For parents who have been home with their kids these past four months, it goes without saying: it’s been an unusual season, filled with adjustments and learning curves for all. While there is no clear, “one size fits all” answer on how to best navigate the sudden demand on parents to work from home, home-school, and try to maintain a sense of normalcy for children, there are perhaps some steps that can be taken to reduce stress for parents and children alike, while creating a dynamic in the home that promotes mental well-being for kids.
We spoke with Chris Messina, a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst who specializes in designing programs to create meaningful change for children with behavior and learning challenges, while empowering parents alongside them. Chris, who is a parent herself, gave her two cents on three parenting pitfalls that she says parents should be aware of as lockdown measures continue through the summer.
Pitfall #1: Don’t double down on kids and try to over-compensate for what is perceived as missed time.
With so many changes, it’s easy for parents to feel that their kids are falling behind or not experiencing education and social interactions to the extent that they once were. In response, they may gravitate towards pushing harder to help compensate for this. This can take the form of setting hard rules, or rigorously tracking academics, skills, and lessons, such as music or languages.
According to Messina, it’s important to take stock of your kid’s mental health before pushing too hard.
“While that [approach] may be perfectly appropriate for certain kids, and they can absolutely handle that, a lot of kids that I'm seeing cannot manage those demands due to their current levels of anxiety and just overall stress given what's going on.”
The primary factor that is leading to stress and anxiety in children during this time is extended isolation, says Messina. To combat this, you should focus on how you can encourage connections with others for your child.
“I think when this all began, everybody was pretty excited about doing family game nights on Zoom, and all sorts of get-togethers with relatives from afar, and I think we've probably all exhausted ourselves,” says Messina. “Making careful decisions, with which your family is comfortable in terms of exposure to other people, is obviously critical. But it is summertime, and there are ways to connect with other people outside in ways that will make you still feel safe [while providing social connection for your children].”
Pitfall #2: Don’t treat lock-down, especially during school months, as an extended summer vacation
It’s becoming increasingly apparent that this past spring semester was not simply a one-off, and may not be over anytime soon. In an attempt to decrease stress on children, many parents have done the opposite of implementing strict rules by relaxing all household rules and treating the school term as an extended summer. This may include ultra-late bedtimes, sleeping past lunchtime, unlimited time on technology, or loosening the reins on any kind of real structured day.
Messina says that the best way to combat this is by sitting down as a family and creating a weekly schedule that lays out upcoming events, plans, and expectations, in turn promoting structure and creating things to look forward to. This shouldn’t be a situation where parents solely decide on behalf of the child, but rather a time where every member can collaborate together by inputting their opinions and desires. Additionally, it’s a time for you and your children to get creative with ways that they can spend their time this summer, such as starting an Etsy shop or offering dog-walking services to the neighbors.
“Get creative with ways that your kids can invest their time this summer. With kids experiencing an abundance of anxiety and depression, they may not generate these ideas organically and by themselves, and may default to phone time, bedroom time, or isolation,” says Messina. “Therefore, it’s important that parents advocate, encourage and brainstorm with their kids.”
Pitfall #3: Don’t forget to be intentional and make sure to check in with your child; simply being at home isn't enough
According to Messina, most kids will communicate their feelings through their behavior rather than their words. Signs that your kid is experiencing anxiety, depression, loneliness, or lack of stimulation may be expressed as agitation, physical aggression, sourness in behavior, or mood swings.
To combat this: make sure that you are regularly checking in with your child. Take enough time to really listen to their thoughts, and get a pulse for where they are and how they’re feeling. Don’t wait for your kids to initiate these conversations— they may be uncertain about how they feel, and initiating mental dialogue may not be in their behavioral or emotional repertoire.
“I cannot overemphasize this when talking with kids, no matter the age: be vulnerable with your children. I think as parents, it feels like we are the folks who should have all the answers. And I think letting kids know, ‘I'm not sure’, or ‘I'm struggling too’, and ‘you know what, here are some things that I've done historically to manage stress, but I'd like to try new ways’,” says Messina. “Talk openly and think aloud. I think kids absolutely benefit mightily when we are vulnerable and let them know: ‘I'm not sure but let's figure it out together’, or ‘maybe we can try some new ways’ or ‘do you have any ideas for me about things that are working for you?’”
If you are a parent who is struggling to navigate the complicated waters of being in lockdown with a child, know that you are not alone. If you would like to hear more from Chris Messina on this subject, you can listen to her full interview on our podcast, Modern Family Matters.