We are living in uncertain times and with uncertainty can come anxiety, which can affect the way we interact with and parent young children. Consider how your child or the young children in your life will look back at this moment in time five years from now. Will they remember long walks and snuggling with a good book? This is an opportunity to create special memories, to build deeper social connections every day, to appreciate time with each other and to have fun.
Managing your own stress
Young children can sense your stress; they may see it in your body, hear it in your voice or experience it with your actions. When you remain calm and reassuring, you help children feel safe. When stressed, find someone you feel safe to talk to about your fears and worries, and avoid talking about them in front of your children. But it is OK for children to see you experiencing emotions. Use this as an opportunity to name your emotion and model ways to cope, such as, "I just read some news that made me nervous. I am going to take some deep breaths right now to feel better. Want to join me?" Some strategies for managing your own stress are:
• Manage your "self-talk." When you are worrying about events outside your control, it causes your internal stress to increase. So increase your positive self-talk by identifying and sharing your positive accomplishments ("I made a healthy dinner," "We played a new game," "We laughed a lot today"). Search for the good and beautiful things that are happening around you and show gratitude in the moment.
• Remember that stress affects your health and behaviors. This is a time to strengthen your immune system, practice a healthy lifestyle and model this for your children.
• Keep calm, build in breaks and find ways to nurture yourself (e.g. a quiet bath, a cup of tea, five minutes of meditation or prayer).
• Create a "calm down spot" for you and your children. This could be in a corner of the room or under a table. Add special blankets, lotions, calming toys, pillows and stuffed animals.
• Go easy on yourself. Do your best to offer an enriched home environment while your child is out of school, but don't pressure yourself to be the world's best teacher while also being the chef, housekeeper, gardener and activities director.
• Ask for help. Reach out to others when you feel distressed or lonely. When taking a walk, make eye contact and check in with neighbors. Reach out to friends and family. Search for new and interesting ways to build connection with others.
Be informed and communicate appropriately
Stay calm and share accurate information with children about the novel coronavirus. Describe the disease in an age-appropriate way, answer their questions and satisfy their curiosity. Try not to make them more anxious or afraid. Stay informed but avoid exposing children to the news media, especially images. Teach children how to stay safe and healthy, giving them strategies of things they can do and a sense of control: coughing into their elbow, washing their hands while singing happy birthday two times. PBSkids (www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/how-to-talk-to-your-kids-about-coronavirus) has some excellent tips for parents and videos for young children.
Create a comfortable, predictable routine
Humans crave predictable routines. They help us feel safe, secure and comfortable. Be sure to set regular times to eat together, to be active and to get plenty of rest. This is not the time to allow children to stay up late or eat poorly. A sense of order is soothing and something we can control. Consider blocks of time every day for book reading, drawing, dancing and cooking. Plan your schedule with your children and allow them to help plan the routine. Limit the amount of screen time while encouraging more social and physical activities.
Teach children to relax their bodies
Your children may be experiencing a wide variety of big emotions. Ask children how they're feeling — take their "emotional temperature" while labeling and validating their feelings. Acknowledge that it's OK for people to experience a wide range of feelings. In order for your child to learn to identify and name emotions, practice by looking through books together and talking about the emotions the characters in the book may be feeling. You can create an emotion book together and you can talk to them about how emotions feel in their body. Try to resist the urge to fix their feelings, patiently listen and let your child know you are really interested.
Young children demonstrate they are stressed in a wide variety of ways. You may notice your child crying more frequently, experiencing nightmares, acting more fearful of being left alone, withdrawing, acting more aggressively or acting like a younger child. If you notice your child appears anxious, offer extra comfort with a hug and gentle words. Teach them ways to cope and relax their body with deep belly breaths, yoga poses, walking, swinging arms, petting animals or playing in warm water.
Find time every day for children to be joyful and engage in fun activities. Create a sense of normalcy in their days. Through play, children are building their creativity, working on motor, math and problem-solving skills. This can be done through drawing, going on a scavenger hunt, washing dolls/toys, building a blanket fort, blowing bubbles, having a picnic in the backyard, planning a dance party or playing hide and seek. Play is an important tool for helping children cope with stress and anxiety. Maintain your sense of humor by telling jokes, reading funny stories and laughing at silly things that happen in the day. Remember that it's important for you to model for children that a part of managing stress is doing things that lift your spirits and build connection.
Explore new ways to connect
Social distancing doesn't mean social isolation. Stay connected through social messaging, phone calls, going outside, virtual field trips, care packages, art and sending messages to neighbors, friends or the postal worker. Other ways that you and your children can feel connected are by planting seeds, taking care of a pet, making gifts, arranging "digital dinners," donating clothes, washing, watering and caring for indoor plants, cleaning the house and making sure others are doing well and have what they need. We are so fortunate to have technology to help our children connect with friends, family, caregivers and teachers via video chat. Integrate this into your routine regularly. Talk with your child ahead of time to help them plan what they would like to share and questions they want to ask.
Remember each day to focus on what is most important: the health and safety of your family. In uncertain times such as these, take advantage of the opportunity to teach your children that together we can cope with adversity. Focus on the fact that you can model how it's done because, "To the world, you may be just one person, but to one person, you may be the world."
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Cindi Kaup is the mother of three grown children, serves as the early childhood education coordinator for the Humboldt County Office of Education and prefers she/her pronouns. She holds a Master's degree in early childhood special education from Humboldt State University, has worked in the field of early child development for 30 years and lives in Eureka.Editor's note: This is one of three columns this week looking at how to maintain wellness for you and your family while shelter in place. Find the other parts here and here.