Being the parent of a young child can be stressful under any circumstances, but our current reality makes it even harder to parent during the pandemic. Families have lots of questions, so we reached out to Rebecca Parlakian, ZERO TO THREE’s senior director of programs, for her thoughts and advice for parents with babies, toddlers and preschoolers during the pandemic and this period of social distancing.
“You don’t have to be perfect.”
First Things First: Many families are at home together 24/7 and will be for some time to come. What are the challenges for parents with young children?
Rebecca Parlakian: Social distancing and rules about staying at home have totally changed daily life for many Americans, my family included. No change is easy, and this has been a particularly rapid and difficult change to adjust to. So when I think about what’s challenging for families, the answer is probably: Everything.
The rhythm of our days and weeks have changed completely, with schools closed and community resources limited. As we manage these changes, we’re also dealing with very real stressors about health, finances and even finding toilet paper! So this is a very hard time for families. It’s also the perfect time to remember that you don’t have to be perfect! You are allowed to feel tired, stressed and worn out.
FTF: So what’s your advice to parents in these challenging times?
RP: The only two things that need to be on a parent’s to-do list right now are taking care of themselves and connecting with their children.
Taking care of ourselves is the oxygen mask approach, like in a plane, when the flight attendant tells us to put on our own mask before helping others. This is a reminder that we need to care for ourselves in order to care for our children. So parents shouldn’t feel bad about carving out time each day to do something that makes them feel good, whether it’s a workout, a shower or a chapter in a book.
And connecting with our children is not about creating detailed activities that cover every minute of the day. It’s not possible or practical to be engaged with them all the time. Especially if you’re also working from home. Connecting means finding times across the day to share moments of nurturing and affection. To cuddle, hug and kiss them. To read a story, play a game, watch them play, let them help us cook or sort laundry. In times of intense change, children feel safe and secure when they can trust you to be there. That’s when they become free to do their “work” — playing, learning, exploring and creating.
DEALING WITH STRESS
“When we make time to ‘share our calm’ with children, they feel safe and secure.”
FTF: Parents are going to get stressed, frustrated and upset at times. What would you advise them to keep in mind when they’re not at their best?
RP: I would first encourage parents to keep in mind that it’s okay if they are not 100% right now. The goal isn’t perfection. The goal is being able to meet the needs of our little ones with love.
All parents have moments when they make missteps and wish they had a “do-over.” If that happens — actually, when that happens — remember that it’s the repair that matters most to your relationship with your child. What does “repair” mean? It’s what we do after our misstep to reconnect with our child and re-establish our connection. So, I might say to my toddler: “Mama didn’t mean to yell when you spilled your juice. I shouldn’t have done that, and I’m sorry. Let me give you a great big hug! Everyone spills sometimes. Would you like to help me wipe it up with a towel?”
A final thought is that parents may want to consider strategies they can use on a daily basis to bring down their stress level. ZERO TO THREE has some great mindfulness practices for parents to check out, for example. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress and increase a parent’s ability to be present and compassionate with their children, even during tough times.
FTF: How can parents help their young kids deal with the stress around them?
RP: The first and most important thing parents can do is find times to connect with their children across the day. Think of ways to get cozy together, cuddle and check in. Young children regulate their emotions with the help of their loved adults. This process is called “co-regulation.” So when we make time to “share our calm” with children, they feel safe and secure.
Notice how your child communicates their feelings through behavior, and be patient with any changes — like your child seeming to “lose” potty-training skills, being more clingy, or waking more at night. These are often signs that a child is struggling or feeling stressed, so extra patience is job one for parents.
Another strategy is using a consistent routine that children, even babies, can come to depend on. First, breakfast, then tooth-brushing, then dressing, then play time, then a story, then lunch, and so on. Routines organize us and help us feel secure.
