Our world was turned upside down when the COVID-19 pandemic hit – and we still had to balance work, family and day-to-day activities. On Our Sleeves’ Parenting in the Pandemic with Dr. Parker answers your questions about parenting and supporting children’s mental health during this time – from school stress, to anxiety, managing relationships, and more.
Of the many challenges parents are facing due to COVID-19, balancing traditional roles with new and ever-changing expectations might be causing the most distress. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions!
Annalise, CA: How do we establish balance for children when they are expected to spend more time sitting still in front of a screen but yet have minimal interaction with peers which is vital for development?
Dr. Parker: This issue is one many have been challenged with this year, including in my house! Balance is the key word here. I suggest you have a schedule for each school day. It can be more or less rigid depending on what you think your child(ren) need. Here are some examples to get you started.
They key is to ensure there are times in the day for exercise, play and socialization. When we think about what kids are missing, it's the shared experiences of being together at school or afterschool activities and playtime. We need to be more creative than usual about ways to give our children social time.
Here are a few ideas, some of which might apply to certain age groups more than others:
- Schedule small group study sessions with friends via Zoom/Google Meet/FaceTime, etc. Talk with other parents about making this a routine and setting a regular time. Don't be too concerned about whether or not they stay on task during these meetings.
- Take walks, ride bikes or go on a hike with another family. Bundle everyone up if it's cold and get out there! Wear a mask and be responsible with social distancing, but the frustration of these changes will quickly be overtaken by their excitement about spending time with someone outside their immediate family. Meet at a new park for a hike each week or create a challenge to walk on a certain number of trails in your local area.
- Create a shared project or challenge for your child(ren) and their friends. An art project everyone can complete and share with each other. A sports challenge to do certain exercises or practice skills. A musical challenge, writing challenge or reading challenge. Create a book club to read age-appropriate books and then talk about them in a virtual meeting. Encourage them to engage with each other and motivate each other, then get together to share progress. You get the idea.
Is this more work for already exhausted parents?
Is it worth it to create some joy and emotional connections for our children?
I think so!
Share the burden with other parents – chances are, they are looking for similar outlets with their children – and feeling the same way you do, too.
Sara, OH: How do I motivate my teenager to do his schoolwork when he doesn't like remote learning? He says it's boring and he cannot sit still but then doesn't pick up the lesson or know how to do the work. He also refuses to reach out to the teachers for help, saying they should be checking on him.
Dr. Parker: Motivation for school in teenagers is often a challenging topic for parents and teachers in the best of times.
My first piece of advice is to ensure parents and teachers are connected and have open dialogue about these challenges. If this is an ongoing issue that predates COVID-19, that's important to note. If this is a new issue related to the adaptation to remote learning or some other change, we can problem-solve about how to get them engaged.
- Have conversations with your teen about their goals for the school year. Try not to input your own goals, but understand what they want, even if it's not realistic.
- Talk about barriers for them, which is when their disdain for remote learning is likely to come up.
- Once you have some goals – certain grades, things they want to learn, being able to advance to the next grade in the fall, etc. – create short-term objectives to help them on their way. If the motivation comes from their own interests and desires, they will naturally be more likely to give effort.
For other children, tangible things and privileges are the best currency to use.
- Set up reasonable goals each day and tie them to a privilege they want.
- It could be access to certain technology, games, etc.
- Other times it might be earning points toward a new something.
We don't want their only motivation to be pinned on rewards, but sometimes that extra push gets them to finish things they otherwise would not.
- Greater Good Magazine: How do I motivate my teen.
- New York Times: How to do school when motivation has gone missing.
Amy, NV: With three kids (6th grade, 4th grade and 3rd grade), doing distance learning, and myself and my husband both working full time, we are struggling with a.) Ensuring the kids are getting their work done and turned in; b.) Finding patience with any of the struggles they may be having; c.) Finding tutoring help; and d.) Reducing the screen time: Once homework is done, they move to their personal computers to play games or go online. I need help with keeping myself calm and remembering that this isn't happening to only our family. My quality of work has drastically gone downhill. My schedule is all over the place because of having to start later to ensure the kids are getting out of bed and logging in on time. I cannot find any time during the day to stop and take a breath, and I find myself in tears more often than not.
Dr. Parker: I'm certain that your experience is all too common for parents across the country (and around the world) right now. The expectations for parents and caregivers have changed drastically this past year, whether they are working or not. When I feel like there is a large problem to solve, I try my best to break it down into smaller issues and work through them.
