Parenting young children is hard enough. Parenting young children during this pandemic is a whole new level of difficult. Between juggling work, child care and the worries brought on by a rapidly spreading disease and rapidly crashing economy, parents are stretched to a breaking point. No one would fault them for struggling to maintain a bit of their sanity for their children.
Judging from some of the parents we’ve heard from, the kids are feeling the effects of this continually mounting chaos, too, resulting in extra challenges when it comes to their behaviour. From increased tantrums to sibling fights to disrupted sleep schedules, young kids are picking up on the fact that the world isn’t a safe place right now.
In order to understand how this pandemic might affect young children, we turned to child development expert Sarah Kate Bearman, an assistant professor of education at the University of Texas Austin whose research focuses on children with disruptive behaviour, trauma, anxiety and depression.
In addition to her professional child behaviour bonafides, Bearman also has a four year old of her own, which means she is currently deep in the trenches along with the rest of us. Given the constraints on her time, we talked with her over email, so she could answer our questions in what few spare moments she had.
Stress can be a vicious cycle
“Kids do best when the home environment has a high level of warmth and consistency and when parents can be attuned to children’s needs,” Bearman says.
When parents are under a lot of stress, they have a harder time providing a consistent environment for their children. This leads to a cycle wherein kids act out more than usual, parents have a harder time exercising patience in their responses, and in turn, everyone grows increasingly stressed and unhappy.
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. It’s a lot to handle and a pattern that, when you are in the middle of it, feels impossible to break.
Put on your own oxygen mask first
“Parents need to be kind to themselves,” Bearman says. “Parenting is a hard job under the best of circumstances.”
Even though it’s hard to do, Bearman suggests parents find some way to engage in self-care, whether it is going for a walk, taking a warm bath or even just snatching a few moments of solitude. As she points out, parents need to care for themselves before they can care for others; think of the way flight attendants (used to, sigh) advise you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping children with theirs.
“We are all doing our best,” Bearman says.
Maintain a routine, add in some play
In order to break this cycle of overtaxed parents and touchy kids, Bearman suggests parents set aside a little bit of time every day to simply focus on a child’s play activities, describing what they are doing the way a sportscaster would an athlete, while finding ways to praise them.
“This is sort of a funny way to interact with kids, and I don’t suggest parents do it for long periods of time, but even five minutes of this type of high-quality attention every day can help children’s development and reduce the likelihood of problems later on,” Bearman says. “It’s a little bit like a vitamin—it gives a boost to the parent-child relationship and helps with healthy brain development.”
In addition to this activity, Bearman suggests sticking to as much of a routine as is possible. Maintaining a regular schedule of bedtime, naptime and mealtimes can help ease a child’s anxieties and provide a little injection of calm into the day.
And really, when it comes down to it, we all need a little bit of calm in this terrifying world.