I was a contributor for this article for Fabric magazine. I think it has a lot of good points for those who have little ones during this time. Enjoy!
My 4-year-old sulks after her preschool video chat, frustrated that her friends are so close but still out of reach. My 1-year-old’s sleep patterns were shaky even before quarantine, and six weeks in—well, let’s not even go there.
Some families may find a harmonious “new normal” in quarantine. But for a lot of us, every day is a struggle, and the routines that worked for two weeks may be fraying after a month or more. That doesn’t even include the struggles many adults are grappling with.
Plus, there’s no guarantee that the end of lockdown will mean that our kids immediately snap back to their pre-covid selves. Especially with school canceled for months in some parts of the country, returning to a daily routine outside the home will likely be a big adjustment in its own right.
That’s why I sought guidance from child psychology experts on how to handle behavior challenges during quarantine, and prepare for life after lockdown.
What Do Toddlers Understand About Coronavirus?
Even if you’re not discussing the news with your kids, they probably know more than you think about what’s happening in the world. At minimum, toddlers notice that they’re not seeing grandparents or going to daycare as usual.
“As soon as their schedule changes, that’s when they notice,” says Allison Edwards, Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and author of several books, including Worry Says What?. “Our son (18 months old) is totally aware of the change. It’s hard to manage stress and being a parent. Kids are like horses. They pick up every single thing we experience.”
Setting a sustainable schedule
Juggling work and childcare is a major challenge. This is especially true if you’re a single parent or if you and your partner are both are trying to work an eight-hour day (or longer). Here are some ideas to find a balance:
- Stagger or spread out work schedules if possible. If one partner starts at 7 and ends at 3, and the other works 10-6, you minimize overlap. Single parents may get more done if they can schedule work blocks for naps and evenings.
- Take turns for concentrated work. I struggle to work at all around the kids, but I can get a lot done in a two-hour sprint and free up the next few hours. My husband can listen in on some conference calls while making PB&J, but he needs other times to focus. We huddle in the morning to plan who gets which hours to work alone.
- Just use screens. If both parents need to concentrate at the same time, sometimes a Netflix binge is the most reliable answer.
- Take breaks. Especially if you’re a single parent, you may get more mileage out of a 40-minute work/20-minute play schedule, for example. Use hands-on time to set little ones up with favorite activities, play together until they’re absorbed and slip away when you can.
- Make a schedule kids can “read.” Pictures of a plate and fork, books and outside time can tell kids what’s coming next. This can provide a sense of consistency even if parents are taking turns being on duty.
- Wear them out. Encourage them to run, jump, dance, climb stairs, spin or follow a kids fitness video with you. The goal is to get them tired enough either to nap or feel ready for a quiet activity like coloring.
Talking to kids about a pandemic
As a parent, you’re the most trustworthy source of information for your kids. Dr. Lindsay Scharfstein, a psychologist at Center for Anxiety and Behavioral Change, offers age-appropriate strategies to start the conversation.
“For younger kids in particular, it’s helpful to use visuals. Pictures of coronavirus, images of washing hands, saying hi from a distance and putting on masks. All the components that kids don’t immediately understand,” she says. “For ages 3 to 5 and above, find out what they know already. They’ve heard kids talking about it.”
Parents should choose information their kid can handle, of course. My daughter knows germs make you sick (and that alphabet soup is great medicine), and she’s comfortable with the concept of hand washing to scrub away germs.
If you know your tot is a worrier, you might skip virus pictures and focus on reinforcing what’s safe in their lives. Talking about being “helpers” by staying home also goes over well in my house. Your goal in talking to your kids should be to correct misunderstandings and provide reassurance that you’re taking steps to stay healthy, using whatever information makes sense for your kid’s personality.
Common Behavior Challenges in Quarantine
If your kids have gone from best buds to enemies, or your 3-year-old is back in diapers, you’re not alone! Here are some of the top behavior issues families are facing.
