Pandemic-Proof Parenting Tips
Date Published: April 14, 2020
Parenting was already hard enough. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether you’re worried about being the best parent right now, or helping your kids cope, developmental psychologist Aliza Pressman, PhD, has reassuring advice for adjusting to the new reality. Dr. Pressman is co-founding Director of The Mount Sinai Parenting Center, and the host of the Raising Good Humans podcast. Her advice originally appeared on Mount Sinai’s COVID-19 information Facebook Live series.
From the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, this is Road to Resilience. I'm Jon Earle. Each episode we bring you advice from resilient people and experts who study resilience. This is the fourth episode in our series about coping during the coronavirus pandemic, and we're devoting it to the challenges that parents are facing right now. There are so many of them, like, what should you tell your kids about what's going on? Or, how can you be a good parent when you're working from home and you're homeschooling and you're just really stressed out right now? For some very wise words on these issues, I'm going to turn it over to Dr. Aliza Pressman. She's a psychologist and Co-Founding Director of the Mount Sinai Parenting Center. We had her on the show in the fall to talk about raising resilient kids, and I'm thrilled to have her back. One last thing before we get started, this isn't going to be our usual question and answer. I'm going to let Dr. Pressman take it from here, and I'll see you again at the end of the episode. Here's Dr. Pressman.
Dr. Aliza Pressman: 01:00
I'm getting a lot of questions from parents and I'm seeing some themes. And one of the biggest themes I'm seeing are parents who are stressed out and worried that they're not able to be the best parents that they can be during a difficult time for their kids. So I want to address that, first of all, now is not the time to try to be the perfect parent. Never is there a time to try to be the perfect parent, because you can't. And it's important for kids to see that human beings are not perfect. So that worry is something you can put to rest. But importantly, if you're stressed and not taking care of yourself, not putting your oxygen mask on first, you can't take care of your little ones. So the most important thing is to think about how you can alleviate some of your anxiety so that you can take care of your kids. And also, to lower the bar so that you don't expect so much of yourself or others during this time.
This is an unprecedented time. And one of the most difficult things that can provoke anxiety is feeling out of control or uncertain. So this is not a time where you're imagining that you're out of control or uncertain. It is an out-of-control and uncertain time. So in this unique time it would benefit you to accept that, to say, "There's really no way to get this right. Read, talk, work yourself into a way that you can have the certainty that you're looking for." So even though we might spend tons of time reading articles, watching the news, trying to make sense of all of this and get it right, the best thing you can do for yourself is accept that you can't, so that you can see that you can tolerate that feeling, and that can help you get through anxiety instead of fighting against anxiety. Now, once you accept that that feeling is totally reasonable and that you know how to tolerate it, you can also save those worries for what you can solve. So there are some lists that you can make that are productive worries, things that you can do something about. Like you absolutely can do something about getting the groceries and supplies that you need. You can do something about washing your hands and teaching your kids to wash their hands. You can do something about deciding to stay inside and at home so that you are socially distant. There's no reason to get sidetracked into unproductive worry because this is not going to help you, and in fact those feelings of going in cycles about worrying about things you can't do anything about will stop you from being able to be there in the way that you're looking to be there for your family and for yourself.
Also, make your anxiety a bit of a friend. Help your kids make anxiety a bit of a friend. So welcome that friend in. Acknowledge like, "You know what? This is somebody I'm going to be hanging out with for a really long time. We may as well get to know each other a little bit. And sometimes I'm going to want you around, and other times I'm going to say, 'I'd like to be left alone right now.'" And give yourself and your kids sort of an assigned color or number from one to ten so that it's tangible where your anxiety is. Other things you can do—show compassion for yourself. Forgive these hard moments. If you overreact with your kids, if you have an outburst or breakdown, if your kids have an outburst or breakdown—it's not that you should do away with all of your boundaries and expectations for yourself or your kids, but labeling those emotions, giving empathy and compassion, accepting them, valuing them, and then moving on is going to be a lot more helpful than expecting everything to go right and getting agitated both physically and emotionally.
