The past several weeks we’ve remembered the events of March 2020: the first COVID-19 case in the United States, the first documented virus-related death, the announcement that schools would be closed and the declared state of emergency. Compared to one year ago, there is so much hope these days – COVID-19 rates are dropping, vaccinations are increasing and public spaces are filling-up again.
There is a lot to be grateful for right now, but if you find yourself exhausted – or on a roller-coaster of gratitude, fear and hopelessness – you are not alone. With schools reopening and more social and recreational options available, your family is (again) faced with new flavors of uncertainty, choices and change.
Please, take a moment to give yourself a high-five and take credit for parenting through conditions that no one in history has experienced. The pandemic is still here, but it is no match for the strengths, love and grit that you drew upon to help your family through these last twelve months.
Looking ahead, returning to school and planning for summer are sure to create some challenges. To help restore your energy and confidence for the next phase of pandemic parenting we too looked back. The advice below comes from UW colleagues who have shared their experience and expertise with parents this past year.
Anxiety is normal and we can help our children, and ourselves, respond to it better.
Anxiety is never pleasant but it is a normal part of life. Our brain is constantly processing information. When it experiences something concerning or extraordinary, our body tries to get our attention so we can respond to whatever is happening.
It can help to think about anxiety like a security alarm. When a building or car alarm goes off, it triggers a response to keep things safe. Sometimes, though, alarms don’t sound right or they go off when they shouldn’t – like when a car passes, a branch taps a window or wires send incorrect signals. Anxiety can be like that, too. Our children may need help if their fear or worry does not match the situation. They can also get better when common fears and worries get their attention.
Many children and parents will experience anxiety about returning to in-person learning and disrupting the family’s COVID-19 routine. Having tools for supporting your child during their transition will help them develop positive mental health habits and may reduce your anxiety, too.
Dr. Kendra Reed, assistant professor of psychiatry and Director of the Mood & Anxiety Program and Director of Anxiety Programs at Seattle Children’s, offers these tips and encourages you to check out Seattle Children’s Anxiety 101 series if you want to learn more.
1. Talk about your own experiences feeling anxious, nervous, scared, stressed. For example, “Wow, momma is feeling really nervous that we were going to be late for our doctor’s appointment. I can feel my heart beating fast! I’m remembering, though, that sometimes people are late and that the clinic staff are usually pretty forgiving about it.”
2. Name your child’s feelings. When you sense your child is feeling anxious, label their emotions for them and give them the chance to correct you and voice how they feel. For example, “It seems like you’re feeling pretty worried about this game coming up. How would you describe it?”
3. Validate your child’s feelings. When you identify a time when they are feeling anxious, validate it. For example, “It makes sense you would feel nervous about that! I might too!”
4. Discuss that feeling anxious is not always a bad thing. For example, “It’s normal to feel anxious or nervous about stuff sometimes – it’s our body’s natural alarm system. Do you feel like it is going off too much for you to get stuff done or do things you want to do?”
You are not alone if your child’s anxiety becomes problematic.
Problematic anxiety occurs when anxiety becomes very distressing and interfering such that we cannot do what we want or need to do. You know your child best and should pay attention if they have episodes or patterns of behavior changes that signal the need for additional support. There is not a single checklist of behaviors to watch out for, but anxiety will often show-up in these ways:
Avoidance: Not speaking, reluctance to answer questions, episodes of or chronic absenteeism from school or peer activities.
Somatic complaints – body reactions: Frequent trips to the doctor, requests to skip school or activities because of physical symptoms or complaints about illness that are unfounded.
Sleep and eating difficulties: Eating less or avoiding mealtimes.
Excessive reassurance seeking: Checking in about rules or due dates when your child typically remembers and follows them.
Angry outbursts: Hurtful or aggressive language or actions such as temper tantrums, arguments, fighting, physical violence or throwing things.
If you are concerned about your child’s anxiety responses, consult with your primary care provider, therapist or school counselor. You can also call the NAMI help line for consultation and referrals and participate in twice monthly parenting support calls where you can call or Zoom in for ideas and support.
Plan ahead, and let your child take the lead.
With in-person schooling, vaccines and a new Safe Start phase, we are all experiencing new COVID-related uncertainties. Whether they are afraid, excited or curious, your child may be seeking more attention from you – right when you are feeling pressure to manage a whole new set of changes for your family. Kids will do better in stressful situations if they have nurturing and consistent relationships with their family, but that doesn’t mean you need to dedicate every minute of your day to your children.
Dr. Liliana Lengua, psychology professor and Director of the Center for Child and Family Well-Being, encourages parents to plan short periods of child-led time. Spending 15 – 20 minutes a day of focused-time with your child most days, letting their child lead decide what you do and talk about, makes a difference.
Research shows that these predictable times together helps kids feel more secure and that they start to depend on that time, meaning they make fewer efforts to get parents attention throughout the day because they know the time is coming. These dedicated times together reduce parents’ guilt, too.
Take good care of you.
Every expert we asked shared this piece of advice for pandemic parenting: take care of yourself! Taking care of you sets the foundation for caring for your kiddos and sets a positive example.
Dr. James Mazza, professor of school psychology, recently asked a group of parents to PLEASE do the following to support their own and their child’s emotional well-being during tough times:
P – physical illness…help to avoid it by the following steps!
L – limit screen time to windows you identify and then disconnect from devices.
E – eat a balanced diet.
A – avoid overindulging in alcohol and other drugs.
S – sleep a regular schedule and get the right amount of sleep for you.
E – exercise at least 10 minutes each day, ideally with some time outdoors.
The most important takeaway is that you are not alone in whatever you are feeling about COVID-19 right now, and you are not alone in getting through this next phase, either. Pandemic parenting is no small feat. For more content around parenting during this unusual time, we invite you to check out The First 90 pandemic parenting page. You’ll find a variety of resources and content around parenting in the last year.