There are other important positive parenting principles or strategies that can also be helpful to children especially during stressful times. These include:
Special Time In
It might feel like you are spending too much "time in" as a family while sheltering at home. But, "special time in" is a very specific concept in parenting. It means setting aside a specific time each day as a parent to spend with each child. This is particularly challenging and maybe even impossible for single parents with more than one child. However, making this special time available for each child, even if only once every few days, builds the parent-child relationship, builds child confidence and self-efficacy, and promotes self-regulation. The process of special time in is as follows and each caregiver in the home should engage in it.
The parent or caregiver chooses the time.
The child chooses the activity (not video or gaming) if old enough. For younger children, the parent might offer a few choices but let the child choose. The activity can be building structures together, a craft project, doing artwork, a board or card game, pretending, play-doh, playing music together (drumming or instruments if each play and have an instrument) etc.
The parent and child spend 10-20 minutes engaged in the activity with the child leading the play.
Cell phones are off or on silent.
Attuned Attentive Listening
The "serve and return" parents engage their infants in matures into conversation over time. One of the most powerful tools in any caregiver’s parenting toolbox is attuned, attentive listening. Whether your child is two or 22, paying full attention when they are speaking with you is powerful. It communicates not only interest, but caring. It is calming for the child who feels listened to. Often the parent only has to listen with a few "hmms" or "uh-huhs" to keep a child talking. But, caregivers can also reflect back what they hear: "I heard you say that you are worried that Arielle would rather play with Brittany than you…". And let them keep talking.
If a child is trying to solve a problem, we might say: "That is one way to think about it. What do you think will happen if you take that approach?" Wait, wait…. "How else might you approach this? What do you think Susie is thinking?" We can guide them into analyzing a situation, looking at something from the perspective of the other, and into considering new approaches. "Hmm. I can see your approach. What about A or B?" The validation of being listened to is self-affirming and also strengthens the parent-child relationship.
As parents, we are always teaching children new skills (from singing the Alphabet Song to reading to managing relationships with peers). As children master new developmental skills, they build a sense of self-efficacy, that they can manage themselves and have some control over their environment. We celebrate the infant and toddler’s achievement of new developmental milestones, the 7-year old’s mastery of reading, the 10-year old’s piano recital and the adolescent making the basketball team. Achieving developmental milestones builds confidence and self-efficacy.
One of the ways we can help children with self-efficacy during the pandemic is to:
Share Information About the Pandemic
During this pandemic, a lot of questions have come up about how much information should be shared with children of varying ages. Starting with toddlers, parents can reassure the child that their home is safe (as long as they are self-isolating) and teach the important things we can do to keep the bad germs away: staying home, only having play dates on-line, doing extra good hand-washing, eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and exercising. And reassure them that you are keeping them safe by doing all the things health experts are saying to do. For older children and teens, the parent can look up information on trusted sites and talk about it, reinforcing good health practices and how their family might achieve them.
Children, especially younger children or children with learning disabilities, can lose some ground or regress in skills during lapses from school and early childhood education programs. While parents cannot fill in all the gaps, taking the time to speak with the child’s teachers or service providers is important as professionals can provide advice about what activities can help the child to retain progress they have already made and perhaps even continue to move forward. Again, this is most challenging in single parent homes or when families lack computers and other equipment to access the internet and resources outside the home. Schools are highly variable in their capacity to offer on-line schooling. Parents can also find tips and hints from educators and other parents through social media.
Children Learn Through Play
Parents can have children draw pictures of ways their family is staying safe; draw or cut out and make a collage out of pictures of their new daily routines to hang up to remind everyone; they can write or draw pictures for grandparents or friends and text them via their parents’ phones to friends and loved ones. Children can build an indoor fort or castle to keep the germs at bay—bring in their favorite stuffed animals, blankets or toys.
Earning Rewards & Privileges
Often referred to as bribery by parents, this is actually an evidence-based parenting technique. Children can earn small rewards for desirable behaviors. This is a good way to teach a child to do chores (e.g., For each chore, the child earns a point, and after earning 5 points receives the reward—allowance, staying up 1 extra hour on Friday night, stickers, etc.). The key is to gear use small rewards or privileges that the parent can honor but that hold value for the child. The initial time to earn a reward should be short and increased steadily. Eventually, the hope is that the desired behavior will become ingrained and the reward phased out. This process works well with school-aged children and teens.
Using Reward and Privileges in the Pandemic
During a time where families are cooped up and there are less distractions, parents can use the rewards and privileges system to reinforce desirable behaviors (completing school assignments, chores, maintaining positive sibling interactions, etc.) that would normally be expected in less stressful times. However, during more stressful times, rewards can serve as pleasant reminders.
