“I don’t CARE if it’s snowing! I don’t CARE that I have a cough! I don’t WANT to wear my jacket! I want to wear SHORTS! It’s MY body and MY choice! You ALWAYS tell me what to do! I NEVER get to do anything I want!”

As parents, we understand the need for social distancing required to control COVID-19, even if we don’t like it. For young children, it is much more difficult. Many want to do all the things they normally do: explore, play with friends, touch things, go to the playground. They will feel the increased focus we have on their health and safety, and part of their system will naturally want to rebel – and part of their system will get filled with fear, and tension, about why we are being so careful.

The difficulty of trying to keep our children safe while also providing essential opportunities to explore and play can create enormous stress—on us and them. 

Here are five things you can do to help settle your system, and theirs

1. Put your own oxygen mask on first. Take time to ask “What part of me needs my attention right now?” and then tend to what needs attention. This can also be a good time to practice the three doorways of Self-Compassion, an evidence-based mindfulness practice outlined by Kristin Neff in her book on the subject. The research she outlines shows that it helps to (a) non-judgmentally state what transpired, (b) offer self-kindness and (c) acknowledge our common humanity. As the late John O’Donahue states, “Be excessively gentle with yourself.”

2. Be mindful of your words and your non-verbal language. During times of stress, it helps to become especially aware of our everyday reactions by practicing STOP: Stop, Take a breath, Observeand Proceed. 

Consider not only your word choice, but also your tone, pace, volume and facial and bodily expressions. If the compulsion to say those words in a reactive way feels too strong to manage, and you don’t feel like you have any choice over how those words will come out, then it is a sign that you might be triggered. 

Model emotional self-regulation by taking a “self-timeout”. You could say, “I’m feeling triggered and I’m going to take a self-timeout.” Take your phone with you so you can practice Kristin Neff’s “Self-Compassion Break.” For example, during a self-timeout, I might practice self-compassion by:

  • Stating what happened non-judgmentally. “My son is mad that I won’t let him wear shorts and go out without his jacket in the snow when he has a bad cough, and I’m feeling frustrated that he is mad at me for setting this limit out of love and care.” 
  • Offer self-kindness. “Oh, Sweetie, it’s so hard when he gets mad when you are doing the most loving thing you can do: keeping him safe and keeping others safe. I’m right here for you.”
  • Acknowledge common humanity. “You’re not the only one feeling this way. There are millions of parents around the world right now dealing with this same situation. It’s hard for all of us parents right now.”

Don’t just distract yourself by surfing the web or reading texts and emails. While a simple distraction probably won’t help to truly settle your nervous system, reaching out to connect with a friend on the phone or practicing a self-compassion break could help a lot! And, if you can return to a calm baseline during your self-timeout, your kids will learn by watching you.

3. Empathize with your children’s frustrations. Let your children know that you completely understand that they’re annoyed they can’t do the things they usually like to do (eat at their favorite restaurant, go to school, etc.) You can say things like: “I get that;” “I understand;” or “I hear you.” Let them know that you are also annoyed that you can’t do your regular activities, (But be very, very brief. This is mostly about them, not you.) 

If they are so triggered that they can’t hear you, it is not a time for logic and reason. Instead, it can help to practice what Patty Wipfler refers to as Staylistening in her book Listen: Stay calm, come close, offer connection and listen to your child’s feelings. Say very little. Offer a warm, caring glance. 

Don’t expect your child to warm up to you right away. As Wipfler says, “When you pour love in, their hurt will come out.” And their hurt usually comes out at you! But if you can stay calm, close and connected long enough, it can help your child to process their understandable upset and any underlying tension that has been building up within them. Right now, with nowhere to go, they have lots of tension to offload, and we have lots of time to listen!

4. Offer a combination of structure and choice. It is important to establish a routine during these weeks of social distancing. Create a schedule together that includes playtime, reading time, board game time, meal times, outdoor time, family time, self-care time, and so on. Collaborate for optimal buy-in. Invite them to decorate the schedule and find a fun way to post it in a common area, such as the fridge!

One of the main needs that adults and children alike have is for a sense of power, choice and control. So, it’s a good idea to practice gently pointing out any time you can give your kids a choice, preferably narrowing it down to two positive choices. “You do need to brush your teeth tonight, Sweetie. Hey, do you want me to carry you to the bathroom? Or, should we crawl there together like your favorite animal? You choose!” Or for older kids: “Hey, just wanted to point out that I let you choose our family activity this time! Great choice!” 

Homeschool groups tend to have this balance of structure and choice worked out. They have wonderful resources with lots of ideas for engaging learning activities kids to choose from, such as this Home Learning Choice Board. Reach out to your friends who homeschool and ask them for ideas. They will appreciate being honored for their wisdom and creativity! And, they have a lot to share with the rest of us right now.

5. Remember to do simple things that bring you joy. Write a list of things you enjoy doing. Some of them you will realize you can do now. Doing things as simple as turning on music when you are making breakfast, setting the table, washing dishes or tidying up the house can make a big difference. Realizing you can still garden, play an instrument, take an online yoga, dance, drawing or  cooking class can feel empowering. 

And, make sure to go outside and spend time in nature. As O’Donahue said: “Take time to celebrate the quiet miracles that seek no attention.” It will be important for us all to feel connected to something bigger than our small selves and our houses during this time of social distancing, and nature can fill that need!  

Remember: While no one likes being confined or told what we can’t do, there are many things we can do as parents to create a safe, loving home environment that offers caring communication, structure and choice for our kids. And, there’s no better time to practice than now!