Pandemics, natural disasters, trauma…these can all turn family life upside-down. Learn more on how to parent during times of stress with this whole series from Dr. Kate Green: Introduction, Infants and Toddlers, Ages 3-5, Ages 6-12, and Ages 13+.
Children at this age are even more perceptive to absorbing what is being said on the news, on social media (either their own or reading over our shoulder), and hearing ALL conversations we have. They are becoming less egocentric than preschoolers (focused on the self) and now may start to worry not only about their own health but also that of parents and grandparents etc. It still wraps back around to their worries about what would happen to them if we were in hospital or worse and they pick up on this similar anxiety that we may have as a parent. This is the age where we can really start to discuss Plan A and Plan B and engage them in contingency planning so as to reassure them that we have thought this through and they will be just fine (of course we need to actually have done this planning!). Children at this age really do model parental behaviors and so we need to be very cognizant of our responses to the current situation. While the virus is of course impacting our short-term plans and way we live life, we need to also know that our everyday behaviors are teaching children the skills of life. Let’s step back and think about what we want them to learn from this in the bigger picture and then let’s figure out how to model that to them within our family system.
Behaviors we may see–
- Increased difficulty with focus during play or learning.
- Anger or frustration during normally enjoyed activities (throwing Legos down out of anger or ripping up artwork).
- Arguing more than normal.
- Competing for attention from parent or jealousy among siblings.
- Nightmares and clinging at bedtime.
- Bed wetting that wasn’t happening previously.
- Changes in appetite or food choices.
- Regression to early behaviors that have already been learned (suddenly cannot zip up a coat or tie shoes).
- Forgetfulness (having to be asked repeatedly to do things they normally do).
- Withdrawal from friends or siblings.
- Stomach or headaches.
What we can do–
- Tolerance and patience! This can be difficult when you are stressed and worried but following many of these limitations will also help you lower your stress.
- Set gentle limits and boundaries as even during trauma we need to know what is acceptable or not.
- Speak with your child when not in the middle of an argument to set up boundaries. Agree during calm family discussions what the “rules” of the family are.
- Limit exposure to media. Take an active role in what you think is acceptable for your child and what is not. Think about your own exposure as well. Remember that having the news running in the background brings in a constant level of stress that is impacting everyone’s cortisol levels.
- Try to set up boundaries of when you will watch and then what your child will watch.
- Regular exercise and activity (indoor if necessary) can help let off steam. Make it silly and fun. Dancing, animal yoga, obstacle courses, and fun competitions can all let off tension and stress.
- Routines of healthy eating and sleeping are important for everyone. These do not have to be rigid but everyone thrives knowing approximately what the day will entail.
- Provide a range of learning materials that can engage your child. From books to puzzles or clay, it’s fairly easy and inexpensive to strew your home with items to keep children active and engaged. Cook and bake with them. Set out various ingredients to make potions (flour/food coloring/baking soda/cornstarch/vinegar….) after you listen to Harry Potter on audio book and then let them be creative.
- Provide a range of art and creative materials as above but then engage WITH your child. Use those fancy coloring books and pencils. Paint a picture or make a clay pot. Don’t worry about how they look but model that the experience is what makes this fun. Show them it’s simply about being with them and creating rather than the output.
- Use play to prompt them to share and express worries. This is a great time to informally chat about what is happening in the world. Use prompts to help get them started and then just listen.
- Clarify any misconceptions they have by showing them appropriate sites (such as good online sources for how to wash hands) or by finding books about germs/viruses (Magic School Bus is one example).
- Have them participate in household chores with you as again this another opportunity for discussion.
- Promote engagement with family and friends via video.
- Read aloud and listen to audio books.
- Watch shows/movies they would like with them and even engage extended family by video. Is there a series or comedy that you can all start on the TV at the same time with Skype going on via computer? This way grandparents or extended family time can be part of the fun. You can even arrange to make the same snacks to eat or all be in pajamas etc. Use video streaming to your advantage.