Greetings to your home from all of ours. Although these strange times have created many new challenges, while non-essential physical spaces are shuttered the Arlington Parent Coalition (APC) team is enjoying a welcome respite from the battle to keep kids safe at school.
But an indefinite quarantine can produce a lot of anxiety, questions, and chaos for families who are unaccustomed to spending so much unstructured time together, so we wanted to offer a few thoughts, ideas, and resources that might help smooth out some of the rough edges of this experience. Loneliness may be one of the biggest problems faced by people who live alone, but for families with school-aged children, three of the toughest challenges may revolve around space, time, and fear.
“Mom, She’s Touching Me!”
Even the largest of houses can feel confining when you’re not allowed to leave, and families who live in apartments or smaller spaces may be literally climbing on top of each other during a lockdown.
As much as possible, try to make sure that each person in the home has somewhere to which s/he can retreat, a space that belongs only to him or her, at least for that moment. If kids have to share bedrooms, try to find another space that one can utilize when needing alone time. Even the laundry room, if you have one, or a cleared-out spot in a closet can serve this function. One family we know of let one of their kids create a private, Harry Potter-type space in the storage nook below the stairs.
If your home is particularly space-challenged, erect dividers between kids’ beds by hanging a sheet between or around the beds, or maybe building a temporary wall out of unfolded cardboard boxes and duct tape. (Give the kids paints or markers to decorate the cardboard wall, and they’ll be busy for several hours!) You could even set up a makeshift tent or pillow fort somewhere in the house for a few days. If you’re not sure where to start, try asking your kids, “If you could have a private space somewhere in the house that’s just for you, where would you want it?”
Getting outside for exercise is still allowed (and encouraged) if you wear a mask and maintain physical distance between yourselves and people outside your household. If you have a yard, or even a balcony, just getting outside to smell the air and look at a tree has been shown to have great health benefits, including improved mood. If your kids are younger, take them on a walk every day if you’re able. A visual scavenger hunt can be a great motivator, especially if there’s a prize like ice cream or getting a little extra screen time for everyone who fills the card (or some portion of it). If you have access to a sidewalk and some chalk or water-soluble paint you can make an obstacle course for your kids (or for yourself!) that can be as fun and challenging as you like.
Keep in mind also that adults have autonomy that children do not. As a grown-up, you’re abiding by the governor’s stay-at-home order because you’ve decided it’s wise to do so. Children live under a second layer of authority: their parents’. While adults could choose to defy the order and leave the house whenever they feel like it, children are housebound by their parents’ decision to keep them there. While this is appropriate and intended for their safety, kids can feel even more caged than do their parents. If they complain to you, try to listen, empathize, and validate (agree with their feelings) that this is hard. Knowing that you hear and understand goes a long way toward helping them feel more at peace, and to trust that you’re making sound decisions even when you know those decisions are not popular or easy.
These Are the (Longest) Days of Our Lives
Humans are creatures of habit and routine; our lives are measured out by the rising and setting of the sun and moon, and by the reliable turn of seasons from one to the next. We all have circadian rhythms and we mark the passing of time with our work and with events like holidays and vacations. Therefore, establishing a daily schedule during this lockdown can be a huge source of relief to everyone in the house, even if kids initially rail against it.
Build anchors into your day. Set times when kids get up in the morning and when they go to bed at night. It’s perfectly reasonable to tell even a fairly young child that he is not to come out of his bedroom in the morning until the clock looks like this:
If the child is too young to read a clock, put stickers next to the hour and minute hands where they’ll be when it’s okay to come out in the morning (on an analog clock like the one above), or draw the time’s numbers as they will appear on the clock on a card the same size as the clock face. Put the card on top of or next to a digital clock for the child to compare.
Set times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and as often as possible eat at least one of those meals together as a family. Studies have shown that families who eat a meal together each day produce the most stable and healthy children.
If your children have schoolwork to do, set chunks of time throughout the day for them to work on it. Give younger children shorter blocks with more breaks (for a second-grader maybe have her work for 10-15 minutes then take a ten-minute break; high school students can work diligently for 45 minutes or an hour before taking a ten- or 15-minute break). While studying, kids should be seated at a comfortable desk (the dining room table or living room coffee table, or even just a lapdesk at the couch will do) and have as distraction-free of an environment as possible-- no TV or screens, unless needed for the schoolwork, and preferably no other kids playing nearby.
Schedule time for fun things as well. Give your kids a half hour or 45 minutes at specific times of the day to play video games or watch TV. This breaks up the monotony of work and gives them something to look forward to. Schedule together time as well. If you have two children, assign 15 or 30 minutes every day when each child gets Mom or Dad alone. Start by playing a card game or doing artwork together. Over time, as this routine becomes established, the child will start to have ideas about what he wants to do together. (Make sure the other kids have something to occupy them during this time so they won’t interrupt.)
