You’re a parent during a pandemic. The everyday stresses and joys of being a parent have likely shifted since the era of COVID began, leaving you to question how to best handle the changes. What can you do to survive, and even thrive, as a parent today? This article outlines several tips, including tips on setting yourself up for success, talking to your child, and helping your child cope, as well as general reminders about coping yourself. Implement those that work for your family, focus on progress, not perfection, and remember to be kind to yourself. We are all in this together.
1. Maintain Predictability & Routine – Nicole R Evry, LCSW
Maintain predictably in this uncertain time by controlling what you can. Have a calm and consistent morning routine. Get up earlier so there’s less chaos and rush in the morning. This will help you keep a clearer head to really connect and genuinely check in with your child on how they are handling the new school arrangement. Try to get as much information from the school as possible in advance to prepare your child for what to expect and talk it over with them.
2. Give Your Children a Sense of Power & Control – Erin Cantor, MSW, LMSW
Give as many choices as you can to your kids about all of the parts of their return to school that they can realistically be in charge of. Everything from asking them what color mask they want to wear to what kind of dessert they want to choose for their packed lunch can really give a child a healthy sense of power and control over what has essentially been a very uncontrollable and scary situation. This way, they can also feel empowered in a world where so much has changed for them.
3. Focus on What You Can Control – Tanya Peterson, NCC
It’s normal to feel frustrated and helpless with so many big decisions that are out of your control. Allow yourself to feel frustrated, but don’t get stuck in frustration and anxiety. Instead, focus on what you can control. Take control over your own home structure and routine. Involve your kids in creating positive daily routines that help things flow smoothly. Also, give your kids as many choices as possible and help them find ways to do things they love in new ways. Having daily structure and a voice in what happens each day can alleviate anxiety and stress.
4. Reward, Reward, Reward – Eric Patterson, LPC
You have to make decisions that your child may not like regarding school. To minimize frustrations and disappointment, agree to a reinforcement schedule that allows your child to be rewarded for following the plan. Rewards do not have to be expensive to be effective. Good options include special meals, play dates with friends, and extra time playing video games. Anything your child desires makes a good reinforcement.
5. Let Go of Expectations – Lena Suarez-Angelino, MSW, LCSW
Help your child understand that things will definitely be different when they return to school. Help your child to practice patience and follow new school rules and routines. Remind your children that you’re there to help them, and are always alongside them to support them. Prepare your child to acknowledge some of the things they’re looking forward to for their school year, but also must learn to accept that things may not be exactly how they imagine. Encourage them to draw a picture of what they’re looking forward to most about school and help to show them how it might be different in a new picture.
6. Renegotiate Often – Eric Patterson, LPC
COVID-19 issues continue to change and evolve and so should school decisions. Let your kids know that school choices will change as situations improve or deteriorate. Arrange to have regular conversations about new developments associated with COVID-19 and steps taken, or not taken, by school staff.
7. Learn About Their Experiences – Nicole R Evry, LCSW
Have a designated time to talk to your child about their experience. If your child prefers to express themselves through non-verbal communication, offer a space in the afternoon for music, drawing, writing or other means of expression.
8. It’s Okay to Talk About the Severity of Coronavirus – Nicole R Evry, LCSW
You can talk to your child about the severity of COVID-19. Don’t shy away from answering difficult questions that may come up about life and death. There are many helpful children’s books you can read together that discuss loss and death in abstract ways, but reassure them that their safety is the priority, and this is the reason for all the changes taking place.
9. Be Clear and Direct, but Age Appropriate – Iris Waichler, MSW, LCSW
Parents should be age appropriate when they speak with their kids about COVID-19. For younger kids keep explanations simple and direct. Focus on things they can do to be safe like washing hands and wearing masks and have them do it with you. The older your child the more detailed you can be about discussing the virus. Be honest in your responses. Reassure your kids that you will be there to offer them help in any way you can and encourage dialogue, and check in with them regularly.
10. Be Honest About Your Own Feelings and Concerns – Matt Glowiak, PhD, LCPC
Regardless of age, it is important to be honest about your feelings. By tactfully sharing that you feel worried or depressed, it affords your children the opportunity to speak openly and honestly as well. They also realize that they are not alone.
11. Watch for Conflicting Messages, & Help Your Child Express Their Feelings – Gabrielle Schreyer-Hoffman, PhD
It is important to give our children space to express their feelings about returning to school, whether that is through direct verbal communication or nonverbal communication (acting out, protesting). Parents should keep an ear and eye out for conflicting messages from their children like excitement and anxiety about returning to school and provide their children with the language for speaking about these conflicting feelings. For example, “I hear that you are excited to go back to school and see your friends, but you’re also anxious about going back to school and not being with [caregiver]” and try to have a conversation with them about this.