I'm going to say one more thing about this, which is, this is a challenging time and there are certainly so many parts of this that are unimaginably difficult for people. But one thing that happens when we grow, when we have difficult moments, even physiologically when you grow, when we have growing pains, because it's very painful for this short period of time. When you grow physically, you then come out the other side a grown person. Thinking of this as a challenge, a chance to grow and adapt for you and for your family, for your relationship, for your resilience, while also recognizing that this is a dangerous time for some people, that this is a difficult time for some people. And having the compassion to understand that this is not just like taking on a challenge, a positive challenge, but it is a challenge that you can overcome. So even if it's painful, it is necessary for growth. And so if we think about it in that perspective, we can come up with different ways for our kids to grow in this challenge. And that is part of the parenting that you can take on and that you can take control of.
Another question that I'm getting is: Should I let my children watch the news? Here's the thing about the news. It's very confusing for younger children to see something replayed over and over and understand that it happened one time. And the news has a habit of playing the same catastrophic tone, events, and headlines, and stories over and over and over. So it can look like things happened over and over. That's very scary. Also, it's hard to get images out of your mind. It's much, much harder than anything else, so we don't want to have difficult images that you can't control in advance on the news for your little eyes to see--for little kids eyes to see. So I would say turn off the news completely in front of younger children and in front of older children and teenagers, they truly don't need that news, either. Ideally, you set aside time where you're by yourself and you are only with adults to watch the news. It will actually help you manage your own stress because you have to control and limit the number of minutes you spend watching the news. And if you want to give age-appropriate information to your kids, stick with reading articles to them or with them and talking about the information from reliable resources that do not show images. In addition, having the news on in the background 24/7 adds to the level of heightened stress in the house, and it sends a message to your kids that even if you're saying to them, "We're going to get through this, everything's going to be okay. This is a difficult time." That they don't believe you because the behavior that you have is, "I'm so scared I cannot turn the news off because I might miss something urgent." So I would discourage people from watching too much of the news.
"I'm worried about my kids mental health" is another thing that I'm hearing a lot of. And so I want to address a couple of things. First, recognize that this is a very confusing time for kids and it's a confusing time for adults. Typically when kids are going through a new experience, we, the adults, have gone through it. We've been through it, we've worked through it, we've grown up and come out the other side. In this case, none of us have ever been through this, and so our kids can't look to us for that safe, secure feeling of, "You've done this." You know, "How am I going to get through this?" We do not have a road map. So it's important to be honest with your kids. This is a new experience for all of us. So I can understand if it feels scary or if you're feeling worried, but I'm right here, we're safe and we know what we can control. And more importantly, what we're asking of kids is to help keep other people healthy. This is a time when what is being asked of them is less about their health and more about helping them be health superheroes, and helping them protect other people who are more vulnerable. So to alleviate those worries, framing what's going on as what they're doing, by staying away from other people and by washing their hands and by being mindful is that they're protecting people. That's a wonderful, empowering message versus scaring them and saying, "If you don't wash your hands, something really bad is going to happen to you and you could get COVID-19." And finally, if you're worried about your kids, it may also be because they don't feel permission to think about, worry about, or talk about the anxiety they're feeling that has nothing to do with COVID-19. Or it may be something related to it, which is that they're isolated from their friends. They aren't allowed to celebrate events, they're missing school, they're missing a graduation or they're missing an opportunity to see someone that means a lot to them or connect with people. So in those cases, make sure not to diminish their feelings and say, "We have bigger things to worry about than your birthday party." So you really want to say to them, "I know that that's really hard and this is a big change. And let's figure out ways to make this experience celebratory for you, even though we aren't going to be able to do something with your friends."
So it's really important to validate their worries and feelings without making them feel like they're not allowed to have them, given the bigger context of what's going on. And also let them enjoy a little bit of the parts of this that maybe they don't want to admit they're enjoying because that can also cause worry and fear. So if they're kind of happy about getting out of some obligations that they thought they had or they're secretly a little bit happy about getting more time at home with their parents who they don't normally get this much time with, maybe that's a time to say to them, "It's okay to have mixed feelings about these things." And if you are concerned, call your healthcare provider or mental health professional to check in. Make sure that your child is eating and sleeping and having regular routines so that you know if something is going wrong, when to check in.
