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.

School Stress

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

Yes.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Talk about barriers for them, which is when their disdain for remote learning is likely to come up.
  3. 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.

  1. Set up reasonable goals each day and tie them to a privilege they want.
    1. It could be access to certain technology, games, etc.
    2. 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.

Additional resources:

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.

  1. 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.
    1. Have a detailed schedule (for each of them if necessary) and give them a checklist to work through each day.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Tutoring support when needed. This is one that is out of my control, BUT, here are few things to consider:
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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/.
  4. Screen time. This has been a debated topic I've heard many times. My two pieces of advice are:
    1. 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.
    2. 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.

Maintaining Connections

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

 

Improving School Effort, Resiliency and Motivation

With the constant changes to school expectations and education models over the past year, the importance of communication between home and school has never been more crucial. Sometimes this happens naturally, other times it takes more work.

Crystal, CA: How do we as parents constructively and effectively explain to teachers our children are suffering from issues such as depression, anxiety or other mental health concerns?

Tammy, MA: How do I communicate to the school that I'd like them to be more positive when discussing things with students and parents? I keep hearing “this is so difficult” rather than focusing on how students will learn life skills, adaptability and resilience.

Dr. Parker: Crystal and Tammy bring up some of the challenges that can arise, especially during COVID-19, with communication across different settings. It’s important to realize that communication is always a two-way street, so let's focus on what we have control of as parents in a school system.

At the beginning of each year, especially this school year, my wife and I make sure to figure out the best ways to communicate with our children’s teachers. Some prefer email, some prefer phone, text or an app through the school.

Then, open the lines of communication by letting them know a bit about your child. Although many of us want to focus on concerns we might have for the school year, I also try to describe what my kids are good at or what helps them. If you're reading this and thinking, "Well I didn't do that this year, but I need to increase my communication with the school right now,” it's never too late to start. It's usually best to come into a situation with a common problem-solving mindset, meaning you try to bring a concern to the teacher and present it as a problem to solve together – even if you think they are the ones who should change something.

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, communication breaks down with the school or a specific educator, which can cause a lot of stress for parents, students and teachers. Try to talk directly with the person and let them know your concerns/goals and hear them out as well. If that doesn't get you to a better place, seek advice from someone else at the school, like a guidance counselor, mental health provider or administrator. In the end, we need to acknowledge they are the experts in education and we are the experts on our specific children. Working together will almost always produce the best outcome for our children.

Here are suggestions to talk to a teacher about your child’s mental health concern:

I have been in Crystal's position before, both as a parent and professional talking with an educator about a mental health concern of one of their students.

  • Try to involve as many supports as you can and problem-solve together about how to understand your child's needs and make a plan to help them get the most out of the school year.
    • My daughter experienced a lot of school anxiety at the beginning of first grade and we had to work closely with the teacher and guidance counselor at her school to make a plan for how to help reduce her anxiety at the start of her school days.
    • We proposed some ideas and they also had some great ideas. We made sure to communicate each day about how the transition went in the morning. My wife really took the lead in driving the conversation about helping things get a little better each day, but the school was responsive because it was a collaborative plan instead of parents dictating what they wanted done.
  • If there is a specific diagnosis your child has been given by a mental health professional, I suggest being open and honest with the school and let them know what treatment is taking place. Encourage any providers to help make a plan for home and school to be consistent and share that with the school.
    • If your child has IEP or a 504 Plan, make sure to talk regularly about plans to address their needs and how you can support the plan at home.

As far as shaping the messaging coming from a school or teacher to the students, here are two ways to work on that as a parent:

  1. Work on an individual level with your children. They will hear various messages and opinions on topics throughout their lives. Offer additional points of view at home and talk about the various ways people can see the same issue.
  2. Try to become involved on a systems level. Join the PTA or talk with the school administration about whether there is a parent advisory council at your school. Share information that helps to shape the way the school might think about delivering messages to students and ask about their intention with current communication.

Erich, OH: How do you support students at home on virtual instruction, particularly those who do not want to engage in academic work?