12. Play the “What If…?” Game Regularly – Linda Kudla, PsyD
Set aside some time daily for expressing uncertain thoughts and worries, ideally at a somewhat more relaxed time of the day. Ten to fifteen minutes is often more than enough. Play the “What if…?” game, but remember that there are more than just negative possibilities. For every negative or scary “what if…?” think of one positive possibility and one utterly silly possibility (e.g., (worry) what if I don’t understand the online instructions? (positive) what if I get it perfect and finish first? (silly) what if the instructions are just to think of names for the teacher’s new puppy?).
13. Find a “Safety Charm” – Nicole R Evry, LCSW
Consider a transitional object to help keep them grounded and feeling safe between home and school. It can be anything of comfort to the child that is also allowed in the school setting, such as a special pen, toy, or bracelet, but describe it as a safety charm.
14. Reduce Worry by Scribbling – Emma Jane Watson, M.Ed., MSW, LICSW
Taking a practice from EMDR therapy, you can reduce anxiety with a fun scribbling activity. This is good for kids and adults. Fold a sheet of paper in half, then half again. Open it and you have four quadrants. In square one, draw a simple image or shape to represent your worry. Scribble out the image moving your crayon or marker left to right, top to bottom for about 20 seconds, stop, take a deep breath. Redraw the same image or shape again in square two and do the same exercise. Continue through all four squares. You may notice a nice sense of calm by the time you complete all four quadrants.
15. Take Some Deep Breaths – Emma Jane Watson, M.Ed., MSW, LICSW
Even young children can learn to reset big emotions with deep breathing. Once they feel calm, have them lie down on the floor on their backs with hands on the belly. Using an easy, quiet voice, instruct them to fill the belly with air so it pushes their hands out. When it’s full, have them pause and then let the air out very slowly. Have them notice and describe how their body feels from feet all the way to the head.
16. Make Sure to Laugh Together – Emma Jane Watson, M.Ed., MSW, LICSW
If you sit down with your family in the evening take the time to laugh. If you don’t have any “dad jokes” or funny stories try cooperative drawing. Have each person draw a shape on a sheet of paper that represents the worst part of their day. Next, hand it off to the person to their left. That person draws whatever they want to add to the picture. Hand it off again and again until it gets back to the owner. It’s great to see how much your worries are changed by others, especially when they end up making you laugh.
17. Get Outside – Emma Jane Watson, M.Ed., MSW, LICSW
Playing is one of the best anecdotes for stress and worry. Physical play outside is the best. Kick around a ball, play tag or hide and seek, jump rope, or ride bikes. The key is to get everyone involved, make it fun, not competitive, and try something new. Move, breathe, make noise, be silly and fall down laughing. It will change your day completely.
18. Don’t Be Afraid to Be Silly – Emma Jane Watson, M.Ed., MSW, LICSW
Try the unexpected to relieve tension. My children’s best day was the one that their father drove home from work in a gorilla suit, jumped out of the car, and chased them around the yard. Pretty soon all the neighbors were outside laughing and clapping at the spectacle. The novelty and the fun changed us all for the better.
19. No Family Is Perfect in a Pandemic – Michelle Friedman, LCSW
It could be helpful to remind your kids that every single family is in the same situation. We’re all going through education during a pandemic for the first time. There are no ‘pandemic professionals’ and everyone is learning as they go along. Hopefully this will take some of the mental pressure off you and your kid(s).
20. Children Sense Our Energy – Lena Suarez-Angelino, MSW, LCSW
This is not intended to place extra pressure on you! Just your friendly PSA to do your best to stay calm, cool, and collected, especially in front of the kids. Children typically have an optimistic and simplistic lens on life. It’s the adults that tend to over-complicate things (I’m guilty, too, sometimes!). They can sense our energy when we’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Try to remain relaxed – this will help things run a bit smoother. Practice taking deep breaths often!
21. Be Kind – Lena Suarez-Angelino, MSW, LCSW
This should go without saying, but be kind to one another! Parent to parent, parent to spouse, and parent to teacher — we’re all experiencing a global pandemic together. We’re all on information overload and honestly just trying to do what we think is best for ourselves and our family. Everyone has been forced to drastically change their routines and environments (practically overnight) and things still have not settled to “how they were.” You don’t have to agree with what other people are doing or saying, but just try practicing gratitude and kindness in your everyday life.
21 Tips for Parents With Children Returning to School During COVID-19 Infographics