Struggling To Parent Your Young Child During The Pandemic?

Parenting is not only about managing crises but also preventing it in the first place. Let us look at how you can be both preventive and proactive as a parent.

By Dr Meghna Singhal

Struggling To Parent Your Young Child During The Pandemic?

Dear ParentCircle, I’m struggling here…with two young children, along with having to manage my own work, I find myself being cranky and overwhelmed most of the time. The children seem more difficult, more demanding, more whiny right now, and I find myself screaming at them all day long. The other day, my younger one snatched a toy from the older one and all hell broke loose... No, the children were alright, but it was me who completely lost it! I screamed and threatened and worked myself up into such a frenzy that my hubby had to intervene and calm me down. I was really not proud of myself that day. — A beleaguered mom

Welcome to parenting during a pandemic. Yes, it seems frustrating and unmanageable. It seems like our parenting is reduced to repeating instructions over and over, ultimately ending with bribes or threats. But no, parenting during a pandemic doesn’t have to be that way. And while we’re waiting for our children to get out of the house and for us to finally take a breather, we don’t have to wait for the pandemic to be over. 

But why is my child being so difficult?

Children can’t express their feelings in words

Did your child just have a meltdown because you served his meal in a blue plate instead of a red one? Or did he fall apart because his drawing didn’t come out as expected? Children’s sense of unease reflects in their refusal to accept things that would have otherwise been easy to take. Acting out, meltdowns, non-compliance, and other challenging behaviours are all expressions of an emotional state that is too overwhelming for the child to handle. Adults talk (well, mostly) when they are upset. But children? They can’t always express their big feelings through words. If your 5-year-old could express herself eloquently, this is perhaps what she would sound like:

My mom seems tensed and always in a bad mood. She yells at me for no reason. She makes me do my schoolwork but doesn’t explain well, so I don’t understand. But then she gets impatient and scolds me even more. I am not allowed to go to my friend’s house. No playground. No birthday parties. The news is scary. My parents keep discussing how people are dying. I worry about nani. Will she be okay? What if she dies? What if I die?

But, since your child can’t express herself like this, she lets you know that she’s having a hard time by pushing her sibling out of your lap or screaming when you serve her idli (when she wanted a dosa).

A sense of uncertainty and insecurity

One of the foundations of children’s sense of security is a predictable rhythm. Children thrive on predictability. Says Kim John Payne, founder of Simplicity Parenting, “Predictability helps secure our children and ease any anxiety they may be feeling around a fragmented day.” The simple predictable routine and familiar structure around their day — such as getting out of the home by 8am, doing circle time in preschool at 9am — all this seems to have gone awry and this is one of the big reasons why children seem to be struggling right now.

Your emotional response

Another reason is your own emotional responses to the corona panic. Are you freaked out about the potential danger that the virus poses to your family (or its peripheral effects, such as financial strain or frightening news)? Even if your anxiety is not obvious in your behaviour (such as overreacting to a sneeze or cough, being wary of people, or washing hands excessively), your child may still be able to sense it. Children look to their parents for information about how to deal with different situations; if a parent consistently displays overcautiousness, the child can interpret that to mean that many situations are unsafe. So, if your stress is spilling over into harsh interactions with your child, her behaviour will be worse than usual.

Emergence of the baby-self

Yet another reason why your child seems out of whack has to do with how your child’s baby-self emerges when he sees you, explains Anthony E. Wolfe, author of 'Get Out of My Life, but First Can You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?' What’s a baby-self? Picture this: Your child is happily playing with his blocks. You emerge from your home office and ask him to come eat his lunch (or brush his teeth, or whatever). As soon as you show up and talk to him, he has a meltdown. That’s because he has been repressing his dependency needs so that he can function independently in a demanding environment. Your safe presence signals to him that he can relax and let down his guard. So, his grown-up self (what we call his executive functioning) takes a much-needed break, and the baby-self takes charge, whining, helplessness and acting out. This happens even more so when your child is being holed up at home, amid fear and uncertainty.

Lack of physical and outdoor play

Reduced outdoor play and physical activity is another reason why children seem to be more difficult to parent during this pandemic. Being outside and engaging in free play equips children to cope with stress. It also helps a child work through difficult emotions, fears, and anxieties in a non-threatening environment where there is no fear of failure. On the other hand, when children don’t get enough exercise, it affects their physical and emotional indices — their sleep gets affected and they are more likely to be snappy and irritable.

So, what can we do as parents?

Parenting during a pandemic is not only about firefighting, but also about preventing the fires in the first place; it is as much about preventing misbehaviour as it is about managing it. Let us look at how we can do both:

Being Preventive

Make it predictable: First look at the basics — eating, sleeping, and plenty of physical exercise. With the regular routines being disrupted it is even more important to chart out a realistic schedule for your child. Establish a daily routine. You could even get your child to help you make a simple, colourful routine chart and put it up in a place that is easily visible to your child. Allowing your child to know what to expect helps him feel in control and enables him to roll with the everyday changes that inevitably happen.

Struggling To Parent Your Young Child During The Pandemic?

Connect, connect, connect: Establishing a close bond with your child, providing warmth and affection, and taking joy in your child—all constitute connection with your child. Recommends Dr Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids and Founder of www.ahaparenting.com, “Develop small rituals that reconnect you with your child throughout your day, especially around separations. For instance, plan on a five-minute snuggle with your child first thing every morning to reconnect and ease the transition into the day. Turn off technology when you interact with your child. Every day, for ten to twenty minutes, give your child ‘Special Time’ in which you do what your child wants, and you give your child 100 percent of your attention.” Also, look for small opportunities to nurture this connection. Could you put on music and dance with your child while cooking dinner? Could you make up giggle-inducing bedtime songs? Could you squeeze in a hug while working?

