First, it’s crucial that parents take care of their own physical and mental well-being, including maintaining a healthy diet, exercising and getting enough sleep. Dr. Kelly Ross of the Department of Newborn Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis told healthychildren.org (part of the American Academy of Pediatrics) that mothers who neglect themselves negatively affect their ability to care for their children.
Dr. Rebecca Moles of Connecticut Children’s Medical Center recommends parents take “time-outs” when they feel like they’re reaching their limits. If the kids are safe, take a few minutes to recharge, whether it’s by taking a shower or a walk outside, lying in a dark room, calling a friend — little things. Parents who have spouses or co-parents on the premises can take turns watching the kids and taking “recharge” breaks.
Ross also explains that parents who take good care of themselves set a good example for their kids. It’s easier to get children to exercise or drink enough water when that’s what they’re seeing their parents do.
The Child Mind Institute says it’s important for kids to stick to a regular schedule as much as possible during times of stress. Breakfast time is breakfast time and bedtime is bedtime, but that’s just the beginning. School-aged children may be accustomed to alternating between coursework and breaks, so make sure to allot times during the “school day.” Moles says breaks involving movement tend to engage kids most, so activities like gardening, playing catch or making paper airplanes are great ideas. Structured activities go further than unstructured. Moles also says that parents taking breaks along with their children will find their own work hours become more productive.
As for what to do, the internet offers a wealth of suggestions. The Denver Museum of Nature and Science has, while closed, assembled a webpage full of fun and educational videos and activities for all ages. Another option: Have kids help out in the kitchen.
And while Moles cautions against letting kids go from one screen to another, the internet can be a great resource for low-budget crafts or exercise options. YouTube fitness coach Joe Wicks, aka The Body Coach, releases half-hour P.E. classes every weekday for kids stuck inside during quarantine. Child Mind Institute psychologist David Anderson suggests parents take tips from the past and think about what they did for fun as kids.
Of course, it’s not all arts and crafts, activities and workouts. Kids may not be old enough to understand the news, but they worry all the same. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that it’s important to talk to children about their fears. That may mean doing some homework together and looking up recommendations from local health care agencies or larger agencies like the World Health Organization. Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman of the Touro College Graduate School of Education calls this situation a teachable moment. He explains that the recommended precautions for preventing the spread of coronavirus are just good everyday hygiene. Parents should calmly teach children to wash their hands with soap and water and to cover their faces when they sneeze or cough.
Kids of all ages rely on their parents for a sense of security, so it’s important to avoid passing on anxieties unintentionally. It’s also important to limit one’s own news consumption and remember that there’s more going on in the world than COVID-19. Dr. Mark Reinecke of the Child Mind Institute warns specifically against dwelling on worst-case scenarios.
“Keep a sense of perspective, engage in solution-focused thinking and balance this with mindful acceptance,” he says.