By Mary Ellen Ulmer, MD, pediatrics
You don’t need a pediatrician to tell you that kids today are feeling stressed. We’re all feeling it, and kids are no exception. They could really use a boost right now, even if it’s just 10 minutes of your undivided attention.
In our clinic, we are seeing unbelievable numbers of kids suffering from what we’re calling the unholy trinity of the pandemic: depression, anxiety and eating disorders. And that’s just now. The unrelenting stress and disruption of the pandemic, like other adverse childhood experiences, could have the potential to shape a child’s physical and mental health for a lifetime.
But grownups, we can help, and we really need to. This is not just business as usual. I know that we’re busy and stressed, too, but right now, as always, we all need to focus on connecting with our kids. Connection, structure and positive experiences provide a buffer against stressful times, and spending time together is good for all of us.
How to bolster your kids
Connection, connection, connection — that’s what a lot of kids are missing these days as their school routines, home routines and relationships have been turned upside down. We can help by getting a little more involved in their day, and by allowing them to get a little more involved in ours. For example:
Maintain some routines
The pandemic has pointed out the value of traditions, routines and schedules. Kids feel unsafe in general right now, and having some routines they can count on gives them a sense of security and normalcy, even when everything else feels like it’s swirling out of control. Maintaining the same bedtime routine, or scheduling a regular family meal, brings consistency and comfort amid the chaos.
Don’t leave them to their own devices
Smartphones, tablets and other devices enhance our lives and our children’s learning. “But when used inappropriately or without thought,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “media can displace many important activities such as face-to-face interaction, family-time, outdoor-play, exercise, unplugged downtime and sleep.” Once schoolwork is done, be very intentional about where and when devices are used. For entertainment, use them together to watch a show or to play games with each other, so at least there is a connection point. Healthychildren.org offers great advice on how to establish a healthy Family Media Plan.
Schedule some social media-free play time
It doesn’t need to be hours and hours — just 10 minutes a day, when your child is totally in charge of you and has your full, undivided attention, can really cushion a challenging day. For toddlers, this might mean sitting on the floor and playing with Legos, like you’re another 3 year old. Older kids might enjoy taking a walk with you or going out for bubble tea. This is their time — your phone is off, you’re not in a meeting, you’re not multitasking — you’re just being together, and that tells them how valuable they are to you.
Give chores a chance
Little kids almost universally want to help with whatever cool thing you’re doing, whether it’s cooking or folding laundry. Yes, you just need to get it done, and yes, their “help” might take a little longer, but let them! In addition to time with you, this gives your children a sense of mastery and a sense of membership in the family, which are super important. If our job as parents is to raise competent adults, we’ve got to start from the beginning. With older kids who are no longer quite as excited about helping, try negotiation: I need to get this done. Can you help me? Once it’s done, then we get to play whatever you want to play.
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers more helpful suggestions for creating positive experiences for infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers, school-age children and teens.
How to bolster yourself
Parents need some TLC, too. Here are three tips that I want to share with you.
“Good enough” is
You only need to be the perfect parent about 30% of the time. The rest of the time, being a good-enough parent is good enough. If you are truly making an effort — if you’ve never had family dinners, for example, and now you’re sitting down to dinner together once or twice a week – yay you! Don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t happen every night. Let it go. Be kind to yourself.
No is not a four-letter word
Just as it’s OK to say no to low-priority requests that drain your time and energy, it’s also OK to say no sometimes to high-priority people, like your kids. Part of teaching kids resilience is helping them learn how to tolerate and manage frustration. When you tell your child, “No, I can’t take you to the mall today. Let’s figure out a day when I can,” that’s a respectful “no” that tells them, “not now, later.” It’s fine for them to hear that “no,” as long as “later” comes.
Find your three
If you haven’t done so already, identify three people or groups that you can count on as your circle of support. Do you have parents or siblings who can come running when your day goes sideways? Friends or neighbors with whom you can trade babysitting? A local or online parenting group that you can join? These are challenging times — it’s important to know that you’re not alone. People really do want to help. If you are having a hard time with your child, or your child is having a hard time in general, your pediatrician is one of your three.
Connecting with our kids is both the point of parenting and the joy of it. Once we make it through this pandemic, we need to stay connected to bolster them for life.