Address fears: Addressing your child’s fears and modelling how to manage feelings will go a long way in helping your child feel safe and knowing how to respond. Recognise your child’s feelings and empathise (“I know you’re upset you can’t go to your friend’s birthday”), and teach her to problem-solve (“Let’s brainstorm all the ways you can wish your friend and make her feel special!”). Talk about how you are managing your own feelings (“Since I can’t go to grandma’s, I do video-calls with her and that makes me feel much better!”).

Set the stage for calm interactions: Set clear expectations for your child, so he knows what constitutes good behaviour. Most of the time, unfortunately, we end up telling our child what not do to — “Don’t yell, don’t jump on the sofa, don’t hit, don’t this, don’t do that….” Try telling your child what to do instead.

Instead of: Don’t jump on the sofa
Try saying: Sofas are not for jumping. Let’s go jump outside in the balcony!

It’s also a good idea to be specific.

Instead of: Be good while I’m on this work call
Try saying: I will on this work call for half an hour. Can you see the timer count the numbers? During this time, please be quiet like a mouse and don’t come into my room. Here are some crayons for you to colour with, cars you can play with, and a snack for you is ready on the table. When I’m finished with the call, we’ll play a game together

Be sure to follow through on what you promised and praise your child for her behaviour.

Being Proactive

Manage yourself first: In the event that you find yourself in the middle of a tantrum (or any challenging behaviour), the first thing you need to do is calm yourself down. Intervene before your own feelings get out of hand. Take a 10-minute time out and do whatever it takes to manage yourself. Drink a glass of water, take a few deep breaths, do push-ups, splash water on your face…if nothing works and you’re still heated up, take a time out for yourself and tell your child, “I want to think about what happened; we’ll talk about it later.” Avoid punishment, no matter what.

Empathise: We’ve all heard that walking in another’s shoes is important. It is even more important when your child does something you don’t approve of. Practice responding to what your child says or does with empathy, even when you need to set a limit. “Tell me how you feel” is not empathy. Empathy is ‘feeling’ your child’s feelings, even if they’re difficult feelings.

Instead of: Don’t push your brother off my lap. Don’t be so mean to him!
Try saying: Looks like you’re pretty angry with your brother. But in our family, we don’t push. Pushing hurts. Mum’s lap has enough space for both of you.

Instead of: SHUT THE SCREEN NOW!
Try saying: I know it’s hard for you to shut off the screen, so I’ll do it for you. Remember we discussed how to make it easier to turn off the screen? We could play hide-and-seek or read your favourite book. 

Connect (before you correct): Get down to your child’s level to meaningfully connect with her. Ask her if she wants a hug or a snuggle. What matters is that your child feels your understanding. “When children feel understood, their loneliness and hurt diminish. When children are understood, their love for their parent is deepened,” advises Haim Ginott, the famous psychotherapist whose book Between Parent and Child stayed on the bestseller list for over a year, and is still popular today after 17 years. 

Instead of: Why didn’t do your homework as promised? I’m so sick of your empty promises!
Try saying: You didn’t do your homework this morning. I can see you’re overwhelmed. Let’s take a break and tell some jokes and laugh! Some laughter will help us tackle schoolwork.

Pick your battles: Consider if a particular behaviour is acceptable or not, in the big picture of a global pandemic. It may not matter that your 4-year-old’s screen time has doubled (or tripled) but it does matter that he doesn’t treat his sibling as his enemy. It may not matter that your child didn’t finish his homework, but it does matter that he lied to you about it. It’s up to you to use these moments to create a safe space, so that your child (instead of feeling like he has to hit or lie) is able to tell you how he is feeling and is enabled to work through those feelings.

Correct by setting limits: Setting clear, calm, firm limits, in consultation with your child, goes a long way in correcting behaviour. If your child breaks these set limits, make sure you follow through on agreed upon logical consequences. Correcting behaviour shouldn’t come across as punishment.

Instead of: You lied about doing homework. Go to your punishment corner.
Try saying: I don’t appreciate being lied to. Please do your homework now. And as we agreed, this means you have less time to play after you are done. 

This is a hard time for children as well as their parents. Children, not unlike adults, may be feeling destabilised right now and that is showing up in their behaviour. We can step up and turn this challenge into an opportunity to create a stronger connection with our children, and find ways in which we can be both preventive and proactive in our parenting.

In a Nutshell

  • Children are unable to express themselves through words; So when they are overcome with difficult feelings, they act it out in the form of tantrums or other challenging behaviours
  • Some reasons for children being harder to parent during a pandemic are: loss of a predictable rhythm, transmission of parents’ anxiety to their child, emergence of their baby-self during stressful periods, and lack of physical and outdoor play
  • Parenting during a pandemic is about being both preventive and proactive

What you can do right away

  • Try the ‘Rose and Thorn’ ritual with your child — discuss what was good (rose) and what was prickly (thorn) that day for him
  • Start a family mindfulness practice, like listening to a short, guided meditation audio for five minutes everyday

About the expert:
Written by Meghna Singhal, PhD, on 17 June 2020.
Dr. Singhal is the Manager, Global Content Solutions at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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