Everyone in America today is aware of the terrible toll the COVID-19 virus is taking in the sickness and death of so many people. Added to this is the difficulty millions of people are facing by the disruption of their normal lives – the social distancing, the confinement of themselves and their families to their homes, the need to wear masks when they go out, the restrictions on basic services like simply getting a haircut, and so many other things.
But what isn’t discussed too much is the psychological effect it is having on our children. In a previous post, we discussed how children often take out their anxieties through play. Here, we would like to outline some steps parents can take to overcome the stress factors of the current crisis that could have harmful effects on a child’s well-being and development.
In an online posting for Child Trends, authors Jessica Dym Bartlett and Rebecca Vivrette discuss some ways these stress factors can be minimized. They point out that not only must families cope with all the changes to their normal lives, as noted above, but the effects of the virus that have also contributed to the “rates of poverty, unemployment, parental mental health problems and substance abuse. Child abuse and neglect, and intimate partner violence trend to rise during disasters. Children may not receive critical supports they need when community services are limited and fewer adults have direct contact with children.”
However, they say, there are protective factors that can minimize the harm and increase the chances of children adapting positively to adversities like the COVID-19 crisis. Among the things they suggest are:
1) Sensitive, Responsive Caregiving. A sensitive, caring adult is a primary factor in a child’s response to an adverse or traumatic event. Also important is contact with other children and adults who have been important connections to them whether by online video, telephone, letters, texts or email. Parents should also spend quality time with them – playing, reading, talking or taking outdoor walks.2)
2) Meeting their basic needs. Federal, state and local governments should actively support families who find difficulty in obtaining food, clothing, medical care and mental health care during this crisis.
3) Support for the well-being of caregivers. Meeting the needs of parents and caregivers make it more likely that children will get sensitive and responsive care.
An important issue that arises during this time when families are restricted together all the time is the question of how to discipline the child who is acting out more than usual because of boredom. A May 10th New York Times article, “Cut Your Children a Break on Discipline” discusses the problems parents are having when it comes to questions of discipline. “Young kids’ lives often revolve around seeing their friends and exploring their world, so being forced to shelter at home with their family can feel really hard,” the article notes. “Many kids also thrive on routine and structure – simple things like always having preschool circle time at 9am – and these predictable aspects of their lives have also disappeared, causing some to struggle more.” Parents have to anticipate that they will act out more because they have less ability to accept when things don’t go right, “not because they’re bad but because they really feel destabilized.”
So, what can parents do when the whining or suddenly aggressive child does things that could drive you crazy. First, take a deep breath and hold your temper and remember why he is acting that way. Then, empathize with his feelings and share this with him. Getting down on the floor with him and telling him that you realize what he’s going through is an important step in connecting.
Then, when things have calmed down, tell him why his behavior was not acceptable. “It’s OK to be mad, but it’s not OK” to do whatever misbehavior it was that he was doing. Ask him what he thinks he can do to fix the situation – should he apologize to his brother for hurting him or clean up the things he threw in the moment of anger. And how should he handle the situation next time. Maybe suggest that he can go to his room and yell or perhaps ask you for a hug the next time he feels angry or sad.
“You have to be careful about not coming down too hard on children when they’re having a hard time,” emphasizes one psychotherapist. Discipline should not be just about punishment but about teaching. “This is not a permissive approach. You can still have expectations and boundaries.”
In addition, whenever you can, take a few minutes to have fun with your children. Sing and dance with them, tell them stories, read to them. Let them play and, every once in a while, join in their play. And go easy on yourself. Spend a little less time on household chores, whenever possible, and more time just trying to relax during this crisis. It will make you less likely to let a child’s misbehavior rattle you to the point where you forget why he’s behaving that way and react in a way that only makes things worse.