Given the quarantine so many of us are currently in, you may find yourself trying to explain things to your young child you might have never thought would need explaining: why there is no school, no opportunity to go places and no opportunity for a familiar caregiver or relative to come visit.
These are difficult concepts to understand. Your child may not be able to fully grasp what you are trying to express, or they may not be able to express their own concerns and emotions, which can lead to impatience and meltdowns—on both their part and yours!
Here are four tips that may help:
- Things They Hear
You may have told your child that their nanny won’t be able to come for a while, or that preschool is closed for a time. Your child may have heard the news on television, or overheard adult conversations about what’s going on in the world. While older children can frequently share their feelings or the questions they have, younger children or children with special needs may not yet have the words to share in the same way. This can cause them to feel overwhelmed or confused, and many times young children might “act out” or have stronger reactions than usual.
To support your child, think about how you can address their concerns even if they are not specifically stated. This might mean displaying pictures of a caregiver, a teacher or anyone else they might be missing, and perhaps pointing out that picture at some point during the day. Or it might mean having a calendar on the wall so you and your child can cross off the days until the next Zoom meeting with friends. You can also think about how you can limit or remove their exposure to the news or to conversations you might be having about the challenges you or other adults are facing.
- Things You Say
When talking about the current challenges, the language you use with your child should be simple and clear, so it doesn’t add to their worry. Young children can have a hard time talking about the future, so it can be helpful to talk about the “here and now.” For example, instead of saying, “We’ll get to go outside later today” you can set a timer for when that will be, and in preparation, you and your child can gather up all the things you’ll need (i.e. a coat, a ball) so when the timer rings, everything is “ready.”
If you’re answering questions, it’s OK to not share every specific detail on what you know to be a very challenging or scary situation. For example, if someone in the household is insecure in their employment, you could share with your child something like, “Right now we are trying to spend our money very smartly” instead of telling them that Mommy or Daddy might be losing their job. The difference in language is significant and lets your child know that you are working to make smart decisions and you are figuring things out (even if it may not seem like that to you)!
- Things You Can Do
Depending on your child’s age, they may not have a lot of formal school work to complete. this might be a good time to bring in worksheets and specific learning activities. Those kinds of things can be great, and if your child enjoys them, definitely incorporate them into daily life! Remember, though, that it’s OK to leave lots of time for play—play is very educational, and children can learn so much from playing on their own or with a parent or sibling. Play also allows your child to express themselves in ways that they are unable to with words.
Try letting your child tell you what the activity will be and what role you will take in it—following their lead can result in a much richer play experience. You may also see your child act out themes that are going on in the home, or themes about missing school, or not finding groceries at the store. These are all valid expressions and can give you the opportunity to address their concerns in a way that is understanding and reassuring.
If your child has difficulty with pretend play, perhaps they like to spin a toy, or line things up, or look out the window, or play with race cars. Think about how you can join them in a fun and respectful manner —maybe you want to try having a turn at spinning that toy with them, or adding another block to their line, or making a brief comment on what they see out the window, or having a race. Again, in following their lead (while of course always ensuring their safety), you might find wonderful new ways to connect.
Working from home brings about a new set of complexities, and if you are a parent who is trying to balance it all, think about the things your child likes and how those things can allow them to keep themself safely entertained (and give you a break), and how you can perhaps join in those things with your child at a later time. Perhaps you’ll want to buy a few toys and keep them out of sight, handing out just one a week at a special time (maybe the time that you have a specific call or work engagement). Or perhaps your child can have their own “computer” and area to “work in” and they can “work” while you get your work done. You can also take advantage of all the online options right now for virtual zoo tours and more.
- Being Patient
Patience with both your own self and your child is critical. These are hard times for many and your family may be struggling with a variety of challenges. Your child may not have school now or may not have a playgroup or their babysitter or nanny present. Activities may be significantly curtailed. Try to have patience with yourself—and with your child. If you feel like you’re losing patience, maybe your spouse or partner can take over for a bit, or perhaps you can call a friend, or set up a virtual playdate for your child, or let your child have some time with electronics so you can take a moment to breathe. There are also many free and paid resources for parent support including local parent coaches, parent support groups, and national websites such as childwelfare.gov.
Above all, try to remember that you do not have to be the super parent, or the parent that gets it all done! Sometimes just being the parent that’s present and available is more than enough—and in the end, especially now in this difficult time, it will have made the most difference for your child.