Specific Positive Praise
This is another tried and true parenting technique. It involves "catching the child being good" or making an effort and praising the child. Instead of saying “good job”, being specific about what is being praised helps the child to understand what the desirable behavior is. ("Thank you for bringing your dish to the sink. It helps me so much." "I know that math problem was hard, but I loved how you really persisted." "Thank you for being so kind to your sister." "Thank you for asking for a snack using your nice words."). Acknowledging the effort in trying to accomplish something teaches the child that the effort and persistence are as important as the accomplishment—perhaps more so.
Many parents tend to ignore children while they are playing quietly for fear of diverting the child’s attention. However, children repeat whatever behavior attracts the parent’s attention. It is ideal to offer 5-6 acknowledgements of desirable behavior (cooperation, sharing, helpfulness, kindness, entertaining one’s self, persistence, etc.) for every correction that is needed. Acknowledging the child’s ability to play quietly and entertain themselves reinforces a skill set that is very important—using time creatively to explore interests. Acknowledging siblings enjoying a project or game together, instead of just intervening during sibling squabbles, reinforces positive aspects of the relationship.
Being a Positive Role Model
Children pay close attention to the behaviors of their parents, what they say, and their interactions with others, even when it might not appear so. Parents who model cooperation, listening, kindness, and patience are more likely to see these traits and behaviors evolve in their children. On the other hand, parents who yell, interrupt, blame, or react impulsively are more likely to see those behaviors repeated in the next generation. Some of this may be genetic, but much is learned at the parent’s knee. Most parents act in ways their children admire and try to emulate (thinking before speaking, explaining things to children in simple age-appropriate terms, being honest but tactful, polite, cooperative, and considerate of others).
A good rule of thumb: model the behavior you wish to see in your children.
The Impact of Stress
During stressful times, we might notice that adults, as well as children, act a bit more impulsively or are more reactive. This is not a surprise since external stressors, especially when we are more isolated, stimulate the body’s stress response system. The alarm centers in the brain are more active and it is more challenging to calm ourselves and move to our thinking and learning brains. Emotional and behavioral regulation become more difficult.
Modeling Healthy Approaches to Stress Management
We can explain this to our children when we fall short of our own expectations. "I am feeling really stressed. But I am going to put on some music and take some deep breaths. Would you like to join me?" Or, "I need to shake off some bad vibrations. Let’s dance it out." The parent in these situations is telling the child that even adults experience stress, but that there are ways to manage it (or try to) and that the child is welcome to join in.
Both because it is healthier and because the children are watching, parents have to remain conscious of how they manage stress. A host of healthy approaches exist including: yoga, tea-time or tee-time, exercise, meditation, crafting, talking with a friend, gardening or other hobbies, reading, keeping a diary, prayer, taking a drive, taking a walk, biking, playing catch in the front yard, jumping on the trampoline, etc. Substance abuse (tobacco, Alcohol or other drugs) can provide a temporary but often false relief from anxiety or other stress symptoms and often increases during stressful times. Parents should monitor their own use of substances and pay attention to signs or symptoms of use by their children.
Triaging Behaviors, Teachable Moments and Shared Problem Solving
Parents are always deciding what to do about child behaviors. Depending on the behavior, we may set limits or endorse the behavior based on a child’s age and maturity, safety issues, our personal values and beliefs, our culture, family traditions, finances, and other factors. We are essentially triaging a problem based on its perceived severity. If a particular behavior is viewed as a safety issue, the parent should set clear limits or boundaries (the toddler cannot be outside alone; the teen cannot try smoking; the child cannot sleep over at a friend’s house unless the parent knows the friend’s parents etc.). Other behaviors are minor and we might choose to ignore them or provide guidance or teach more positive behaviors (e.g., We should ignore whining, but the child’s attempt to use the red crayon on the white wall is a teachable moment: "We color on paper not on the wall—see like this".).
There is a large gray area of behaviors though: sibling issues, curfews, staying overnight at a friend’s home, yelling at parents, unreasonable demands etc. Teaching and shared problem solving are two good approaches to use when the behavior issue falls someplace between minor and a safety issue.
This works well with children of all ages. Sometimes a minor behavior has a logical consequence that teaches the child a lesson—if the child plays too roughly with their toy truck, it breaks. The consequence is that the toy is broken. Other times, the teachable moment is just that—something occurs and the parent can take advantage of the moment to teach the child. When a child takes something that is not theirs, the parent must address this. The ideal approach is to: remain calm; ask how the other child might feel about having their possession taken; explain that we do not take stuff that belongs to others; have the child return the item (presumably in pristine condition); and, apologize to the offended party. Another approach, in the case of stealing, is for the parent to ask the little offender how they think the other child feels and what they should do with the stolen item.
