Parenting in a Pandemic: What to Do When COVID-19 Cancels School

Small children doing arts and craftsAt the best of times, parenting can present plenty of challenges and difficult moments. Parenting during a global pandemic such as the coronavirus? Needless to say, this isn’t the best of times, and for many parents, this may be the toughest period you’ve ever faced as a family.

Families nationwide are stocking up on groceries and basic household essentials, worrying about possible coronavirus symptoms in the community, and preparing for a potential period of financial stress.

At the same time, schools are closing rapidly across the country. Whether COVID-19 has reached your area already or your state has canceled all classes as a precautionary measure, you may be facing an indefinite period where your children are home, possibly while you’re trying to work from home—something else you may not be accustomed to.

Unlike summer vacation, you had little to no time to prepare activities or enrichment learning for your children, and you have few (if any) options for childcare or out-of-home distractions. While thinking up activities to keep your children busy may fall a distant second or third to your more serious concerns, it’s still something you’ll be considering in the weeks to come. But we have some tips to help.

Talking to Your Kids About COVID-19

While young children may not understand everything that’s happening in the world right now, they probably realize things are a little different. Siblings and parents home all day, disruption to normal routines, more tension in the air—these are all unusual changes to preschool children, who may respond with increased irritability or frequent reassurance-seeking behaviors, like wanting to know what family members are doing and wanting to be held or interacted with.

Older children may initially respond to school cancellations with elation, but tension and stress may color the edges of that excitement. If you live in a particularly hard-hit area, such as Washington state, California, or New York, your children may be noticing information about severe illness and death from radio or news headlines. Even if your area hasn’t yet had many cases of the novel coronavirus, news about the spread in other cities and countries might increase their anxiety and fear.

The way you talk to your children about the virus and its effects can make a big difference in their emotional state. If you’re unsure how to handle the situation, the following tips can help.

1. Offer age-appropriate, honest information about COVID-19.

Remember, teens can (and probably are) accessing the same news sources you are. They’re also talking to their friends and getting information from numerous online sources. It’s essential for you to provide them with factual information from credible sources. Use this opportunity to stress the importance of sticking to trusted sites, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization, and learning how to separate rumor from fact.

Younger children will likely accept what you tell them, but it’s important to tell the truth about your level of risk. If you say “Don’t worry, everything’s fine,” they’ll most likely have some valid questions about your extreme reaction when they touch their face or why they can’t celebrate their birthday as planned.

2. Answer their questions about the virus.

Your children will likely have a lot of questions about what’s happening. You may not know how to answer everything they ask, but it’s important to listen to their concerns and provide answers when you can. A lack of knowledge can make fear and anxiety worse, but knowing they can ask questions and share their worries with you may help relieve some of this tension.

3. Limit news viewing.

Too much information can also increase anxiety. If you keep news broadcasts running all day, you’ll quickly become overwhelmed, and so will your children. Even if you prefer to read your news, constantly checking for updates can prevent you from being present for your children. This constant influx of information can also affect your mood and increase your own stress, which can feed into theirs in a vicious, repeating cycle.

4. Avoid discriminatory attitudes.

COVID-19 may have originated in China, but anyone can contract the virus, and it’s not specific to China. People of Asian descent are no more likely to have the virus than anyone else, especially if they haven’t recently been in China. Terms like “Chinese virus” perpetuate stigma and harmful ideas in a time that’s already full of distress and fear.

By speaking about affected individuals in other countries with compassion, reminding your children anyone at all can have the virus, and encouraging them to practice social distancing with everyone, you can help combat the spread of coronavirus prejudice.

Practical Tips for Parenting During COVID-19

Parenting during COVID-19 may look a lot different for you right now, especially if pre-COVID-19 you worked while your children went to school. Now all of you are home, sharing close quarters, and you might not have a chance for time alone, or time to work (if you’re telecommuting during this time).

What to do?

1. Skip the play dates.

First, it’s highly recommended to keep your children home if at all possible. This guidance comes from medical experts across the nation. Children appear to have a lower risk of contracting COVID-19, and they tend to experience much milder symptoms. But it’s very possible (and likely) they may transmit the virus to others who may face a more severe case.

2. Spend time outside.

You may not be able to hold play dates, but your children can still play outside, as long as they make sure to maintain some distance (6 feet or more) between other children and avoid sharing toys or playground equipment.

Good options include:

  • Bicycling, skating, or scootering
  • Games that allow for some distance, like hide-and-seek
  • Walking or jogging
  • Playing with pets in the backyard

Go over the correct way to wash hands with all children, and be sure to remind them to step up their handwashing by washing before going outside and as soon as they return.

