In the last few weeks I've attended two virtual seminars on parenting during COVID that I found incredibly useful (one with Lori Gottlieb and Dr. Daniel Siegel, and another with Seedlings, organized by Sloan's school). I took such extensive notes that I figured I'd distill a few of my favorite takeaways into a post that could be helpful for other parents. Some of it may seem obvious, but for those of us who failed to even implement a schedule for our kids during the first few weeks or so (guilty!), I think it's fair to assume that navigating this time has its challenges and there's always room for improvement. And perhaps the biggest takeaway was that a lot of these tips aren't just pertinent to this particular time - and they're relevant not only for our children but for ourselves moving forward. Here are the biggest takeaways I learned on parenting during COVID-19:
As parents, it's hard to see your child sad or upset and often our first response is to try and diminish their feelings and distract them with something else (at least, mine is). When Sloan would first come to me saying how much she missed her friends, I would counter with something along the lines of, "We all do!" instead of giving her the space to sit with her feelings. My first course of action shouldn't have been to simply suggest a Zoom call to see her friends, but to actually let her remain in that uncomfortable place a little longer. Three of the most important words we can say to children are, "Tell me more" so they feel heard and know you're there to listen. Even in the past couple of weeks or so I've tried the technique countless times and have found it's a great way for her to access her feelings and process what's going on.
Between the uncertainty of not knowing when school will begin, the racial injustices taking place, and the virus itself, kids understandably have a lot of questions. It's fine to simply say, "I don't know," as long as you follow it up with, "but I'm here with you throughout this. So even though I don't know, I'm with you and you're not alone."
My lifelong relationship with anxiety is largely negative, but it wasn't until one of the seminars broke it down into two main categories that I realized it doesn't always have to be. Productive anxiety relates to a reasonable amount of worry about something in your environment and can motivate and protect you. The unproductive alternative is the kind you should try to limit. Those are the times where there's obsessive rumination and you're just focusing on things out of your control. The way it was explained is that our brain is an anticipation machine and has a tendency to fill in things it doesn't know with frightening thoughts, which is unhelpful. Worrying about something that hasn't happened isn't productive, so try to catch yourself when you're spiraling by staying present. When I notice that now happening with Sloan, whether she's panicking about going to her new school or questioning when we'll be able to enter the world normally again, I literally say, "Stay present." I have her take note of what's around her, focusing on sensory things like the breeze on her skin or pen in her hand, since it immediately shifts her perspective from projecting into the future to noticing things happening in the moment. It's something I've done for myself as well, particularly in the middle of the night when I'm my most irrational. When I find myself starting to obsess over something, I ask myself if it's productive or unproductive (unsurprisingly very few of my thoughts at 2 A.M. are ever remotely productive), which allows me the space to not think about it again until morning.
This goes without saying, but kids pick up on stress and it's our job to manage it in a way that doesn't affect them too much. Sloan can always tell when I'm tense about something, which I don't deny (that would only confuse her more), but I also try to make a noticeable shift in my behavior. It's always a signal that I need to take better care of myself if it's affecting her, so I'll say something like, "Work has been a little nuts lately, but you know what would make me feel better? A hug from you!" Then I actually make a note to make my mental health a priority and take a bath, go for a walk or meditate. It's like the whole saying with an airplane that you need to give yourself the oxygen mask first to better serve those around you.
This was one of the sweetest concepts I learned that's been really helpful in our family. Like me, Sloan is a bit of a worrier (particularly over things that are out of her control), so we've dedicated a few minutes, right before bed, where we have "Worry Time." Instead of simply asking if anything's bothering her, like I used to, I now say, "Okay, time to give all your worries to me!" and she literally will "hand them" over and place them in my palm and list-off what they are. In the same way that I'll sometimes jot down all the little things on my mind in a journal in the middle of the night, this is a comparable version, particularly for kids who can't yet write them all down.
Sloan's always been a pretty self-reliant, independent kid, but there's been a big shift as of late. Since she now has access to us at any given moment, there are a lot of requests for things she could easily do herself. In the past if she was hungry, she'd go make her breakfast or pour herself a glass of water when she was thirsty. But now there seem to be demands flying in every couple of minutes, which is particularly hard when we're also trying to run a business from home. The first couple of months, it seemed easier just to grab the cereal or cup of water while juggling other things, but the seminar stressed the importance of delaying their gratification and allowing for frustration. So instead, we should say something like, "I know you want water. I'll get it for you once I'm done with my meeting or you can grab it yourself right now." It's not always easy to then deal with her annoyance, but she's slowly started rediscovering how good it feels to be independent.
At the beginning of quarantine, there were a few instances where Sloan exhibited behaviors that seemed so out of character that I grew genuinely concerned. She was snapping at us, losing patience immediately with schoolwork, talking in a baby voice, and requesting snacks on 10-minute increments—and I was worried that the current environment would turn her into an entirely different kid. After several Zoom calls with other parents, I was reassured to hear that every kid has been experiencing some sort of regression and it's entirely normal. During this time, we've been reminding Sloan that "all feelings are welcome, all behaviors are not." So if she's upset that she couldn't get a word right during reading time or that her teacher didn't call on her, those feelings of frustration are completely valid. But storming out of the room or yelling is not. It hasn't been an immediate fix, but she's at least starting to understand that how she feels doesn't justify her actions.
One of (several) times I found myself getting teary during the seminars was when we were reminded that there's no such thing as perfect parenting, especially now. These are all just suggestions—we all make mistakes and it's about moving forward. Not to mention, it's a good lesson to teach your kids that even parents mess up and that we can repair those mistakes. The most important thing is that you show up for your kids and be there for them with your own presence, since that's what matters most.