And actually, while I'm talking about routines, I'd love to address how to keep routines going during a time which has very few routines. So kids and adults thrive on the known, what we can predict, what we understand about what to expect in a day. So it's important to set up a flexible routine, not a rigid routine, for the coming weeks or months. So first, communicate. Parenting does not happen in a vacuum. So rather than organizing things in your head, it's very important to write out a plan for your children. If they're younger children, putting up a picture, you can cut out from a periodical or a magazine or you can draw a picture or they can draw a picture of the routine of the day, can help them understand what to expect. And for older children, asking them to come up with what they think a good daytime routine is, to keep them on their own schedule and also to get certain boxes checked about what needs to happen each day. Something healthy for their bodies, something healthy for their brains, something healthy for their relationships, and so forth and set that up. If they give suggestions but it just doesn't feel like it's quite ready for a day-to-day commitment, you can set that routine with them and tweak it a little bit. Let your feelings about how you want these routines to go and what can help you parent better also be taken into account. And embrace the new normal. Accept that there just may not be a completely perfect routine and predictable day-to-day experience, and allow yourself to make a new normal of whatever you have. Children need to know what to expect, but they're also very flexible if you've explained clearly that there may come a time where there's an unexpected. They can take in new information, and if you're consistent they will understand that we're here for them. We're setting up as much as we can in terms of predictability and routines. But we also need to be a little bit flexible.
People are wondering how to help their children make sense of not seeing loved ones like grandparents that they might see on a regular basis. And this is so hard for families who have to be apart from each other. So one thing is to always empathize with your child. More importantly, help your child come up with proactive ways to connect with grandparents or loved ones who they can't be with. This is an incredible time to be able to communicate when you aren't in the same room with someone. So take advantage—I very rarely say take advantage of your phones and computers—but take advantage of the opportunities that we have on social media and on phones to give a moment of each day to empower your child, to help a grandparent feel that they have a connection. This can also help your child's sadness turn into productive action. And in this case, writing letters, sending notes and calling and FaceTime-ing grandparents is a beautiful way to connect and to show your child that there is something they can do to help a person they love feel better. And if they don't have a grandparent that they can connect with, there are different organizations that can help you reach out to and write letters and draw pictures for elderly and vulnerable people who are isolated right now. And that is also a wonderful way to take the emphasis off of feeling sorry for ourselves and onto what can we do to contribute to helping the connection between ourselves and the people we're separated from.
And lastly, how to talk to your kids about a loved one who may be affected by COVID-19 or who is seriously ill is dependent on how old your child is. But no matter how old your child is, it's important to be honest with them with information that they need to have. So for younger children, if a close family member is ill and you know the status of where that illness is going, if you know that they have COVID-19 and your child understands what that is, you can let them know that they did test positive for COVID-19 and this is the care that they're getting. And that is why we need to think of ways to be away from them but also support them. If they are very ill and you don't know what the outcome will be, then it's okay to say to your child, "We don't know if this person is going to be okay or not, but we're doing the best we can to help them. And the doctors and nurses and health care providers are taking really good care of them. And we're going to see over the days how things go." What you don't want to do is say to them, you know, "Nothing's going on." And then all of a sudden they have a disaster in their lives and they didn't even know what was coming. On the other hand, you don't need to mention someone who is asymptomatic, who tested positive, who's close with them unless they are separated from you. So if a parent is on quarantine from their child, then the other parent can say, "This is what's going on. This is very contagious. And so we want to make sure to keep your body healthy and daddy's body healthy, and we just need to be separated for 14 days." And you can set a calendar up and make a visual calendar for younger kids. And even for older kids who seem like they get it, make a calendar for them. Even adults need that where you can check off the days and check in. With children, before you start answering questions, it's always a good idea to ask them what they do know so that you can see where their starting point is. I am wishing everyone good health and well-being during this time. And of course, please again reach out to your health care provider if you are having any concerns about your health and well-being.
Dr. Aliza Pressman is Co-Founding Director and Director of Clinical Programming for the Mount Sinai Parenting Center. She's also an Assistant Clinical Professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. In addition to all of that, she hosts a fantastic podcast called "Raising Good Humans," where you can hear lots more on parenting during the pandemic. I highly recommend it. That's all for this episode of Road to Resilience. We're a production of the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. The podcast is produced by Katie Ullman, Nicci Hudson and me, Jon Earle. Lucia Lee is our executive producer. If you'd like to donate to support Mount Sinai's COVID-19 efforts, please check out the link in the show notes. Your donations help us continue to save lives. Thank you, and if you enjoyed this podcast episode, tell a friend about us and leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you're listening. Thanks so much for being with us. We'll be back soon with more episodes and until then, stay safe and be well.