Stacy, OH: As an educator and a parent of a high school senior, I would like to give my students and son more guidance about resilience and intrinsic motivation. Do you have any suggestions?

Dr. Parker: Motivation is also a common concern in academics. As Stacy eludes to, some students possess internal (intrinsic) motivation to participate and succeed in academics without much environmental influence, while other students seem to need someone to motivate them to participate in every small school-related activity.

There are lots of factors that influence this, but know that children, like adults, fall on a continuum when it comes to motivation for certain tasks, mental health, developmental level, subject, etc. This can also change over time based on their experience.

For children who have been on home instruction for the first time for most or all of this past year, many of them have struggled to engage, but I've also heard many stories of children who prefer to have extra time at home to work at their own pace in a comfortable setting at least part of the time. Each child has different needs. By nature, it is more difficult to modify internal motivation, because it comes from within.

Here are six tips for improving school effort and building resiliency:

  1. Use rewards when appropriate.
  2. Help them track their progress.
  3. Reward effort, not outcomes.
  4. Find what they are best at and do more of that.
  5. Give kids a sense of control, when appropriate.
  6. For older children (middle and high school), start to talk about their personal goals.

 

Ensuring Happiness in Children

When it comes down to it, most of us just want the children in our lives to be healthy, happy and productive. We may use different words to describe those wishes, and we may go about it in different ways. But the underlying goal is usually the same – to be happy.

This seems like a huge task, so how could we possibly keep these things in mind, especially during a prolonged challenge like living through a pandemic? Thankfully, science comes through again to help us figure out a path forward.

Rosary, IL: How can teachers help students who are struggling with their emotions and motivation?

Charlene, OH: What are ways to remain positive and be good examples to our kids during times of such stress and uncertainty?

Tasha, MO: How can we improve self-esteem in our children?

Dr. Parker: First, let's acknowledge that it is not appropriate or necessary to be positive at all times and in all circumstances to live a happy and productive life. However, it turns out that experiencing happiness consistently improves our well-being in many ways, including better mental health, physical health and productivity.

The science of happiness has come a long way in the past few decades, so let's talk about why happiness is so important and how we can teach our kids – and ourselves – ways to cultivate happiness (yes, even now during the pandemic!).

Although there are many, my favorite definition of happiness is “the experience of joy, contentment or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful and worthwhile.” This definition, by Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, captures both the experience in the moment and a long-term sense of one's experience and purpose.

Research shows that happiness is related to a host of other good outcomes, such as:

  • Lower blood pressure.
  • A strengthened immune system.
  • Fewer aches and pains.
  • Better educational outcomes.
  • Improved sleep.
  • Even longer life-expectancy.

In other words, research is starting to tell us happiness is not the outcome of success, but rather fuels greater success, which then provides us greater happiness. That's a cycle we would all like to find ourselves in! Knowing that, how can we help our children experience happiness more often?

Check out these seven ways to cultivate happiness, along with some fun activities to do with your family.

 

Managing Mental Health Conditions During COVID-19

Mental health diagnoses are on the rise in the United States. One study reported a 30% increase in child mental health diagnoses between 2011 and 2017. Another found a 55% increase in mental health emergency department visits for children between 2012 and 2016. Those trends have unfortunately continued in recent years.

Many parents have asked: how do you manage child(ren)'s mental health conditions during the pandemic?

Ashley, TX: For children who rely on mental and behavioral health support, how can we meet their needs when many programs have gone completely remote and lack their usual robust programming that is so beneficial?

Dr. Parker: Ashley, this has been a concern throughout the past year for providers as well. We quickly had to change the way we manage mental health concerns for children (and adults). It wasn’t easy.

Going beyond official mental health services, many children found their typical coping strategies, such as their social network, creative groups, sports teams and school supports, were also changed substantially. While some of these programs are returning to their former state, many are still disrupted. 

Mental health professionals have devoted a lot of energy over the past year to figure out how to provide necessary services given the local health guidelines. They say necessity is the mother of innovation, and the use of telehealth has been an example of that over the past year. I've heard many stories about programming being created using telehealth, as well as new models for assessment and crisis intervention.