Parents can also try age-appropriate ways to help children to communicate their feelings. Turn on some music for a “dance party” that lets children get their “worry wiggles” out. Paint a “feelings picture” to show each other how you are feeling. Try some simple pretend play with a stuffed animal or puppet; start by asking your child, “This is my stuffed dog, Spot. How do you think Spot is feeling right now?” Talk about and act out your child’s suggestions. Sometimes young children express their worries and thoughts through play before they can describe them in words.
You can also make calming routines part of the day like sharing simple yoga moves before nap time or trying some of ZERO TO THREE’s mindfulness exercises for toddlers and preschoolers. Offer your child a gentle massage before bedtime. Sit together and share a familiar song or lullaby when they need some time to recharge.
FTF: How about families with babies? Are infants affected by the stress of those around them?
RP: Even babies are picking up on their parents’ and caregivers’ stress. They notice when our voices, posture, expressions, touch and “way of being” is different.
You can help your baby feel secure, even when so much is changing by the day, by making lots of time for physical touch and holding. By responding lovingly to their cues and cries. By being patient with their fussiness — it’s how they show us they are feeling unsure! And by using a fairly consistent schedule that they can trust and anticipate.
DAILY SCHEDULES AND ACTIVITIES
FTF: Some families are making daily schedules, with time for reading, art, exercise, games, etc. Is that a good idea?
RP: One of the biggest stressors for many families at home right now is that there is no schedule. Both adults and children feel a little unsure about what to do with their days. A schedule can provide some consistency and daily routines, which are very helpful for young children. And creating a schedule helps us to focus on the need for a variety of activities, from reading together to physical play, free play and other activities. We all do better when we have a balanced “diet” of activities.
While I see the value in schedules, I really encourage parents to be flexible. You should be in charge of the schedule; don’t let the schedule be in charge of you. Identify a few main activities that happen every day — mealtimes, diaper changes, naps, bath time — to form your basic daily schedule. Then, list categories of activities that your child enjoys, like physical play, reading, drawing/art, quiet play (like puzzles or blocks), free play, play with parents, chores and screen time (if you choose). You can slot in these other activities across the day, or ask your child to choose activities from this list, to fill out a daily schedule.
FTF: What activities can families do at home with toddlers and preschoolers?
RP: There are so many fun activities out there for little ones, it’s hard to choose just a few ideas! If parents want to browse play suggestions, ZERO TO THREE offers a range of age-based resources for babies birth to 12 months, 12 to 24 months, and 24 to 36 months.
While it’s fun for children to play with parents, it’s also important for children to have some time to play on their own or with parents nearby, watching, but not involved. Time for independent play builds a child’s problem-solving skills, attention, and persistence — and it also gives parents a few much-needed minutes to just be.
FTF: How can families stay connected with grandparents, relatives and friends?
RP: Right now, video chat is a great tool to stay in touch. Young children — even babies — can recognize and build a relationship with someone who they interact with regularly on video chat. Here are some tips for making the most of video chats with your little one, based on the research.
Another idea is to work on a project together, but apart. For example, a colleague of mine sent photos back and forth via text with her 4-year-old grandniece. Together, they sent one another pictures of things in their houses from A to Z. My colleague sent a picture of toilet paper for T, while her grandniece sent back a picture of underwear for U. You can also send videos of songs, stories and jokes back and forth.
ONE LAST REMINDER
“You have what it takes.”
FTF: Thank you very much for sharing your expertise and encouragement. Any last reminder for parents of young kids in the time of coronavirus and social distancing?
RP: The most important thing for parents to remember is that you are your child’s favorite person in the whole world. You have what it takes and what they need.
Rebecca Parlakian is senior director of programs for ZERO TO THREE, a national nonprofit organization that informs, trains and supports professionals, policymakers and parents in their efforts to ensure all babies and toddlers have a strong start in life. She holds a master’s degree in education and human development, with a concentration in infant-toddler special education, from the George Washington University, where she is currently serving as adjunct faculty.