The devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to mount as parents, caregivers, and families across the country navigate unprecedented challenges. Anxiety and uncertainty have become the norm, and as pandemic fatigue sets in, parents are grappling with ways to support their children’s healthy development and help them cope.
At Erikson Institute, a graduate school specializing in child development, our mantra is “relationships, relationships, relationships.” In the challenging circumstances we’re all facing, supportive relationships with each other are what can sustain us the most. Think about what you want your child to remember most from this unusual time, and try to create as much connectedness and joy as possible for all of you.
Here are 7 tips for parents of young children navigating COVID-19.
1. Take care of yourself first. Children look to the adults in their life for cues about how safe they are. Having solid self-care routines and their own healthy ways to cope can help parents be as steady a role model as they can for their child. When children see you coping, it helps them to cope, too.
2. Speak honestly and openly with children about the pandemic, but keep it simple and brief. Young children don’t understand everything going on during difficult times, but they feel better if they know something. Reassure them about how people can stay safe, using examples they can see like wearing masks or washing hands, and talk with them about any fears they might have. Point out the people who are responding to the crisis. In the words of Fred Rogers, “look for the helpers.”
3. Try to keep a routine at home. Young children thrive on routine—it helps them know what to expect so they can have a sense of control. A simple visual schedule for breakfast, playtime, nap, etc. is one strategy parents can use. Let your kids come up with items to put on a calendar, and don’t forget to include special events they can look forward to, like virtual playdates or a pillow fight night. If you’re working from home, creating your own simple visual schedule can help your children know when you’re available to them.
4. Let them play! Encourage your child to follow their own interests for play and (safe) exploration. It may look like “just play,” but there is a lot of learning going on. Pretend play is an especially important way for children to work out fears and stresses. Invest time in finding high-quality children’s tech content. If you can’t watch or use the technology with them, find content they can engage with on their own.
5. Make a game of social distancing and hygiene, or do a project together. This can give children fun ways to retain important information and can help them feel more in control during this scary time. Help them create masks or handwashing signs to put around your home as reminders, or give them turns to be the “reminder boss.” Consider doing a project together to help other people, like thank you emails or drawings that can be sent to hospitals or grocery store workers.
6. If you or someone in your family gets sick with COVID-19, try to help children anticipate what will happen. Illness during this time can create even more worry and stress for you and your children. Talk about what’s going on in words children can understand. Explain clearly what is going to happen, especially if they have to be separated from you or a loved one, and emphasize what you and others are doing to make things better.
[Related: What it's like to be a parent with COVID]
7. Don’t hesitate to seek help from an outside source. Erikson’s Center for Children and Families offers therapy sessions with parents remotely (by video or phone). They can be reached at 312-709-0508.