I have two primary pieces of advice here:

  1. Maintain contact with your child's mental health provider and support system however you can. Telehealth may not be the ideal method for treatment in all cases but maintaining or starting a connection this way for a child who truly needs treatment is certainly preferable to not receiving treatment at all.
  2. Find ways to help them maintain their coping strategies – or develop new ones. Ideally, our most effective coping strategies are built into our regular routines: healthy eating, good sleep habits, exercise, creative outlets, and time with family, close friends and/or mentors. When these things are disrupted, we need to help kids find a way to adjust or shift to new ways of managing stress. 
    1. Reach out to coaches, teachers, directors, and other mentors who may not be able to have as much contact and see how you can maintain the connection. Perhaps weekly assignments they can check in on, or a personal challenge to learn something new.
    2. Try to decrease your mile-time, master that section of a musical piece which has proved difficult or test out a new artistic process. The connection and shared experience are what matters most. Try to include other peers when possible.

Theresa, MI: When you have multiple children with multiple diagnoses, how do you explain to them about the different needs for attention when they all want your attention?

Dr. Parker: Theresa, this is a difficult one because I can picture this scenario in my head. It has played out in my office and via telehealth many times over the years. The truth is, parent resources are limited. Parents and caregivers often wear superhero capes, but there are still only 24 hours in a day.

The full answer here certainly depends on specific ages and diagnoses of the children in the home, but here are two general guidelines:

  1. Set some reasonable limits. It is OK to help children learn how to manage things independently, even those who are experiencing mental health or developmental concerns.
    1. Start small by trying to create times when you are not "on-duty" for a short period unless there is a true emergency. It can take time for the kids to adjust, but they will if you stay consistent.
  1. Explain the concept of equity rather than talking about fairness. Equity is the idea we all get what we need to be our best selves and live a happy life. There are great books about equity:
    1. Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena.
    2. Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli.
    3. The Big Umbrella by Amy June Bates.

Shawn, OH: How do you balance building resilience and coping skills in someone that may be dealing with anxiety (in the clinical sense)? It's difficult to know how much to encourage an older child.

Dr. Parker: Clinical levels of anxiety are difficult to manage for the person experiencing them and those who care about them. That’s because the anxious thoughts are often irrational and cause a strong emotional response when challenged.

As children near adolescence, they often begin to understand their fears are irrational, but can feel powerless to address them. Effective treatment almost always requires challenging them to overcome their fears by experiencing something they are nervous about while also learning better coping strategies to manage the symptoms of anxiety.

There are volumes and volumes about the different ways that anxiety presents in children and how to help them manage more effectively, but here are three tips:

  1. Work on teaching them coping skills when they are not in a moment of anxiety. It would be like teaching someone to drive who is already on the highway. Things are moving too fast to be able to focus in those moments. Integrate some of the coping skills they need into calmer times and have them practice them repeatedly, so they are ready when the time comes. They learn to drive in the parking lot, so they don't have to focus on the pedals when they get to highway.
  2. Expect resistance. Most anxiety is built on principles of avoidance. If I'm scared of it, I avoid it, which keeps me safe, but also makes me more fearful of the thing I'm avoiding. It’s a cycle that reinforces itself over time. In a clinical setting, we work in steps to break this cycle. Sometimes this is with thought exercises (cognitive therapy) and sometimes with behavioral challenges, but often times using both together. Try to help them challenge the thought pattern that gets them spinning in the anxiety cycle and/or try something new in a controlled setting.
  3. Look for resources to help guide you. There are a lot of books about childhood anxiety, but my favorite is by Tamar Chansky, PhD, called Freeing Your Child from Anxiety. This book is great for parents and teachers because it provides background and practical strategies that anyone can use and is applicable for children of all ages. Adults can learn something too.

Setting Limits for Screen Time

Every day, there are common decisions parents have to make:

  • When is bedtime?
  • When and where to start school?
  • How do we foster healthy behavior?

In recent years, a new question has become just as important:

How much and what type of screen time is appropriate for my child?

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents have been further challenged with screen time limits due to the expanded role technology has played in education and socializing. Thanks to Jeneve and Ben for sending in their questions on this topic!

