Even in the best of times, parenting is a juggling act. Throw a global pandemic into the mix—along with the fear, uncertainty, and isolation that comes with it—and you’re suddenly juggling while teetering across a tightrope. Recent studies reveal working parents are experiencing mounting levels of stress as they grapple with choices about their work-life balance, the future of their children’s education, and how to keep their families safe from coronavirus.
To better understand the circumstances facing parents, Boston University child psychologist Nick Wagner has teamed up with other researchers to launch the Families And Children’s Experiences (FACE) of COVID-19 Study. The international study is exploring how COVID-related lifestyle changes are impacting parents and their children in an effort to identify new strategies for families to cope with the crisis. The Brink spoke with Wagner, a BU College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences and director of BU’s Biobehavioral and Social-Emotional Development Lab, about how parents can talk to their children about COVID-19, navigate emotional hardships with their families, and take care of their own mental well-being.
With Nick Wagner
The Brink: How should parents talk to their children about the coronavirus pandemic?
Wagner: Even at young ages, children are acutely aware of illness and death, and they are sensitive to stress in the family. Children will have almost certainly heard about the COVID-19 pandemic, so the first important thing for parents to do is to listen. Parents should listen openly and allow children to talk freely, without too many guiding questions. Parents can ask open-ended questions and try to find out how much their children already know about the pandemic, and to assess any conclusions they’ve drawn about the implications of the pandemic for their safety and the safety of their family.
Parents should answer their children’s questions as honestly as they’re able. Of course, parents must consider their children’s age and the types of difficult conversations they’ve had in the past…but age-appropriate honesty and openness are usually the best strategy for talking with any child. During these conversations, it’s important for parents to know that it’s okay not to have all of the answers. Children will experience stress, conflict, and difficulties throughout their lives. It’s a parent’s job to help children get through these experiences, not to try to ensure these challenges won’t occur.
The most important thing is that parents are clear about the support the child has during these uncertain times. Children, like many of us, will be feeling scared or confused. Parents should create space for children to share these feelings, and can also express how they’re feeling as well. It’s always good to label how we’re feeling and how our children might be feeling, and to help children connect those feelings with their potential causes. This helps kids develop emotional intelligence, the ability to recognize feelings and the situations which may cause them. Parents may want to share their own strategies for coping when they feel scared or angry, and they can also help their children come up with ideas for coping that they can try.
During these conversations, it can be good for parents to highlight all of the things our communities are doing to help keep people safe. That we all wear masks because we’re in this together, and that everyone is working to make things better. Parents can focus on stories of people who are working to stop the spread of the virus or who are caring for those who are sick. Finally, parents should emphasize that this is temporary, and that the child’s family will always be there to support and care for them. It’s nearly impossible to give too many hugs or to say “I love you” too many times (unless you’re asking a teenager, of course!).
What should parents understand about the impact that stress and trauma can have on children?
While research on this specific pandemic is ongoing, studies examining the impact of previous pandemics (e.g., H1N1, Ebola) and natural disasters have documented increases in aggression and PTSD-related symptoms. We’ve found in our own preliminary work that parents’ worries about COVID-19 and their level of exposure to COVID-19 are linked with increased aggressive behaviors in their children.
Clearly the pandemic has impacted all of our lives, but the lives of children have been especially disrupted through home confinement, school closures, limited social interactions, and reduced access to playgrounds and the like. In addition to the disappointment of not being able to have the birthday party they wanted or not seeing a new classroom and their schoolmates on the first day of school, the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic threatens the routines and structures which help support children’s emotional security.
As a result, research would suggest that we’re likely to see changes in the ways children react to their environment. Seemingly small things that may not have triggered an intense emotional reaction in the past may do so now. Parents may also see changes in how their children attempt to regulate their exposure to conflict and uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Children may become more avoidant or distant, or parents may see their children attempting to take on more personal responsibility for alleviating the stress and difficulties that have become apparent in most homes.