“Sleep regression has been a huge one,” Edwards says. “Because of schedule changes, parents are more lax, and then kids get off their routine.”
The more kids sleep in, stay up or skip naps, the more likely it is that they’ll get thrown off their pre-coronavirus rhythms. Your best strategy is to stick to a normal sleep routine as much as you can, even if that means getting firm about bedtime. Edwards, in the parenting trenches herself with a 2-month-old and an 18-month-old, has returned to sleep-training her oldest. A few nights of cry-it-out (within reason) can be worthwhile as little ones re-learn to self-soothe.
Scharfstein says that while it’s OK to offer an extra minute or two of reassurance at bedtime, you don’t want to lean into a child’s fearfulness. “Parents who stay in the room are conveying the message that this is scary. Parents can convey confidence in their child’s resilience by keeping the routine similar.” (Here’s more on how and when to say no to kids.)
If frequent wake-ups are a problem, some kids respond well to a morning reward for staying in bed all night. “Morning rewards can include a cookie for breakfast, getting a chance to pick out a parent’s shirt or pants, or small things like a dance party.” Choose a reward you can live with for a while. Some parents will happily dish up an 8:00 a.m. Oreo for a week. Others will be shocked at the idea (in which case, crank up the tunes for a dance party!).
Fighting with siblings
You’ve got enough on your plate as a parent balancing work and home life, without refereeing constant fighting. When tensions rise between siblings, the best plan might be for everyone to take a step back. Set a designated quiet time during the day for everyone to spend time apart to recharge.
My kids both still nap, a major perk not all families enjoy. If your kids won’t sleep, try to find an alternate midday breather. Maybe your no-napper is willing to look at picture books solo in bed for quiet time. Maybe you can at least put on your toddler’s favorite show and have a cup of coffee in the next room, so you can keep an eye out without being totally hands-on.
Wetting the bed
Kids who have mastered the potty sometimes backslide when big changes happen, whether that’s a new sibling’s birth or a global pandemic. The trick to returning to accident-free living is staying unruffled.
“When kids regress, you have to go back to what was working before. Often, parents are frustrated. There’s a lot of emotion around it, and it makes kids anxious, which just makes it worse,” Edwards says. Most of the time, kids get back on track in a few weeks if you meet them where they are.
That means staying calm. Aim for “Let’s get you some clean clothes” instead of “Oh no, you made a big mess!” Reach for a package of pull-ups if you need to. Mentally rewind to what worked when you potty-trained the first time. You can use those same methods again, and they’ll probably work much faster because your child has mastered this before.
My even-keeled kid is definitely acting up more often in lockdown, pouting or yelling at her sister. Frankly, my mood is swinging more than usual, too. For little kids (and parents), routines and self-soothing strategies can go a long way to add order and beat stress. Scharfstein offers some of the top strategies in her toolkit:
- Make a daily schedule to follow with your kid, even if it’s just a rough idea of when to take a walk or watch a movie. Even if your toddler can’t read the schedule, you’ll know what’s coming next, and kids will pick up on your confidence.
Teach your child relaxation exercises, like breathing in and out to a count of four or tensing and relaxing muscles.
Make a sensory toolkit. Fill a box with crayons (great for art or just that waxy smell), magazine cutouts or photos, marbles tied in an old sock or anything else that kids love to look at, sniff or touch to self-soothe.
If you’re up for it, bake together, especially a holiday favorite. Smells tie strongly to memory, so you might tap into a sense of peace and goodwill.
Let kids suck a chocolate chip as long as they can without biting it.
Fill a bucket or the bathtub and let kids play with water.
Kids who are neurodiverse or struggle with anxiety often respond well to physical pressure. Wrapping them up tight with a hug or a blanket, pressing their hands hard against a wall or riding a bike or tricycle with resistant pedals can give them the sensory feedback they need to loosen up.
You might find that if you can get on a roughly predictable routine and practice stress-relieving strategies, other issues like potty accidents may settle down, too.