Shared Problem Solving
This is best used with preteen and teens and used in situations where the problem is not minor, at one end of the spectrum, and not a safety issue, at the other. A common example here is the issue of curfew. The teen and parent may have very different views of a reasonable hour for a 16-year old to be home on a Saturday night. This may start out as a heated issue, but it is up to the parent to use attuned attentive listening to understand the teen’s viewpoint and then ask the teen to hear them out with the goal of arriving at a compromise curfew that both agree on and that the teen agrees to respect. Failure to honor the curfew means the time will be adjusted by the parent.
Setting Boundaries and Problem Solving in a Pandemic
The current pandemic has created some challenges for parents of older children and teens who are undoubtedly longing to be with friends. Parents do not have an option right now to allow in person play dates (safety issue) and will need to explain the health issues that require physical separation. However, the child and parent can discuss ways for the child to remain socially connected (compromise area) through social networking within guidelines the parent and child agree on: time allowed, on-line activities allowed; parental monitoring, etc.
The Art of Distraction
And it is an art!! Distracting a child from a less than desirable behavior onto something else is a wonderful parenting skill. It often requires some quick thinking to identify a distraction that is more interesting or fun than the child’s current activity, demand or complaint. For example, the whining or irritable child can be engaged by an enthusiastic parent in hide and seek, hunting for “treasure”, a game of tag, dancing, a piece of favorite music, drumming, reading a book, coloring or some other favorite activity. Having a list of enjoyable distractions is a good idea so it is there to go to when the need arises.
Ignoring Minor Negative Behaviors
During prolonged sheltering at home, it is likely that minor negative behaviors or even just minor behaviors that would usually not bother a caregiver may be perceived as more annoying than usual. As parents, we all have to decide whether a behavior is a safety issue, a minor issue we can ignore, or someplace in the middle. Safety issues are easy to identify most of the time: the toddler running too fast away from us toward the road; the child who finds a pack of matches or is headed toward a hot stove; the teen spending too much time in isolation or has found a new somewhat worrisome peer group. We try to set up our homes, yards and playgrounds to minimize safety hazards. For older children, we have boundaries around unacceptable behaviors, and offer shared family time to keep children engaged.
As parents, we all have to decide whether a behavior is a safety issue, a minor issue we can ignore, or someplace in the middle.
Whining is a very common example of a minor negative behavior that should be totally ignored. It takes about two weeks on average to extinguish this behavior by not responding: not making eye contact and not speaking with the whining child. We can explain during a calm moment or at the very beginning of the whining event that "I cannot hear you when you whine. Please use your nice voice." This initially results in an escalation of whining until the child finally gives up. As soon as the child uses a nice tone of voice, the parent should acknowledge the child’s comment or request, even if they cannot grant it. "I hear that you would like some candy, but we eat healthy foods for snacks. Would you like an orange or a banana?" "I am happy to get you some water. Thanks for using your nice words."
Older children may engage in behaviors that annoy parents also—not cleaning their rooms, growing out their hair and then shaving part of their heads so their hairdo is asymmetrical, wearing clothing that is concealing but not tasteful, etc. Again, unless this is a safety concern, the parent may want to ignore it. Close the bedroom door. Note the behavior in a neutral tone of voice: “New Hairdo? How did you do that?” “I see you are trying out a new style.” Neutral is the key word here…
When the brain’s alarm system is on alert, one of the first things that is often affected is sleep. Children may have more trouble separating from parents at bedtime or wake up at night or have nightmares. Reinforcing calming bedtime routines and spending a few minutes longer on the bedtime routines, like reading, can help. Adding a little back-rub, singing a lullaby, reminding the child you will see them in the morning and have breakfast together, noticing how sleepy their stuffed animals are and that they might need the child to show them how to settle into sleep can help. Children who suffer from anxiety sometimes find comfort in having a tent over their bed. For night awakening, or nightmares, offering reassurance, letting the child know you are nearby and can hear them, using a calm voice can help the child to settle back down. In general, we do not recommend sleep aids in children.
Pushing the Boundaries
Teens may use this stressful time to push the boundaries around mobile phone or other electronic device use (computers, video games, TV). Maintaining limits around putting family electronics in a central location at night, bedtimes, wake-up times is important to prevent sleep-phase cycle disorders and reduced sleep time that can impact emotions, self-regulation and learning.