Parenting advice on talking to your kids

Many of us have been sheltering in place for weeks at this point. We’ve adjusted to vastly different day-to-day lives, ones that often see us juggling duties even more than we were before shelter-in-home and social distancing guidelines were in place.

But just because we’re semi-accustomed to things doesn’t make it easier, particularly for parents. We have questions and fears, so of course our kids have questions and fears. 

For some clarity on what we should or shouldn’t be doing and saying during this time, we spoke with Dr. Shayda Ahi, a clinical psychologist based who specializes in children and adolescents, both through her private practice and working at the Brookwood School in Manchester, Mass. 

With all children

First and foremost, with all children, Ahi says it’s good to show our feelings, in ways that are age-appropriate relative to our kids.

“We need to be open and honest with them. It’s OK to show worry, it’s OK to — obviously we’re not flipping out in front of our kids — but this is an opportunity for us to actually teach our kids about uncertainty and adversity, and that we can figure things out,” she said. “A lot of what we’re all hearing is ‘we’re going to figure this out.’ We don’t have answers, but we’re going to figure it out. 

“With each child, age-appropriately, share the concerns and shift it in terms of the actual COVID that it’s an unknown virus, that we don’t even know all of the symptoms, and it’s hard to deal with something that we don’t know a lot about. It’s important to put into words with kids about this. But then always, after a few age-appropriate facts, end it with some reassurance, and there is reassurance.

“ … Always in your message point out the positives that we’re seeing in people because we all need to have hope and we have to pass the hope to our children. That’s very important in my opinion, giving them hope. So: facts, information and then feelings.”

Having them tap into their power can help too: emphasizing that as much as we love seeing family members and friends and teachers, staying home is a way of helping during this time; doing artwork to send out or decorating the sidewalk in front of your home can be a means of helping, as can making handmade face masks. They may not be perfectly made, but they can help a child feel like they’re making a positive impact during an uncertain time. 

Mac Collins, age 10, Benitt Reynolds, 8, Kyson Collins, 7, Savannah Bergeron, 6, and Sydney Bergeron, 10, watch YouTube videos sent from their teachers in Vancouver, Wash. The Collins’ mother Renee is a middle school teacher at Thomas Jefferson Middle School and has created a curriculum for some of the neighborhood kids while the schools are closed. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

What if you have smaller children?

Coronavirus, being away from school and not able to even play at the neighborhood playground is likely most confusing for smaller children. Older children, like tweens and teenagers, can understand the reasons why we can’t live our lives right now the way we’re used to, but younger children are more likely to struggle with the concept. 

Our youngest daughter, who is 4 ½, thinks the virus is in places — we take walks around the neighborhood and she’ll note a shuttered store and say, “that store is closed because the virus is in there.”

If kids are upset that they can’t have playdates with friends, Ahi suggests being open with them.

“First I would start by validating: it’s really hard that you don’t get to see your friends,” she said. “And then I would have the conversation so they can come up with [a solution]: what if we Zoom, what if we FaceTime? Even though we’re not encouraging screen time, we are encouraging screen social time,” she said. 

Questions like, “Who are you missing most? What do you miss about her? If you were to see her, what would you like to say to her? I wonder how we can say that to her? What do you want to do? Do you want to send her a letter in the mail?” can spur little imaginations.

Ahi also sees a possible benefit to children enduring this time: building up their resilience, a lifelong skill.

Thinking of new ways to stay connected with friends “doesn’t take the anxiety away and the conversation is helping the children to start thinking, ‘OK when I can’t do what I want to do and it’s not possible, how can I approximate this and how can I make it work a different way?’ and that’s resilience. 

“That’s problem solving, which I think these kids, having gone through this are going to come out later with a skillset that other kids didn’t have because they’re faced with this. It creates a foundation: you look at your life, I look at my life, whenever I’m faced with something difficult, I tend to think, ‘oh God, this sucks, I don’t know what to do,’ and I say, ‘I’m going to figure this out, just like this other time when I went through [a past situation]. I figured that out, I’m going to figure this out.’ It builds a foundation of confidence in the self that I can deal with adversity.”