Let's do that here.
- Ensuring kids get their work done and turned in. As with most of these answers, it is certainly age-dependent, but your children are at the age when they can have some responsibility for themselves.
- Have a detailed schedule (for each of them if necessary) and give them a checklist to work through each day.
- Check in with them at certain intervals (which you and your husband can plan into your days) but encourage them to work independently in between those times. If they come across something they can't figure out on their own or as a team, they can move on to the next thing and wait for you to check in.
- At the end of each day, you can review the checklist and see if there is any outstanding work to be done before they are allowed to do other activities.
- Finding patience. Patience is taxed right now, so don't beat yourself up about it. Patience is affected by stress, exhaustion and mental overload. It’s not surprising many of us are feeling less patient than usual. One thing that can help is to schedule time in your day when you are going to work on difficult tasks, so you know to prepare for it.
For instance, maybe you have a problem-solving session with the kids in the morning and another after lunch. You'll know to be prepared going into those times and to expect problems. I know it's difficult, but doing other things for yourself can also help, like exercising (even 10-15 minutes a day) and getting more sleep. It seems counter-intuitive to leave things undone to get an extra hour of sleep, but your brain will function much better and you'll get more done the next day.
- Tutoring support when needed. This is one that is out of my control, BUT, here are few things to consider:
- Make sure to check with the school if you haven't already. That is usually the first thing parents try, but I've had a lot of parents who forget that starting point.
- Consider making a study group for your kids with their peers. Sometimes parents can take turns moderating the group to keep them on task, but other groups will fall into the school mentality of working together and teaching each other.
- For virtual options, Good Housekeeping recently reviewed online tutoring platforms. Check them out here: https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/parenting/g29548871/best-online-tutoring-websites/.
Screen time. This has been a debated topic I've heard many times. My two pieces of advice are:
- Relax your typical standards. We all need a break these days and technology is a frequent escape for children and adults alike. Even more of the social connection going on right now is through technology, so encourage them to do things together. Many games, apps and even TV/movie streaming services now offer shared experiences. Ask the kids, they probably know about it.
- Set a limit and stick to it. Whether it is a time of day or amount of time they can have outside of school, make it clear and open. I suggest having screens off at least 60 minutes before bedtime. Have them bathe, finish up house chores, read books or spend time with the family during the last hour before bed to help them get the best night's sleep.
Family gatherings. Neighborhood events. Extracurricular activities. Many of us have missed out on these opportunities to connect with our friends and family members. We know parents and caregivers are concerned about maintaining healthy social development when so many restrictions exist around social gatherings in groups. Especially now during winter months, when much of the country is spending time indoors. Dr. Parker answers your questions about social development.
Chloe, OH: What is the best way to help young children understand when others can't come play? We have one family from school we allow to play with our kids, but my son (age 4) is having trouble understanding why other kids can't come play. The most difficult situation has been friends who previously allowed play but aren't now. How do you find that balance between healthy socializing and creating additional anxiety?
Debbie, MA: How can we stay connected to our friends, family and community with COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions?
Dr. Parker: This has also been a difficult topic in our house. The discussion has been complicated by changing expectations, such as schools opening and closing, changes in season, or new public health recommendations/restrictions in your area. Parents may also have experiences that alter their own guidelines and have become more conservative over time as COVID-19 has spread. There are two important conversations to have with children.
- Ensure your child(ren) understand why some changes are necessary. Especially for young kids, they may misunderstand why they can't carry on as usual right now. Parents can help communicate to them, in language they understand, why some activities are put on hold for now. Make sure to let them know, for most people, they are doing what they think is best for their family.
- Discuss creative ways with your kids on how they can still socialize with friends. For young children, this could be video chatting and having a parent read books to them and then talking about it. Or it might be doing a virtual learning project where they get to talk about a place/animal/subject they learned about. They could also make art projects to share and drop off or help make cookies to deliver to each other.
The activities you choose depend upon their age and interests. My son (also age 4), has been doing a weekly learning activity on video chat with his friend and a parent. They learn about a specific subject, watch a video together and/or have a book read to them, and discuss what they learned. It’s given them both something to look forward to and helps with turn-taking, listening comprehension and conversation. The most important thing is they have shared experiences with their peers, which helps to stimulate conversation and feelings of closeness.
