Strategies from The Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Program at Mass General Hospital Helping Parents During the Pandemic…

The current COVID-19 crisis is presenting all of us with new challenges related to self-care, parenting, and anxiety management. Many parents are struggling with natural and expectable feelings, including sadness, confusion, worry, and fear.

Young children and toddlers are faced with stressors of their own. The list is long:

  • They have suddenly and unaccountably lost access to playmates, teachers, classrooms, and playgrounds
  • They can no longer see their grandparents and other relatives.
  • They can no longer enter libraries or shops.
  • Gym classes, swimming, music classes, and library storytimes are all on pause.

Young children facing this crisis may be more clingy, fretful, irritable, or bored.
They may be having more trouble sleeping or may need a parent nearby to fall asleep.
The lack of interface with strangers may make them more fearful and wary of new people.

The Mass General Child CBT Program offers ways for parents to teach their children to cope with and overcome anxiety.
Parent Self-Care:
The instructions given by flight attendants are really applicable: “Please make sure to put on your own oxygen mask first, and then assist your child.”  

Caring for children during a crisis includes good self-care for parents. We offer the following suggestions to maintain wellbeing:

Be kind to yourself:
  • We may be facing super-human demands right now, but this doesn’t make us super-human.
  • Remember that the day only has so many hours, and it is okay to let some things slide.
  • Set priorities, and try to get the most important things done, but understand that not everything will get done.
  • Take a few moments to notice your own needs. These may occur during your child’s naptime after they are asleep, or while they are watching some extra screen-time.

Consider what has helped you manage stress in the past and maintain an optimistic mood.

  • Eat regular meals and stay hydrated.
  • Get enough sleep – 6-8 hours.
  • Exercise. Pushing a stroller, dancing, or playing tag with your child counts!
  • Engage in pleasurable activities. Stream a guilty pleasure on TV, do a jigsaw puzzle, cook dinner with the family!
  • Do things that give you a sense of accomplishment. Volunteering, helping a neighbor, and connecting with family and friends can be meaningful.
  • Keep a daily routine. Take off the pajamas and dress for the day!
  • Limit exposure to the news to once per day or less.
  • Stay in the moment as much as possible.

HELPFUL HINT:
Don’t criticize yourself if your routine doesn’t match what others do or expect.

Parenting Your Child in the Time of a Pandemic
Most toddlers and preschoolers recognize the change in routine and can sense parental stress, They don’t understand the full extent of the COVID-19 crisis and it is important that they feel safe, and cared for. We offer the following suggestions:

Maintain normal routines and expectationsincluding regular naps, bedtime and wake-up times,
It can be helpful to break up the time into activity periods, which may include:

  • Indoor and outdoor play
  • Crafts
  • Games
  • Snacks
  • Reading together

HELPFUL HINT: As much as possible, keep the rules that were in place before the crisis (although some, including screen time limits, might change).

Provide age-appropriate explanations: There is a careful balance between telling children information beyond their level of understanding that might be confusing or frightening and making them aware of new expectations and their reasons.

Rules about social distancing, washing hands more carefully, and parents and older children wearing masks could be conveyed with simple explanations
“We need to clean our hands so we stay healthy and well.”
“We wear a mask in case we’re getting a cold, so other people don’t catch it.”
“There’s a new cold going around, so kids aren’t allowed in preschool for a while.”

HELPFUL HINT: The simplest explanation that can be repeated is the place to start. Only expand the explanation if and when the child asks for more information.

Find substitutions for lost activities:

Social interactions:

  • Many preschools or daycares are having brief, virtual check-ins so that children can see their teachers and classmates.
  • Scheduling regular brief virtual face-to-face interactions with friends or cousins could be helpful as a way of keeping up connections and social interactions.
  • Live games that very young children could play across screens with others

For young preschoolers:

  • Show-and-tell (showing each other toys)
  • Animal sound charades (e.g. guess what animal I am)
  • Guessing games (e.g. guessing what the child is holding behind their back)
  • Imitation games (like the Hokey Pokey)

For older preschoolers:

  • 20-questions, telling riddles, I-spy (if both are able to seek each other’s screen)
  • Simon Says (if supervised by an adult)
  • Story reading to children across screens. Parents could also take turns reading stories to a group of children.

HELPFUL HINT: These remote social interactions can be short (10-15 minutes) and supervised and can be scheduled regularly.

Outings:

  • When allowed, children can go on walks in the neighborhood, perhaps in strollers.
  • Make the walks interesting.
  • Be on the lookout and count something (dogs, squirrels, garbage trucks, digger trucks, police cars).
  • Go on “virtual” tours to a zoo, museum, or aquarium. Many have daily live events still.

Indoor Activities:

  • Play with playdoh
  • Draw
  • Paint
  • Read stories
  • Act out simple stories
  • Make pillow forts
  • Create things with large cartons
  • Make socks puppets
  • Sing songs
  • Bake
  • Decorate cupcakes
  • Make pictures with stickers
  • Play hide and seek
  • Plant seeds

Outdoor Activities:

  • Play tag
  • Play catch
  • Blow bubbles
  • Do water play (with squirting toys)
  • Try sand play
  • Plant a garden

HELPFUL HINT: THE LIST IS ENDLESS. ASK OTHER PARENTS WHAT WORKS FOR THEIR KIDS!

Photo credit: Pexels/Pixabay