If you’re a parent, you’ve probably come across several practical ideas of how best to keep your kids occupied in hopes of minimizing difficult behaviors and reducing stress while schools are closed. Strategies like creating a new routine, prioritizing physical activity and allowing our children to maintain virtual contact with friends are of vital importance. However, you may not have given much consideration to your mindset about parenting during these times.
First, as parents it is important to manage our expectations, both for ourselves and our children. The pandemic has created a set of parenting challenges for which we don’t have a good template. We have our own worries and stresses about our jobs, concern for the safety of loved ones, limited childcare, financial strain, etc. With that said, now is not the best time to place overly unrealistic expectations on ourselves. For example, creating an overly rigid schedule or demanding we provide our children the same education they would have at school creates unnecessary stress.
With regard to expectations for our children, even in the best of circumstances children have difficulty regulating emotions and controlling impulses. They simply have not yet developed the neurological circuitry to do these things independently on a consistent basis. Now, add in the stress, fear, and confusion surrounding the pandemic, and we have a situation that is fertile soil for emotional outbursts and challenging behaviors to occur.
We would be better served to try to interpret difficult behavior not as a challenge to our authority or some type of disrespect, but instead a natural response to overwhelming emotions. This may be best summed up with the saying, “Your child is not giving you a hard time, they are having a hard time.” Doing this should create less of an adversarial dynamic and more of a cooperative one at home.
It is often tempting when children demonstrate strong emotion or misbehavior to immediately apply a stern consequence accompanied by an angry and disapproving reaction from the parent. As we are all aware, the result of this is often more intense emotions and heightened conflict. Not to mention, it fails to address the underlying emotion causing the behavior in the first place, which is especially true now.
The technique of “connect and reflect” can be helpful with this. The idea is to first, in a calm manner, connect with your child in a compassionate way - perhaps with a hand on the shoulder or even just warm eye contact. Then reflect the feeling they are demonstrating by stating something to the effect of “It seems like you may be feeling a little ________ right now.” This will help to reduce your child’s emotional arousal and make for a more productive conversation. It also teaches their brains how to self-soothe. More than anything right now, our children need connection with us that provides them a sense of safety and security. Connect and reflect can be a way of creating just that.
It’s also important to know that it is not our responsibility to control our children’s emotions and behavior. We don’t have to “fix” them when they are struggling and return them to a baseline state. This is largely an impossible task that leaves the child frustrated and the parent discouraged. Instead, try to reframe the child’s emotional and behavioral responses to stress, and adjust your response to it accordingly. By accepting their difficult emotions and behaviors as normal and even necessary in their development, we are in a much better position to respond in a helpful way that reduces stress for both our children and ourselves.
At some point, this pandemic will end and we will return to our normal lives. Our children will likely not have a detailed memory of what the pandemic was like but they will have a more broad sense of what they felt during this time. By focusing more on connecting with our children, their memories will be of shared joy, not shared stress.