No matter what scenario your family is living with, the COVID-19 outbreak has presented challenges and added stressors for parents and caretakers.
According to Oregon State University Assistant Professor of Practice & Parenting Education Specialist Shauna Tominey, stress comes out in different ways for children and adults. Children can pick up on the feelings of fear and anxiety their parents or guardian are experiencing.
“At this time, we might be short on sleep and out of our normal routines,” said Tominey. “With all of that, we’re more likely to be in ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ mode and that can lead us to say things we don’t mean or act in ways we don’t feel good about. That’s true for children and adults.”
Some signs of stress in young children include tantrums, difficulty sleeping, regression (e.g., bathroom accidents), asking for help with something they usually do on their own, or having a heightened response to a situation that should be “no big deal” on another day.
Tominey said while it’s natural to feel some stress, a higher level of stress can have a negative effect on a parent’s ability to respond to their child. Her advice – prioritize self-care strategies such as taking a walk outside, reading a book, staying socially connected to friends and family through video chats and calls, or establish a routine to get more sleep.
To help children manage their feelings at this time, she said it’s important to let them know all emotions are OK.
“So often we jump to helping children change their feelings, especially unpleasant feelings, by saying things like, ‘Don’t cry. Calm down. Let’s do something to feel happy,’” Tominey said. “Instead of trying to change your child’s feelings, help them learn healthy ways to express those feelings first. For instance you might say, ‘Sometimes when I’m disappointed, I like to talk about my feelings or listen to music quietly. Do you think you would like to do that right now?’”
If parents do have a moment of reacting in a way they don’t feel good about, use it as a teaching opportunity for your children, said Tominey.
“Let your child know that you don’t feel good about what you said or did,” she said. “For instance, ‘I’m really sorry that I yelled earlier. I shouldn’t have done that,’ or share how you were feeling: ‘I felt really frustrated when I asked you to clean up your room.’”
Cassandra Ferder, parent engagement coordinator at the Early Learning Division, said another concern for parents is managing screen time. She recommends finding a balance between staying connected to others virtually and with your children through activities.
“Parents can think about things they did for fun when they were a child,” Ferder said. “A few ideas – work on a puzzle together, consider going on a family bike ride, playing outdoor yard games, or gardening.”
For kids of all ages, doing everyday activities together offer ways to build stronger parent-child connections, she said.
“Baking and cooking are a great way to connect with your child,” said Ferder. “Stirring something in a bowl, following directions – participating in the cooking is something many young children don’t often get to do because of time constraints.”
Setting routines and manageable daily goals (e.g., reading a book, exercising together) will help children adjust to new patterns at home.
“Think creatively about what you have at home and focus on connection,” said Tominey. “You can help your children feel loved just being who they are.”