If you have older children

The notion of listening and validating is still key. Boredom might be more acute for tweens and teens, but don’t put pressure on them to get better grades or take up a new skill. For one thing, Ahi notes, there’s a natural reaction for many pre-teens to be resistant to such suggestions.

“A lot of the things that we would like our kids to do, when we demand and set an expectation, it becomes pressure,” Ahi said. “But when we coach them into reaching their own decision-maker within and they decide. ‘I’m bored, I don’t know what to do with my time, I’d like to learn to play the guitar.’

“They may never be really good at playing the guitar, but they will feel good about that, that that’s what I tried to do. You want to coach them by asking them all the questions – your kid says to you, ‘I’m really bored,’ [you can respond,] ‘OK, I get it. Things are profoundly different now than they were before, I can understand. What do you think you want to do about it?’”

College uncertainty

One particular group of teens, high school juniors, are likely feeling a great deal of anxiety. Those who want to go on to college know this spring is usually a huge one: they usually take the SAT and/or ACT for the first time, their grades this term and next can weigh heavily in the minds of admissions boards, and summer is a time to make campus visits. As of right now, the standardized tests have been pushed back, their grades might be all over the place depending on how their school system is handling school-from-home, or they might not have access to high-speed internet to even be part of online classes consistently. 

And who knows if campuses will be open by July for visits.

“It is a stressful time, and if we frame it correctly it might end up being a lot less stressful,” Ahi said. “Let’s be honest: we don’t even know when we’re all going back, so it can actually be less stressful. The college application process [is not going to] look like it did before. It has dramatically changed.”

Emphasize to worried kids that it isn’t that they’re skipping the SAT/ACT — no one can take them right now. Already the University of California system has announced that it won’t require the tests for those entering college in fall 2021, and other schools have followed.

“We’re all in this together,” Ahi stressed. “The colleges are in this just like the rest of us are in this, and the whole context is profoundly changed. That’s really comforting to them. It’s not that you’re doing something wrong by not taking the ACT, the ACT is not being offered because of social distancing. Even though they’re 17, when they’re emotional and anxious — which is really what we should talk about is managing anxiety — they need that reality spelled out for them.”

(Graphic by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Life)

For parents

Ahi had a few other tips:

Keep a routine, especially during the school week.

“It’s very important, because we want to have a separate schedule and routine during the week, separate from weekends. But not a rigid schedule,” she said. “The danger with telling parents to schedule is the ones that are high strung are going to put an impossibly demanding schedule on their kids. We’re not aiming for perfection, we’re not aiming to fill every hour, but we do need a sense of structure: getting up at the same time, going to bed at the same time, and some sense of structure because structure helps children and ourselves with our overwhelming anxiety.”

Don’t overwhelm yourself or kids with news.

“Get yourself centered as to what the facts are but watch out for overexposure. I’m encouraging people to pick a time and a reliable source, listen to it or read it, and then be done with it until the next day,” she said.

Control what you can, particularly in the interest of self-care.

“We can’t control other people, we cannot control the current situation, but there are things that we can control. That shifts your position from being a victim to this virus and this situation to being a problem-solver. Nobody likes this — it sucks all the way through. But you can be a victim or you can be a problem-solver. For that you need to know what are the things that you can control and control them. Again, with flexibility, not rigidity.”

Remember: you’re still a parent.

“Just because you’re home and these are unusual and uncertain times and times of high stress and anxiety, does not mean that you stop parenting. You have to continue to parent, the way you parented before the COVID. Don’t get rigid and hyper-controlling, but you’ve got to parent,” Ahi said. “They still have to eat their vegetables. They still have to brush their teeth. Because looking at it from a child’s perspective, so much in their lives have changed, they need their parents to be consistent. You don’t have to be nicer to your kids by giving them a lot more screen time or let them stay in their pajamas or brush their teeth or yell at each other because we’re going through a hard time. Continue to parent them as you did before.”

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