Parenting Eleven Months into the Pandemic: Ten Steps to Help Children Cope

No one has to remind parents that we’re living through a dangerous pandemic and that they have to keep their families safe. But as a behavioral/developmental pediatrician with more than 40 years’ experience, I’m concerned parents may be worrying more about their children’s physical health than on the toll the pandemic is taking on their mental health and school performance.  

The news is grim. Truancy, school failure, mental health problems, even suicide rates are all on the rise. I'm seeing first-hand the extraordinary stressors on children and their families posed by COVID 19 and the concomitant lockdowns. I’ve watched in dismay as families struggle who, before the pandemic, were doing a decent job of parenting. Others, who were having trouble prior to the lockdown have declined into severely distressing situations. 

Here are some steps parents can take to help their children and teens — and themselves — better cope.

Don’t wait

We cannot wait for definitive academic studies to tell us what works and what does not, given the declines I’ve seen. I am not advocating a wholesale abandonment of social distancing.  Each family has to weigh the benefits and risks of what to do.  I’m offering ten suggestions parents can try to address problems of loneliness, sadness, depression and non-compliance with virtual learning.

Parenting is never easy — now it’s harder

Many of my suggestions imply a degree of parental control that may have been weak or absent before the pandemic struck. Parents often fear further “disturbing” their already unhappy/uncooperative child or teen, which only empowers the factors that caused them to not do their school work or fall into depression.  

All of this is complicated because many parents, themselves, struggle with the effects of the virus/lockdown on their jobs, activities, and general health, not to mention their own mental health. I advise following what the airlines tell us in case of emergency — you must first apply oxygen to yourself before putting the mask on your children’s faces.  But once some oxygen is flowing, try the following: 

  1. Get your children and teens out of the house. While still practicing appropriate social distancing, go for a hike, take a bike ride, stroll around the neighborhood.
  1. Sign children and teens up for organized activities. Many sports, martial arts, and art classes are still in operation. Make it clear participation is not voluntary. Have children try the activity three times before they can quit. Reward them for trying without complaining.

    3.  Limit online time unrelated to school. I suggest 2-3 hours on weekdays; 4-6 hours weekends (these higher limits reflect    stay-at-home realities). Consider limiting internet activity to public areas, like the kitchen or family room, rather than behind closed doors in their rooms.

  1. Remove all devices from the child/teen at bedtime. Dedicated devices that play music are okay. Your teens will complain. Remind them, “Nothing good happens online after 10 pm.” 
  2. Use timers rather than parentsvoices to set time limits.  It’s uncanny how kids “listen” better to a machine than their parents’ voices. Allow 5 to 10 minutes to transition/close-down time at the first alarm. After the second warning, pull the plug. 
  3. Post a written daily schedule for each child, teen, and parent.Structured time helps everyone know what to expect and can make school/study time seem more manageable.
     
  4. Develop a parental hour-on, hour-off routine. For example, between 10-11 am, the children are only allowed to approach dad; between 11- 12 noon, they can only speak to mom. This gives parents some guilt-free time to unwind or pursue other tasks.
  1. Register for hybrid schooling or form a learning pod. Children and teens are social animals. They do better in a group. Push to the front of the line for hybrid school participation. Have your pediatrician or family doctor write a letter on the child’s behalf.If hybrid schooling is not offered, form a learning pod with other families. Your child will do more when there are other students around and will work harder for anyone else (even another parent) than for you. 
  2.  Pick and choose your battle: Virtual learning poses particular challenges, especially if your child has a pre-existing learning or behavioral problem. Try to let go of some of your concerns if they are underperforming. You are unlikely to be successful and the emotional cost to you and your child isn’t worth it.  Find an area of performance to work on where you have a chance for success (for a younger child, like picking up her toys or for a teen, coming to the table to join the family for dinner)
  1. Consider outside help. Hire a high school senior or college student to supervise classwork and homework, 90-minutes a day, Monday-Thursday. Bringing in someone new is more effective and will cut down on parent-child/teen tension.

Finally, take heart.  We’ve only got a couple more months to go before life returns to normal.  And your child and you will be better prepared to take it on.