When parents are faced with these changes in their children, they should first remember that these sorts of adaptations to stress and conflict are normal. Parents may need to provide more structure for new experiences, or to say things that could have gone unsaid in the past. Removing unnecessary uncertainty from a child’s life can help them to cope with the uncertainty we can’t control. Parents may find themselves reading more bedtime stories or being asked to carry their (now-very-heavy!) children more often than before. All of this is normal, and the extra bedtime stories will help.
Based on your research, how do you think the pandemic will shape children’s development?
Something we should keep in mind is how vital peer interactions and relationships are for developing children, and in particular, young children. This is because relationships with similarly aged peers—as opposed to their parents—are characterized by a unique symmetrical power dynamic which affords children the opportunity to develop perspective-taking skills, social competence, and advanced moral reasoning.
To put it simply, kids can explore the dynamics of social relationships with other kids in ways that just aren’t possible with adults. In addition to the learning implications of remote education, the lack of peer interactions is one of the biggest impacts that the move to remote learning will have on children.
To compensate for the lack of in-person peer interactions, what socialization activities can parents introduce to their children’s daily routine?
There are ways parents can support social interactions for their children over the internet, and I’ve seen teachers and parents alike develop very creative and effective ways of supporting children’s online relationships. First, know that it will vary from child to child what works best in terms of setting up online play dates or other social experiences. Parents should consider their child’s age, attention capacities, interests, etc., when planning online activities. For younger kids, I’ve found it’s best to provide some structured or planned activities, while still leaving space for creativity and exploration.
Parents can also schedule (yes, schedule) time for child-directed play. This means parents put away anything that might distract them from the play, and follow their child’s lead in whichever activity they’d like. In addition to the added comfort of the structure and attention, this sort of “child-directed” play can provide opportunities for children to flex their creative muscles, and to receive positive reinforcement along the way, all things they do with their peers under normal circumstances. Very often, 5 or 10 minutes of scheduled play can go a long way.
What should parents do if their children start acting out?
First and foremost, all children misbehave, especially when tired, hungry, confused, or frustrated. As counterintuitive as it may seem, the best way to dissuade behaviors we don’t want to see is to reinforce behaviors we do want to see. Now more than ever, parents should take every opportunity they can to praise and give attention to those behaviors that they do want to promote. When they see misbehavior, parents should try to catch it early and redirect children’s attention to something more positive.
Try to notice signs that may indicate an impending outburst, and attempt to engage your child in something positive before things can start to spiral. Depending on a child’s age, the use of consequences for difficult behavior can help teach children responsibility for their actions. A few suggestions regarding the use of consequences:
1. Consequences should be given in response to specific behaviors.
2. If possible, children should be given a choice to follow instruction before receiving a consequence.
3. Parents should remain as calm as possible when giving consequences.
4. Once a consequence is over, children should be given the opportunity to do something good and receive praise. Time-out can be a very effective strategy for parents to use, so long as it’s done in a consistent and structured way.
What are the best strategies parents can use to cope with their own social and emotional hardships during the pandemic?
Research tells us that our parenting is influenced by our own psychological resources, the characteristics of our children, and our networks of social support. The pandemic has immeasurably disrupted all three of these parenting determinants.
I think it’s important for parents to keep in mind that the situation we collectively find ourselves in is not normal. Parents are being asked to juggle childcare, work, financial insecurities, our personal health, and the health of our families. It is important for parents to have patience with themselves.
As impossible as it seems, parents should make time to stay connected with their own friends and to engage in activities they enjoy. Even something as small as taking time to go for a short walk or watch a favorite TV show can help. Self-care isn’t an indulgence—instead it is necessary to keep a healthy mind and body.
Additionally, there are evidenced-based treatments for improving mental health, including psychotherapy, medication, mindfulness meditation, and more. As is the case for our children, mental health providers have introduced telehealth services and free apps that offer access to guided resilience coaching and educational content about managing mental health. Parents should not hesitate to seek out these services and prioritize their own mental health.
Want more evidence-based tips for living well? Get additional advice from BU researchers by following @BUexperts on Twitter. You can also follow Nick Wagner (@nickjameswagner) directly.