Debbie Lee, MA, MFT
Parenting Tips During Quarantine
Updated: Apr 16, 2020
So it looks like we will be home with our children for a while as many schools announce that they will remain closed for the rest of the school year. This may feel daunting but try to take things one day at a time and one moment at a time.
Here are a few parenting tips that might help you get through this period and hopefully come out stronger as a family.
Set a schedule with your children but allow room for flexibility
Children feel safe and thrive when there is structure, consistency, and predictability so set a daily schedule. Write it on a large piece of paper and put it where everyone can see it and refer back to it each day. Depending on the age of your children, let them help you set the schedule. They will be more likely to follow the schedule if they had a part in creating it versus it being a mandate from you.
A schedule will set a structure for the day but also allow flexibility. Some days you might spend more time reading books or building with Legos or exploring flowers on a long walk. Or maybe your child needs a nap that day or maybe they skipped their nap. It's okay to follow the rhythm of that particular day and get back to the schedule later on or even the next day, just communicate the change to your child.
A schedule also allows your child to make choices. "I know you're enjoying drawing but it's time to go outside. Would you like to keep drawing and have a shorter outside time?" Give them options when appropriate so they feel empowered over some part of their day.
Let your children be bored.
It's okay for children to feel bored. Don't feel obligated to fill their days with nonstop activities and stimulation. Let them have moments of quiet to daydream, wonder, explore, and allow creativity to bloom. You might be amazed if you leave them to themselves, while still being close enough to see and hear what's happening but not initiating or directing. They might create a whole world of wonder that you could not have ever imagined. As I write this, my children have turned a colander and a wagon into an animal trap as they wheel each other around catching "bad guys."
It's completely fine if your children are getting more screen time than usual but be sure to set limits and let your children know in the schedule when they can watch and for how long each day. If you have to work or need a break, it's okay to add extra screen time but communicate to your children why they get extra time that day but not every day.
It's certainly hard to limit screen time with so many homeschooling tools available online, Zoom meetings with teachers and classmates, FaceTime sessions with friends and family on top of pure entertainment screen time. Do your best to balance their day so they are not in front of a screen all day. Get them outside, let them move their bodies and have plenty of real life experiences. The best education for your children is real world experiences.
Setting Limits & Clear Expectations
Setting limits are an essential part of parenting. Limits help our children understand what behaviors are expected of them, how to stay safe, and how to handle feelings. "When we eat, we sit at the table." "This is our last story and then it's bedtime." "You can have 5 more minutes of playtime and then it's time to clean up." "It's okay to feel angry, but I will not let you hit me."
The world can feel unpredictable and scary for children, even when there isn't a pandemic, so set your children up for success by clearly communicating what is expected of them and what will happen next. "Mama needs to work for the next 30 minutes and then I will be available to play with you. Would you like to color or play with magnet tiles while I work?" "You can have 10 more minutes of free time and then we will do 'school work' for 30 minutes. If you work hard and complete your school work, then you can have an extra 10 minutes outside."
If your children are old enough, have a family meeting and discuss the changes now that you are all home together. How will you all work together? What families members are responsible for what? Maybe your children help more with chores around the house? Are there new rules in the home now that one or both parents are working at home?
Of course there will be times when even with clear expectations children will get upset. They don't want to go to bed. They want a cookie. They want the toy their brother is playing with. They need you to play with them right now! They will cry, scream, tantrum, hit, kick, bite, etc. These reactions make sense. They can't control the world around them and they feel frustrated, angry, confused, and hurt. I'm sure we can all relate as we are all feeling the limits of staying at home.
Our job as their parent is to be with them, listen, help them regulate their emotions, and set a limit. "I see how upset you are that your brother has the fire truck but I won't let you hit or kick him." Acknowledge their feelings while letting them know what is appropriate and not appropriate behavior. Let them ride the wave of their emotions and help them figure out a way through those feelings. "I'm here with you and understand how angry and sad you are that you can't have the truck right now. Let's ask big brother if you can have a turn after he is done." This may not work so support them in finding another way through this challenge. "How about we read a book together until big brother is ready?" Or if your children are old enough ask them how to resolve things? They may come up with ideas of their own. Maybe big brother will let him play with his garbage truck that he never allows little brother to play with until he is done with the fire truck. BTW, this never happens in our house. ;)
Setting limits and sticking to them can be challenging especially when we have to pick and choose our battles with our children all day long but following through on boundaries in a respectful way will help your children feel calmer and more cooperative over time.
Allow your children to feel their feelings
This is a strange and uncertain time when emotions are high so be there for your children and allow them to feel. Take deep breaths, do what you need to do, and hold them a little longer as they cry about a toy that broke. Sit with them without needing to fix anything when they have a tantrum. Listen to them as they share how they miss their school, friends, favorite park, etc. Let them be in their feelings. They will move through them. By allowing their feelings to be present and acknowledged, you are helping your children express their feelings and move on from them. It's when we try to stop feelings, cut them off, or talk ourselves out of our feelings that other issues can arise like depression, anxiety, and even health issues. Help them name their feelings so they learn to identify different emotions and build their emotional vocabulary. "I see how angry you are that you can't have another cookie." "I hear how sad you feel about not being able to go to the park." "You look happy and proud of yourself for building such a tall tower on your own."