And don’t neglect to build breaks into the schedule for yourself as well, especially if your children are young. One wise, single Mom created a fabulous dinner routine when her kids were young: she’d prepare dinner, then turn on a 30-minute video for the kids while she ate alone and read a book. When the video ended she set the littles at the table with their dinners, then read kids’ books to them while they ate. After having some time to herself, and getting herself nourished physically and mentally, their family’s evenings went much more smoothly. And her kids got that all-important daily reading time that is so integral for vocabulary and overall brain development. An added bonus to this plan is that kids tend to eat what’s put in front of them with less complaining, because they’re caught up in the story that’s being read and are paying less attention to the fact that they’re willingly putting broccoli in their mouths. Click here to view a sample schedule that you can adapt to your family’s needs.
“But What If Grandma Dies?”
There’s a lot of legitimate anxiety in the air right now. You may think your kids are shielded from worries about health, safety, and the economy, but children are often more aware of what’s going on than adults realize. They pick up on their parents’ concerns, and especially sensitive children may be playing and replaying mental videos of their own fears that we don’t even know about. Many people are likely to contract Covid-19, and we may lose people we know and love. Kids may be scared that they’ll lose their parents, or that they’ll die themselves. If they’ve heard you telling your own parents to stay inside and keep safe, they may worry about their grandparents dying. Sometimes adults avoid talking to children about scary things because the adults don’t want to put fears into kids’ heads if those fears aren’t there yet. But it’s important to give your children both a safe place to express their concerns, and an age-appropriate understanding of the facts about what’s happening. A good way to start such a conversation is with open-ended questions, or questions that can’t be answered with a one-word response like “yes” or “no”.
When your children open up about their fears, listen. Validate their feelings, as we mentioned earlier. This means reassuring them that there’s nothing wrong with how they feel. Too often adults invalidate children’s feelings, hoping to take away their fears. This never works. A child whose feelings are regularly invalidated just learns that the way he naturally responds to things is either wrong or shameful. We never want to validate a mistaken understanding of the facts, but we always want to validate how others feel about the facts.
After you’ve validated your child’s feelings, you can then address the facts and correct any misunderstandings or extreme fears s/he may have. Consider the child’s age, maturity, and sensitivity when sharing with them what’s happening in the world. For very young children (maybe up to age six or seven), couple simple explanations with a reminder that you will always protect them. Think G-rated, Disney-movie level stuff:
“We have to stay inside because there’s a new sickness going around that doctors don’t know a lot about yet. But doctors are working hard to find a cure, and we’re doing everything they tell us to, so that we can stay safe until they do.”
“It’s true that some people have died from this sickness. That’s why Mommy and Daddy are making sure that our house stays clean and safe, and that we all stay inside as much as we can.”
Older kids (through ages 10-12 or so) will have more specific questions, and can handle more details:
“This virus is really aggressive, and it’s very easy to pick it up. That’s why it’s so important that we keep practicing social distancing, washing our hands a lot, and wearing masks when we go out.”
“I don’t yet know anyone who has died from this, but experts think that about 0.4% of people who get it will die. That’s about 4 out of every 1000 people. But most of those will be elderly people and people who are already sick with other illnesses. That’s really sad, but we’re probably going to be okay here.”
Middle- and high-school aged kids can likely handle watching/reading the news, then digesting it by discussing articles and videos with you. Be available to them, and take care not to laugh at or dismiss their thoughts or opinions. Remember that although kids this age may seem very articulate and mature, they do not have the life experience you do, and they may make some assumptions and arguments that you find eye-rolling or humorous. Always show them respect, even when correcting or re-directing them:
“That’s a really interesting theory. Tell me more about how you arrived at that.”
“In my experience, that’s unlikely to happen. Here’s why I think so.”
Remember that your goals with your kids should ultimately be to help them feel safe and to help them learn to think critically and make good decisions. A big part of achieving both of those goals, which is easy to overlook or neglect, is that kids feel safe talking with us. They want to know that adults will be truthful, patient, and respectful with them. When we achieve and maintain that trust, some wonderful conversations result.
Finally, continuing your child’s education is certainly also a topic of concern. We’d like to leave you with this article by one of APC’s co-founders, which was published in Choice Media: the Education Homepage a few weeks ago.
If there’s any way that APC can help you during this challenging time, please don’t hesitate to email us. Our team enjoys the counsel and expertise of several experienced parents, teachers, and mental health professionals, and if we don’t know the answer we can probably help you find someone who does. Thank you, as always, for all you do to keep children safe, in and out of school.
--the APC Team