Jeneve, MI: How do we limit our children's screen time when they are on the computer all day for school and use cell phones for socialization during the pandemic?

Dr. Parker: Screen time usage and limits for children has been a much-debated topic since long before COVID-19 disrupted our routines. Many parents are asking questions about the balance of needing to use screens more often because of virtual education and socialization, but they also don’t want their children in front of a screen all day.

Truthfully, we've struggled with those same questions in our household. The reality is, sometimes parents are working from home and just need some quiet time to accomplish their work tasks without interruption.

Here are three tips to keep in mind:

  1. Give yourself and your kids a break. Some situations dictate we change our expectations. There’s nothing like a pandemic to call into question all the roles and responsibilities we (sometimes) thought we had under control. If you have found yourself being laxer in the past year with screen time, you are certainly not alone. During winter months, I was sometimes surprised that smoke wasn't coming out of the tablets in our house because they were used so much! The important thing is to create guidelines and limits as discussed below. This benefits both you and your children by having set expectations to fall back on.
  2. Not all screen time is the same. Using a computer/tablet for school is not the same as watching cartoons or videos of other children playing with toys on YouTube (I still don't get that one). I try to consider the value of what they are doing online for their development and creativity. For instance, my daughter loves to watch art videos that lead her through a drawing tutorial while she follows along. That is quite different in my mind from watching a show or movie for pure entertainment.
  3. It is reasonable for parents to maintain at least some control over what their children are doing online through adolescence. Yes, you read that correctly. Most any reputable article you read about media usage for teens encourages parents to have access to their accounts to monitor any risky or dangerous behavior or interactions. Think of it as an adult passenger as they are learning to drive. Do a random check-in every once in a while, where you go through their phone/other devices with them to make sure you know all of their social media accounts and have access to what they are doing online.

Ben, UT: What are reasonable screen time limits to set for my children in a day? What if they have their own devices they can use any time?

Dr. Parker: I never like giving this answer, but it is usually the truth. It depends! There is no specific evidence-based rule on how much screen time is too much at any age. However, the American Association of Pediatrics has provided guidelines:

  • No screen time under 18 months of age.
  • Joint use for short periods with parents between 18-24 months.
  • One hour per day for 2-year-olds.

The other recommendations are focused on balancing all the other important developmental activities they need to do in a day, like academics, social engagement, sports, activities and sleeping. Many children have their own devices starting at younger ages and use devices for more and more activities that could be viewed as “learning” activities.

One of our kids got a globe that connects to an app and takes you on digital adventures in countries around the world. Hard to argue with a little more screen time for something like that when he starts telling me about the pyramids of Egypt at the dinner table.

Here are five suggestions to limit daily screen time for your family:

  1. Make a plan for your household. This should include everyone, including parents.
    1. Create screen-free times (dinner, morning before school, homework time, etc.).
    2. Create screen-free areas, like bedrooms.
  2. Strong suggestion: Don’t have a TV or other devices in the bedrooms, if possible. If it is a must for some reason, make sure they are not using them while laying down in bed. Have a chair/desk/beanbag to sit on. This will help with sleep hygiene.
  3. Leave phones in a common area at bedtime. Create a charging station where devices can live when they are not being used overnight.
  4. Set digital limits. There are many great technical ways to limit screen usage through parental settings. For a great list, check out this article, Parents' Ultimate Guide to Parental Controls. This website also has great reviews for parents about child-friendly media based on age groups.
  5. Be flexible like water. If you've ever jumped off the high-dive and landed wrong, you know that water can be quite hard when necessary. It can also be soft and calming in a bathtub or rain shower. My point is that some days you can relax and have a movie day when it's raining or someone is not feeling well. On other days, stick to your rules and keep those screens put away to encourage the kids to find something creative to do that will occupy their mind. If they have a hard time finding something else to do, here are some tips on managing boredom.

In the end, as long as parents consider their options, make an educated plan and stick to the expectations, kids will develop healthy screen time habits. The best thing is, your plans can change over time based on the needs of the family or age of the children.