Check in with your children often to see how they are doing with all the recent changes. If they don't want to talk, they can draw how they feel but don't pressure them. They'll share with you when they are ready. Give them lots of opportunities to share and listen when they do. Family meetings are also a great way to cultivate open communication in your family. If you haven't already, check out my post on family meetings.
If allowing feelings is extremely difficult or painful for you, then explore what it is about your child expressing their feelings that is so hard. Maybe you feel helpless or scared or you start to feel your own feelings. It's okay. You are human too. Do what you can to ground yourself to be there for your child but don't be afraid to show your children that you have emotions too. It's okay to cry in front of your children. It's okay to tell them you, too, feel sad and scared. This helps normalize emotions for your children and you are modeling that it's okay to express them. But be sure to also reassure your children that they are safe and that you are there for them. If you need more time and space to express your own feelings, go to another room if you can. Journal, talk to a friend, partner, family member, or therapist. Take care of yourself and your feelings too!
Remember to acknowledge "positive" behaviors.
Often times as parents, we can get caught up in all the frustrating things our children do and only point out when they are not listening or not following directions. The best way to get a child to do something is to catch them when they are doing something "right" and encourage them to keep doing it. "Thank you so much for bringing your plate to the kitchen." "I saw you give your sister half of the blocks. That's what I call being generous." "Wow! We cleaned up so fast today because you worked hard and helped. Thank you!"
This isn't about "good job" versus "bad job." It's about acknowledging your child and letting them know you see them and appreciate them. Children want to be helpful members of their families so tell them when you see them doing something that you want to encourage. They'll feel proud of themselves and want to continue those behaviors.
Be gentle with yourself. No one is a perfect parent and certainly not during a global pandemic.
Now is not the time to beat yourself up for not being a perfect parent. There is no such thing and we all make mistakes! Go easy on yourself and do your best each day. We are in extraordinary circumstances where levels of stress, anxiety, and exhaustion are high!
At the same time, be sure to acknowledge when maybe you didn't respond in the way you would have liked toward your child. Rupture and repair. Maybe you snapped at your child or lost your temper or even dismissed your child. It's okay. You are human. The important part is to repair with your child. Go back and talk to your child about the incident and apologize. Take responsibility and allow space for them to share their feelings. This is not about blame or who did what. This is "I'm sorry I yelled and I hope you will forgive me. I'm going to work on taking deep breaths next time I'm feeling overwhelmed. Do you want to tell me that story you were trying to tell me before? I'm ready to listen now." And don't worry if the incident was a week ago or longer. You can go back and repair at any point.
And if you are homeschooling, don't put too much pressure on yourself. You are not your child's teacher so do your best and let the rest go. Here's a great article about homeschooling that I found helpful.
Find ways to get breaks. If you have a partner and their work schedule allows, ask them to build in time in their day so you can step away and recharge. Maybe they can give you 30-45 minutes during the day to do something for yourself or they do bedtime so you can relax for the evening.
If that's not possible, find small ways to get breaks. Set up an activity, this can be screen time but don't make that your go to, and let your children know you are not available for the next 20 minutes. Take that time to breathe, journal, meditate, go for a walk, exercise, call a friend, or even shower. You might not get all 20 minutes every day but work that into your schedule as much as possible.
Also do not underestimate the power of breath. Stop and take 10 deep breaths throughout your day. You will be feel calmer, more present, and more available for whatever is next.
For more ideas and tips, check out my post on "Taking Care of Yourself During Quarantine."
Spend uninterrupted time with your children.
I know we are with our kids all day every day and it's exhausting but try to build into each day at least 20-30 minutes where you spend time with your child without any distractions. Put away your phone, computer, any screen and just be with your child. Let them know ahead of time how much time you will have together and then let them lead the play. Be fully present with them without needing to teach them anything or get anything accomplished. Just be there with them and it will mean the world to them. Spending quality time together before leaving your child to work, cook, or take a break can help with separation and your child may be more willing to do something independently after they have gotten some good connected time with you.
Enjoy this time
Being at home with our children 24/7 is challenging for all of us in different ways but try to enjoy those special moments with your children that you might not have had without the quarantine. Steal those extra hugs and kisses each day and soak in all the giggles, silly faces, and fun. Remember that your children just want to be with you and they may struggle with this new normal too but they'll be okay if they have you.
I hope some of this was helpful. These are merely thoughts and suggestions. Take what works for you and your family and leave the rest. Stay healthy and safe and I'm sending so much love and support to all the families around the world.