Older kids might want to engage in other ways to maintain their social connections. Many times, this will be centered around a shared interest or passion, such as a sport, music or hobby. Find ways to include their interests in an activity for the group to do safely. They can individually record playing the same piece of music and share how they each play it differently. Or they can challenge each other to improve a certain sport or academic skill. Get creative and learn ways that other parents are bridging the gap in their social world these days. In my school stress advice, I mentioned creating a challenge for them to do together, but you can also have regularly scheduled “hang-out time” using a virtual meeting app.
Finally, don't forget about the importance of staying connected with family. Make time to help your kids keep in touch with family members through phone calls, physical art projects, or letters, mail or video chats.
Jackie, OH: How can we talk to other parents so that we can fill a child's social needs while also staying safe during the pandemic?
Dr. Parker: When it comes to speaking with other parents, I often think the direct route is best. Much of the awkwardness lately between adults is trying to read their opinions to see how they match up with yours regarding safety measures for COVID-19. When it comes to helping fill your child's needs, it can be helpful to speak openly about your preferences. It could go something like this:
“I'm really wanting to find some ways to help with social opportunities for the kids. We've decided we aren't comfortable with A or B right now, but we would be comfortable with X or Y. I know every family is different. What are your thoughts?”
Once you open the conversation by being clear about your family’s needs AND ensuring you are also open to their preferences, you can begin planning for some activities that meet the needs of both families. Unspoken expectations create unnecessary tension and can be avoided in many cases by being open and honest. Not everyone has to agree or have the same opinion to be able to work together to benefit our children.
COVID-19 Vaccines and Medical Visit Unease
Something on many of our minds these days is the potential for receiving one of the approved COVID-19 vaccines and how that will affect our lives and communities in the coming year.
While we can’t predict when and how this might affect our children (there are currently no vaccines approved for children under 16 as of the second week of February, 2021), many children and parents have questions about the safety of new vaccines and anxiety about receiving shots at the doctor. So, I’ve asked my colleague, Kristen Cannon, MD, to help answer your questions. We’ll also discuss virtual testing and diagnosis and whether this an accurate way to get answers.
Marcie, OH: How can I talk to my kids about the vaccine, whether it is safe and why they can’t get one now?
Janet, IN: What advice can you give for talking to kids about medical anxiety, injection anxiety and unease about COVID-19?
Dr. Huston: As in most cases, when talking with children about COVID-19, the vaccine and questions they have about how the future will play out, it is best to be honest with them at a level they can understand.
Tell them what you have learned from reputable sources and be honest about what you don’t know. As a health care provider, I’ve been fortunate to receive both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, and my own children have asked similar questions. I told them that I don’t yet know when or if a COVID-19 vaccine will be developed for children, but it’s likely that the more people get vaccinated, especially in high risk groups, the less suffering will take place.
My wife and I promised to keep them informed as we learn more, and to help them be prepared if they have the chance to be vaccinated in the future. I also talked them through the side effects I experienced when I received the vaccine and helped them understand this as a natural response of my immune system.
For additional ways to help your child feel less anxious about getting a shot or visiting the doctor’s office, read "Help your child feel less anxiety about doctor visits," from my colleague, Dr. Tyanna Snider. Planning ahead and discussing emotions with your child may help ease their fears leading up to an appointment. Here are a few of her tips:
- Be honest. If you know your child will be getting a shot, tell them that. If you’re unsure, tell them that. Avoid overpromising. For example, don’t tell your child they won’t be getting a shot if there’s a chance they might.
- Empower your child. Say things like, “I know you can be really brave, and we can get through this together.”
- See the same doctor. Having appointments with the same provider, when possible, can be comforting.
Melanie, TX: What advice do you have for parents seeking testing and/or a diagnosis for mental health disorders during the pandemic? Can virtual testing really give accurate answers?
Dr. Cannon: Virtual psychiatry or “telepsychiatry” has been around for more than 20 years – way before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. During those years, lots of research has demonstrated telepsychiatry is as effective as face-to-face appointments in both the assessment and treatment of mental health conditions in adults and children.
It’s also worth noting that the diagnosis of most mental health conditions (such as mood, anxiety and psychotic disorders) does not necessarily require a pen-and-paper test – just an assessment from a trained mental health professional. That conversation can usually be completed virtually. Your provider will be straightforward and let you know if there is part of your child’s assessment that needs to be done in person. This may include bloodwork (for example, sometimes needed before starting a new medication) or neuropsychological testing, which can be helpful in the diagnosis of conditions like ADHD or learning disorders.