Here’s a scene that will feel familiar to many. After getting your children up and dressed in the morning, you feed them breakfast and get them settled in front of their Chromebooks where they log in for school. You then turn on your own computer and log in to Zoom. Just about the time your 9:00 am meeting begins, your Wi-Fi goes down. Your kids run in to tell you they lost their connection. You contact work and let them know you’ll have to miss the meeting. You feel defeated and overwhelmed, and as your children begin to bicker, your frustration threatens to boil over. You want to scream at everyone to be quiet so you can think for a second.
As parents, we set the example for how our children learn to manage crises. The harder the situation, the more important it is that we serve as a role model. As a mother of four children under the age of 9, I know how difficult this can be. But as a pediatrician, I know that when I communicate in a way that allows my children to understand what’s happening and what’s expected, they rise to the occasion. On a good day, instead of screaming for everyone to stop bickering, I take a moment to center myself. Rather than raise my voice, I use a controlled tone to make it clear I need a moment of quiet. I let my kids know that I understand their frustration, and that I’m frustrated, too. I encourage them to take some deep breaths and then, together, we work on what to do next.
If you are a parent at the end of your rope, holding on by the tiniest of threads, you are not alone. The question is, what can you do? Here are some things to consider.
Be a Role Model
For children to be able to manage themselves in chaotic or upsetting situations, they must learn how to do so—and whether you intend to or not, your reactions teach children how to behave. I’m not suggesting that you become a robot and don’t show any emotion, but I am suggesting that you try to keep your emotions in check as you explain what you’re doing to make things better instead of worse when you feel angry, sad, scared, or out of control.
It’s okay to tell your children that you sometimes feel really mad and like you want to explode. Let them know when you feel this way you take some time and deep breaths to gather yourself to avoid saying something hurtful. Depending on the age of your child, keep information simple. Young children do not need to know details about adult stressors. As parents, we need to be mindful of what our children hear or overhear.
One of the ways to help children behave better is to provide them with some undivided attention. This means putting your phone away and not allowing interruptions. It may mean playing a game, going for a walk, baking cookies, doing a puzzle, or going for a drive. Being in the same house all day with your children but not giving them your attention doesn’t feel like you’ve actually spent any time together. When it comes to being present, put quality over quantity. Even 15 to 30 minutes of attention can make a huge difference.
Stick to Routines
It’s also worth creating routines. Focus on the basics: providing healthy meals, making sure everyone is attending to their hygiene needs even though they aren’t leaving the house, limiting screen time, requiring some physical exercise, and getting enough sleep. You don’t need to schedule every minute, but children do better when they have a sense of what to expect. They also do better when they are in the right frame of mind for the activity at hand.
In the morning, try to avoid a mad rush, even if it means getting up a little earlier to make time for kids to bathe, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth, and get settled for the school day. That way, they are physically and mentally ready to succeed. At night, remove devices from bedrooms an hour before bedtime and make sure bedrooms are cool, dark and quiet.
Limit Screen Time
This pandemic has put children in front of computer screens far more than most of us would like. A child’s brain needs to rest sometimes, and screens are full of stimulation, color, sound, movement—not rest. Consider limiting screen time when children are not attending school. Use screen time as a reward rather than taking devices away as a punishment. If you’re looking for ideas on how to limit screen time, here are some indoor activities to consider: scavenger hunts, Legos, board games, hide and seek, drawing or coloring, playing an instrument, building forts, writing stories, reading. As the weather improves, so do the options.
Dr. Casey Johnston is a pediatrician at MCHC Health Centers—a community-based and patient-directed organization that serves Mendocino and Lake Counties, providing comprehensive primary healthcare services as well as supportive services such as education and translation that promote access to healthcare. All MCHC health centers accept Medi-Cal/Partnership HealthPlan of California, Medicare, Covered California, and other insurance. Learn more at mchcinc.org.