9 TIPS FOR HELPING YOUR KIDS IN THESE CHALLENGING TIMES
To say that these past months have been challenging is an understatement. With the pandemic, Black Lives Matter, riots, unemployment, fires, the whirl of the coming election, homeschooling and the isolation from family and friends, it’s no surprise that anxiety and depression are up nationally. Families are grabbling with real uncertainties and adjustments in their everyday lives as well as with the uncertainties of our larger society.
And, our kids are feeling it, too. Depending on their age, they may be more or less aware of what is actually happening, but even the youngest child is sensitive to any shifts in their family, school and social world. Parents all over the world are asking the question: “How can I help my kids weather these times?” To help get you started, here are some tips.
How to Keep Routines
Kids love routines. They provide stability in their lives; regularity is the antidote to anxiety. That said, old routines have been disrupted—changes in school, parents working at home, no more Wednesday-afternoon play dates. The challenge is to keep as much of what you had before as possible, even the simple consistencies like a bedtime routine. Then, work on building in new routines as quickly as possible, such as weekend virtual chats with grandparents or cousins, or Friday night pizza.
Manage Sibling Rivalry
Everyone is feeling more confined, and the everyday rubbing of lives is understandably getting on your nerves. While your kids may be better in having their mom and dad around more, they’ve lost the social outlets they used to have with friends and school.
But increased sibling rivalry is also a symptom of increased tension in the home that kids feel and react to with each other.
In the same ways that confinement and isolation can affect adults, it also affects kids. Don’t be surprised if your kids are more irritable, or fighting more about toys or space (the notorious battles over who touched who in the car). But, increased sibling rivalry is also a symptom of increased tension in the home that kids feel and react to with each other. Expect it, but rein it in. This is where you want to build individual quiet times into their routines. Here, you want to pay attention to escalating emotions and either distract or separate them for a short period of time. It’s also good to have a conversation with your kids about solving problems like sharing toys, so they can learn and practice ways of managing their emotional triggers on their own.
How to Release Stress
It is a good time to increase exercise and outside activities as much as possible to help your family burn up all the energy that comes from being cooped up. An idea can be looking up family meditation or yoga exercises you can do with them or all together as a family. They will not only distract your kids from stressors but also help them get centered and relaxed. For more ideas, see our Family Fun section.
Explain in Their Language
Even the youngest child is sensitive to what is happening in the bigger world. They’ve seen images on television, and heard you and your partner talking about politics or work. They can sense the negative but don’t know what to emotionally do about it. The danger with children is that because they are naturally self-centered they think the negative is about them in some way, and they can easily become frightened by adults having heated conversations.
Now is a good time to help by giving them the bigger picture of what is happening in the family and the larger world—why grandma can’t come over, why they can’t go to school, etc. Fortunately, there are also plenty of resources and books available for various ages to help explain some of what is happening around them. It’s important to have those conversations at a level they can understand.
Do Check-Ins With Your Kids
Kids only know what is okay to talk about based on what their parents talk about and ask about. This is not the Spanish Inquisition, an interrogation that older kids and teens are particularly sensitive to, but one-liners like “How have you been feeling,” “Are you worried about x,” “Did you get upset last night when your dad and I were talking or about what you saw on TV” or “Are you missing your friends?”
It is about checking in and seeing how they are doing. Even if you get the shrug or grunt in response, it’s important that you let them know these topics are okay to discuss.
Broadcast Your Emotions
In the same vein, you want to let your children know where you are emotionally. Again, the rationale is the same—kids will make up what they think is going on, and because they are kids, they will often get it wrong. Your irritable mood is not about you but about them.
Say how you are feeling, let them know that it is not about them and tell them what you are going to do to help yourself feel better.
The antidote is to be proactive in letting them know about you. If you’ve had a hard day or are worried about grandma, feel comfortable in saying so, so they know where you are at, too. This is not a license to get into details though, as sharing too much of your worries with older kids and teens can lead to them feeling responsible for taking care of you. Say how you are feeling, let them know that it is not about them and tell them what you are going to do to help yourself feel better. For instance, “I know I’m feeling cranky. I’m going to go lie down for a few minutes and then I’ll feel better.” You are not only solving a potential problem but also being a good role model.
Build 1-on-1 Time With Your Kids
If this isn’t already part of your routine, build in one-on-one time with each child. This is the “floor time” that has been shown to be emotionally helpful for all ages of kids and even during “normal” times. The ground rules are to set aside a certain time, such as after sister goes to bed a half-hour earlier, where you and your child can spend quality time together. It’s also important that your child can decide how they want to use the time with you, so resist the urge to take over or make suggestions.
What is beneficial about this is that your child not only has your undivided attention but also has some control—something they don’t have for most of their day. What often happens is that in these times, your child will open up, talk about things they may not normally share. This is the basis for lots of play therapy that therapists use. It allows the child to feel in control and more relaxed to be open.
Adapt to Your Child’s Personality
You’ve no doubt read stories about how folks are reacting differently to the pandemic. Many introverts are thriving away from the low-level social anxiety they often feel in the office, while extroverts are suffering from the lack of interaction. As a parent, you want to tailor your response to each child’s personality. Your more introverted daughter may be fine with online schooling, yet your more extroverted son may be emotionally struggling because he is not physically seeing his friends. So, it’s a great time to see what works and doesn’t work for each child, while also looking ahead.
This too shall pass, and at some point, your introverted daughter will have to step back into former activities and environments. Think now about what she may need to re-enter this norm so it is not so abrupt and disorienting. Encourage social interaction, even if she is reluctant. And, keep looking ahead so you are better prepared with helping your kids making more transitions.
Take Care of You
If you take nothing else from all these suggestions, take this one: You need to take care of you. You are parents who need to work together as a team. What kids are most sensitive to and what helps them the most is their family environment. Like it or not, you set the environment. By taking care of you, by staying calm, by working with your partner to manage your understandable ups and down and by working together to solve problems as they arise will all greatly impact and guide your children. This is not about stirring guilt or performance pressure but about realizing that how you feel and how you manage these challenges will affect how your kids will ultimately feel and how they, too, will manage their own obstacles.
And if you are struggling, don’t be hesitant to get the support and help you need. You and your partner are the most important people in your child’s life.
is the author of 11 books and more than 300 articles–including the regular “Ask Bob” column in this magazine–Bob has 44 years of experience in couple and family work and is in private practice in Charlottesville (bobtaibbi.com).
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