The mental health effects of shelter-at-home orders are impacting all of us on the Island.
Some groups are struggling more than others. Parents with small children are having a particularly difficult time. Many parents are working from home while their children attend school. Further, remote school requires parents to take a larger role in their child’s daily education.
This has tensions running high and patience running thin. How can we help these children and families? First, it’s important that we remember that as hard as this is for adults, it’s harder for children. Children are less able to cope. For example, compared to adults, children understand the situation less, struggle more to keep their cool under stress, and are more distressed by confinement. We need to set realistic expectations for our kids.
There’s no easy one-size-fits-all solution to help them. But here are some suggestions toward positive outcomes that make the best of a hard situation:
• Express a lot of understanding for what kids have lost
Be understanding that kids are missing out on their youth — sports, prom, dating, clubs, social interactions, etc. Express that as understanding. For example, “I know you are really disappointed that you can’t be on your baseball team this year.”
• As adults, we need to model calm reassurance
The more stressed we are, the harder it is to remain calm and reassuring. Children look to adults to figure out how to react to a new situation. For example, if a school-aged child falls and scrapes his or her leg, whether or not they cry often depends on how the nearest adult reacts. As compared to a panicked adult, a reassuring adult will help them get up and start walking. Apply that rule to your children during this health crisis. Encourage them that this is hard but that we are getting through it together.
• Monitor how you describe the situation
Choose your language carefully around kids and don’t hide the reality of the situation. But don’t over share more than they need to know, either. For example, rather than using words like “sick” or “ill,” use language such as: “We need to be home so that we can stay healthy.” And remember, cable news is scary now, so limit how much it is on.
• You will lose your temper and kids will have meltdowns
Obviously, use your best parenting skills. But we are all imperfect. You will yell and lose your temper. Kids will have tantrums and meltdowns. Use that as an opportunity to get closer. Reconnect with your child, validate what they are upset about and apologize for losing your temper. Offer them a chance to have a “do-over,” where you can both try again.
• Create a daily schedule (with pictures) for each person in the household
Transitions are hard for everyone. Post a daily schedule on the refrigerator and review it in the morning with all family members. The schedule should include days of the week, major activities such as work, meal times and special events. Include small chores, too. Then, at the start of the day, as a family, spend 10 minutes reviewing that schedule. This will ground and contain everyone in the household so they know what is expected of them that day and who is available when.
• Speak to their teachers to find out how much they should be learning each day
School-aged children, and even teenagers, are not learning continuously while in school. They have lots of breaks and even their classes are broken up by procedures, such as attendance and chatting with peers. Speak to teachers to get a reasonable expectation of how much they should be learning each day. Most likely, parents will find there is less pressure for their kids to learn all day.
• Encourage your children to find time to be with their peers
Make sure your kids are spending time with their peers. This may mean loosening up on restrictions for screen time. For many children, screen time is the only way they are communicating with their peers.
• Your children are still learning
Remember that while life is different, your children are still learning and growing at home. Older siblings are learning to care for younger ones. Teach your children to cook, maintain a household or fix things at home.
• Look for what positive things can come of this
Being home has some advantages for children and parent relationships. It’s a chance to make them stronger. For example, have a more leisurely lunch and dinner with your family every day. Ask children about their days and what they’re learning. Have your kids plan family time together, such as board or card games.
Your children will still learn and grow during this time. But they may learn different things such as life skills.
Lastly, remember this will all end at some point and in 10 years, when your kids are all grown, what would you like them to remember from this time? Try to shape your behavior to promote that image.
Dr. Ryan Sultan is a board-certified adult and pediatric psychiatrist, and an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. His family has been on Shelter Island for over 60 years.