices where they are able. The feelings of these children and the choices they are allowed to make are far more limited than they were four months ago.
Dr. Fenner notes that his experience of COVID-19 is not any more expert than the next medical expert because it is all so new. He agreed to speak to me with an understanding at the outset that his experience in pediatric medicine does not give him any specific answers about COVID-19 on the order we seek. Still, we pulled together some general rules for parents.
General Rules for Parenting Through the Crisis:
- Approach COVID-19 like it is a war, even though there are fundamental differences. Hear me out. Siege mentalities are useful in getting things done under pressure. While a parent does not want to articulate this outright, it is a helpful internal framework. As previously stated, I once worked with refugees and checked to see whether this comparison was accurate. I was told that it is, in the sense that in war, the violence is not constant. There are lulls. There are safety zones. The inability to forecast a timeframe is also complicated and skews perception. Building a strategy on these facts and on the knowledge that it won’t last forever does help. We know when store shelves are stocked. We can anticipate coming waves (they are to be expected) and can be better prepared. We may not have all the answers but we can apply a little more experience.
- Understand that for the moment, the structure has broken down somewhat. It will be reconstructed at some point, but if a child needs your attention and you are deciding about whether to be there with them with no real answer or try to plan something, say, a camp in 6 months, because you think it would help them feel hopeful, it’s possible the camp will be canceled. Maybe just cuddling up is a better use of time.
- Stop making plans with an assumption that they will go as you intend. If you are a planner, continue to plan, but understand that the plans may shift. For example, the summer camp you are conditioned to register for in March, the attention you paid to choices around what your children eat (i.e. Is the meat locally sourced? Is the food organic?), the effort of placing limits on screen time. When COVID-19 hit, we collectively fell over a cliff and as we fell, some of us clung to choices we thought made us organized or “good." Time to let them all go. They don’t make sense anymore. My daughter has had hot dogs for dinner more times than I can count. Hot dogs. No vegetables. Sometimes I even forgot I was supposed to offer one.
- We are living in a time of fewer choices. This may mean that parents give themselves permission to “cheat" during moments of extreme parenting. Even as we understand the impact of COVID-19 to be different depending on where you are, your response is still uniquely yours. Practice self-care in ways you would not ordinarily. Go extra. If you are someone who struggles with anxiety and manages it with success by doing yoga, that’s great. But that may not be enough for everyone. This is not a contest and there is no shame. Talk to your doctor. If you are to be your child’s cure for anxiety, you might just need something too. We are trying to make things easier, not harder.
- Be in the moment. If a child is having a bad moment, be there, bear witness, and affirm their feelings as they experience it. Try not to talk a child out of a reasonable response to COVID-19. It makes perfect sense that they will have good days and bad days. It makes sense that they are experiencing (and surviving) BIG, HUGE FEELINGS. If they are mad, let them be mad. Try not to “put things in context" because that will come later. It only invalidates their normal response to an abnormal situation.
- Understand the limits in how you explain public health guidelines, especially if they are likely to come around again. Ideally, we will be in a better position to respond so things will not feel as drastic.
- If you are in a position to make something fun, go for it. If it’s a nice day and it’s close to dinner and you happen upon an ice cream sundae, do it. Ice cream for dinner is cool sometimes.
I am struck, always, by the capacity of the brain to store up both wonder and kindness in the face of unfathomable stress. I have known many young children and young adults emerge from war having witnessed overt violence and grow into gentle individuals. I know children who watched the towers fall in NYC on 9/11, saw them grow mute and then learn to speak again. If we do what we can to notice and celebrate kindness, the amplification of these things can save our worldview and the worldview of the children we are raising.
It is okay, in the end, not to have all the answers. Just enough of them will do for now.
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