3. Enforce social distancing.

Teens, especially those who miss their close friends and significant others, may have a particularly hard time with social distancing. Make sure they understand why it’s so important to avoid close contact right now—they may not have COVID-19, but they could also be an asymptomatic carrier. Alternatively, a friend could spread the virus and they could bring it home.

4. Try to maintain a regular schedule.

In times of distress or crisis, and particularly for parents in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, normalcy can help reduce tension and unnecessary stress. It may feel tempting to give up on bedtimes and mealtimes after school is canceled due to COVID-19, and as the days go by, you may certainly end up relaxing these set times.

No matter how much your children plead to stay up later since “we’re not doing anything anyway,” enforcing a relatively standard bedtime can help offer reassurance that not everything has changed. It also implies that things will return to normal, which can also help relieve some of their stress. Not to mention enforcing their bedtime allows the adults to have some time together.

5. Encourage learning opportunities…

COVID-19 may have canceled school, but your children can still do some work over the unexpected “vacation.”

Schedule daily time for them to complete previously assigned work or distance learning from their school. These assignments may not teach new concepts, but practicing concepts they’ve already learned can help them avoid learning loss.

Encourage creative play and art projects with supplies you have on hand. This might be an ideal time for messy backyard science or craft projects you wouldn’t usually have time for. Take an exploration hike and learn about the natural world, or cook and bake together to teach math and science skills.

6. …but don’t worry about relaxing your typical rules around screen time.

It’s important to acknowledge your children may simply not have many ways to fill their time. Your local libraries have probably closed—though if they offer e-books or audiobooks, you can still access these resources. If you don’t have the financial resources to purchase new books and toys, you may be at a loss for how to fill the hours.

But this isn’t a typical situation, so don’t feel you’ve failed as a parent by allowing more screen time than you usually would, especially if you need some time to get your own work done in peace. You can set the condition that they finish their schoolwork or household chores first, of course.

Try making additional screen time educational by challenging them to find a science or history video and “teach” you something or encouraging them to play educational or academic games.

Also allow extra time for staying in touch, through text message or video chat, with friends and members of your extended family.

You’ve heard it over and over, before every airplane flight: Put on your own oxygen mask first.

Mental Health Tips for Parents During the COVID-19 Pandemic

You’ve heard it over and over, before every airplane flight: Put on your own oxygen mask first.

This wisdom hasn’t diminished in value. Indeed, it becomes even more important in trying times.

Protect your mental health by:

  • Practicing good self-care. Eat balanced meals, exercise when you can, and make time for adequate sleep.
  • Making time for relaxation. If you’re working from home, resist the urge to throw yourself into work to distract yourself. Try to follow a typical work schedule instead, including rest breaks. Once your “workday” is over, spend time on hobbies and rest.
  • Staying in touch with family and friends. Telephone, text, or video calls may be especially important if you’re a single parent. Isolation can take a heavy toll, especially when you don’t have any respite.
  • Talking to a therapist. Consider this if you feel stressed, anxious, depressed, or overwhelmed. Telemental health care may work as a good solution, if you don’t already have a therapist.
  • Using this time to connect with your partner and deepen your relationship. The lack of alone time can cause stress, but talk about ways for each of you to get the space you need and create a plan to approach parenting challenges as a team.

Taking steps to keep yourself physically and emotionally well as you continue parenting during COVID-19 helps ensure you can keep providing the best care for your family.

References:

  1. How to prepare. (2020, March 13). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/index.html
  2. Kamenetz, A., & Turner, C. (2020, March 16). Coronavirus and parenting: What you need to know now. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2020/03/13/814615866/coronavirus-and-parenting-what-you-need-to-know-now
  3. Kanthor, R. (2020, March 17). Under lockdown for coronavirus, parents struggle to deal with their kids. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/parenting/coronavirus-quarantine.html
  4. Talking to children about COVID-19 (coronavirus): A parent resource. (2020). National Association of School Psychologists. Retrieved from https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/school-climate-safety-and-crisis/health-crisis-resources/talking-to-children-about-covid-19-(coronavirus)-a-parent-resource

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  • Andrea

    Andrea

    March 20th, 2020 at 2:45 AM

    We live in Knox County Indiana, Monroe city. My husband and I have custody of his oldest daughter from a previous acquaintance. On a normal day we feel like his daughter is not safe at her mothers house she has parenting time following the parenting time guidelines. We have tried and tried to get only supervised visitation but it seems like the girls mom always comes into court crying and balling putting on a great show acting like she doesnt know anything about court stuff and she is just so upset and traumatized because she cant see her daughter every day. My question is…. Our County Knox Co is under a state of emergency and everyone is supposed to be staying home and keep minimal human to human contact because of the pandemic. Can we legally keep my husbands daughter home during this pandemic Or do we have to follow the guidelines even though the world is under bad times.

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