A kid who likes staying at home too much
Some kids seem super well-adjusted now, but they may act out later. Kids who were previously dealing with social anxiety or separation anxiety may seem to thrive when lockdown lets them stay home, away from stress triggers. But as a parent, you might worry that this situation is undoing important progress.
It can help to practice facing anxiety triggers at home, Scharfstein says. “Identify a drop-off within the home. When kids go to school sessions virtually, parents can say, ‘Okay, it’s drop-off, go down the stairs.’ Even if there’s not a physical separation, [kids] keep in mind that they’re capable of separating themselves from caregivers.”
You might still need to be nearby, but as much as you can, try encouraging some independence to help kids practice separation skills.
What will returning to normal feel like?
Let’s face the bad news first: Going back to normal may not be as much of a relief as parents hope. Scharfstein and Edwards both say to expect some anxiety when it’s time to leave home again.
Scharfstein recommends a three-step approach to ease these transitions for young kids:
- Validate feelings: Let kids know you understand when something feels tough or scary.
- Provide education: Share what you do know and what the current plan is (e.g. “school starts again next week and your teacher will wear a mask”)
- Express confidence: Praise ways they’ve coped so far (e.g. coming up with new games to play) and tell them, “We can handle what’s next.”
What if we need to go back to staying at home?
Edwards suggests creating two family plans: a “home structure” you follow in quarantine and a “school structure” (your regular, pre-covid schedule, adapted if necessary to fit guidelines) for when restrictions are lifted. Switching between two clearly-defined plans is less stressful than wondering when the next set of guidelines will come out and what they’ll be.
The good news is that if we experience future cycles of lockdown and relative freedom, they’ll probably be easier. You don’t need to talk to little kids about cycles that may or may not happen. Just have the two schedules ready so if circumstances change, you say, “Remember our home schedule? We’re going to do that again for a while, like we did before.”
“Kids are going to get used to this. You’re going to see less regression,” Edwards says. “I’m hopeful that it will get better.”
Does My Kid Need Extra Help?
Everyone handles stressful circumstances differently. In the case of coronavirus quarantine, your situation depends a lot on your family’s health, job status and how seriously your area is affected.
Your kid’s temperament and any potential anxiety they may have had before also changes the equation. If stress-relievers and schedules aren’t working, the National Institute of Mental Health, Child Mind Institute and Psychology Today are good resources to find mental health professionals for extra support.
If your child is neurodivergent and/or really struggling, talk to their teacher or pediatrician. You can also contact a professional counselor or therapist who specializes in children for a consult. Depending on your situation, some therapists may just meet with you and your partner to offer suggestions, or they may try video sessions with your child.
Professionals look for a few parameters to distinguish “normal” stress from a more serious situation:
- Duration: Issues that don’t let up after a few weeks could need extra attention.
- Intensity: Even if an outburst only happens once or twice, an extreme reaction from a little kid (e.g. “I want to die”) could be a sign they need help. What’s extreme? Depends on the kid. A toddler who smacks a sibling once might not need professional intervention. A little kid going into full-on attack mode with parents or siblings, or who gets violent enough to alarm you (trying to throw themselves down the stairs, slamming their head into the wall) could need extra help, even if the outburst happened once.
- Frequency: Behavior issues happening daily or multiple times a day are more concerning than a few times per week. A toddler who bites occasionally may not have a serious issue (annoying as biting may be), but if you’re getting chomped every day, it might be worth asking for help.
We’re all figuring out family rhythms one day at a time. What works for one family won’t be right for another, so if you’re still figuring out the right routine, don’t give up. As parents, we have a lot of power to create a sense of stability for our kids, even when it feels like the world is a whirl.
And when you’re feeling burnt out, a sympathetic parent friend or telehealth professional can remind you that lots of people care about and support you, even from a distance.
By: Jessica Sillers, May 10, 2020, Fabric Magazine