The COVID-19 pandemic has been stressful for all of us, and this includes our youngest children.
It’s easy, and tempting, to think that infants, toddlers, and preschoolers aren’t affected by the pandemic. The truth is, though, that that life has changed for them, too — and for some of them it has changed dramatically. Even if the change is mostly positive for them — such as having their parents home all the time — it’s still a change that can be confusing and unsettling. Young children are less able to understand the nuances of all of this; for them, the world truly is all about them. And they also have very acute radar when it comes to the emotions of their caregivers.
As a pediatrician, I’ve been hearing from families about young children who are having trouble sleeping, whose eating habits have changed, who are crying or throwing tantrums for no good reason, or are just generally crankier and more irritable than usual. Some are more clingy, which can get tough for parents who are working from home.
So what can a parent do? It should be said up front that there are no magic answers or quick fixes; this is a hard time, and it’s going to stay hard until case numbers go down a lot or there is a vaccine, or both. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some strategies that can help.
Talk to your children about the pandemic — but keep it simple and optimistic
Obviously, this is more about preschoolers than infants and toddlers, but you need to have an explanation for why you can’t go on the swings or visit Grandma, or why you have to do a Zoom meeting instead of playing with blocks. Tell them that there is a germ that can make some of us sick, and we want to be sure that we don’t catch it or give it to someone else without realizing it.
As much as you talk about this, talk about how lots of people are working very hard to make the germ go away and keep us safe. Talk about all the things that you as a family are doing, like wearing masks (for children over the age of 2) and washing hands and staying a safe distance from others. It’s important to talk positively, not just because you want to keep things positive now, but also because at some point we will be going out more, and if you haven’t laid the groundwork, kids may be frightened when they begin to do things they weren’t allowed to do before.
Be mindful of the media your child is exposed to — and the things you say when they are in hearing distance. Little ears can be easily worried and confused.
Build routines into your day
Life has been upended for all of us in some way or another, and it’s tempting to, well, wing it. But kids do best with some degree of predictability, so keep to a regular sleep and meal schedule. Create a schedule that includes fun and playtime. If a child knows that they will have that time with you, they may be more willing to play independently while you work.
As you are building routines, build in some exercise. It’s good for everyone’s health, and it blows off steam too; something like a walk around the block playing I Spy can be both playtime and exercise for everyone.
Cut yourself slack
A little extra screen time for your kid so that you can get some work done may just be inevitable. Playtime may not be particularly inspiring (it’s totally fine to turn chores into games, in fact it’s a great idea). Meals don’t need to be inspiring either. We can only do our best — and as I said at the beginning, this is hard on all of us.
Take care of yourself
Children really do notice when their parents are stressed or sad — and may worry that it’s their fault. And when we snap (or worse) at our children because we are feeling bad, it can make everything harder. So as you build those routines, build in some time for the things you need and enjoy. Don’t try to tough it out if you are feeling bad, too; reach out for help. While all of us need to take care of our physical and mental health during the pandemic, it’s even more important for caregivers — because others are counting on them.
If you have any worries about your child or your child’s behavior, call your doctor. Even though some offices have limited hours, there should always be someone you can talk to.
Follow me on Twitter @drClaire
For more information on coronavirus and COVID-19, see the Harvard Health Publishing Coronavirus Resource Center. The American Academy of Pediatrics also offers helpful information on what parents should know about these topics.