As we enter into our fourth week (or longer) of sheltering-in-place, many of us are finding our dynamics starting to shift at home.
In some ways, things may be getting easier – maybe a rhythm has been established, rendering what at first felt foreign and chaotic into a new familiar. In other ways, though, the situation is only getting harder. We’re exhausted, maybe even approaching burnout; our kids are getting antsy, and their behavior is increasingly unpredictable; and everyone’s emotions are running high.
I remember thinking when this all started that this is going to feel like sprinting a marathon. Unfortunately, that was pretty accurate. The problem is, it’s not realistic. We can’t sprint forever. We need to slow down. We need to find a sustainable pace.
So if you’re sheltering in place with your kids, consider the following ideas to implement a sustainable rhythm for your whole family – a critical move for every parent at home with their children right now:
If you prioritize one thing, let it be setting realistic expectations!
Mindset is critical here. I read this quote recently, and it really resonated: “You’re not working from home, you’re at home during a crisis trying to work.”
No matter what form your “work” is taking right now – whether that is 100% child care, 100% work + 100% child care, or something in between – remember that: A) this is really, really hard, and B) it's important to give yourself credit for getting out of bed each day and showing up.
You do not have to get it perfect, you just have to make it to bedtime with everyone’s limbs still attached.
This will not last forever, this is a crisis, it will eventually end. Until then, we all need to let go of some of the standards we held pre-pandemic. We can bring them back (or not!) once this is all over.
If you prioritize a second thing, make it routine
Now, here’s the important part – your routine does not need to look like a rigid timetable. In fact, it shouldn’t.
Think of this routine more like a rhythm, a predictable order of events. We are creatures of habit and we like knowing what is coming next – adults and kids alike.
Kids think in concrete terms (activities) not in abstract ones (time), so instead of lunch being at 12 on the dot, followed by 30 minutes of play time, try having some play time, followed by lunch, followed by play time, followed by nap (or whatever order of events works for your family).
Pay attention to hunger cues, sleep cues, and behavioral cues to determine when the natural transition to the next activity should take place. Be flexible – if something is feeling good, allow it to be. Whenever possible, try not to interrupt your child’s play.
This will build up their attention span, concentration, and capacity for independent play – a skillset that will serve you, too!
Build in lots of breaks – breaks from work, breaks from the kids, breaks from your spouse!
Even if it’s only five minutes, try to find some time and space to be alone and to breathe (seriously, it helps calm your nervous system down!).
With all these breaks, it’s also important to remember that transitions are important, too. This is especially true with younger children who are still learning how to shift sets, and are very sensitive to changes in their environment.
When you are transitioning from one activity to another, or when one parent is taking over a caregiving shift, give your children ample warning and build in extra time so that transitions can be slow and intentional.
I promise, this time investment up front will save you time in the long run by reducing resistance and tantrums. (And if there still is resistance and tantrums, see section below on co-regulation.)
In whatever ways you can, try to keep things SIMPLE and SLOW
This is a unique opportunity to slow our typically hectic pace and do fewer things with more intention.
Don’t feel pressure to create fancy and elaborate projects and lessons right now. There’s an inundation of offerings for virtual activities and ideas to keep your kiddos busy, which is lovely and so generous, but it can also feel overwhelming.
Maybe pick one, and then sprinkle in some quiet time with books, some time outside in fresh air if that’s an option (or time in the tub for some sensory play if not), hugs and cuddles, and lots of child-led independent play. If you are looking for free high quality virtual resources, a few I recommend are Union Square Play, The Workspace For Children, and @beboxkids.
Also, don’t punish yourself with guilt for utilizing screen time. We are using plenty of screen time over here, and I am refusing to feel guilty about it. My 2.5 year old is having a love affair with Mr. Rogers, and I am very okay with that.
(Also, if you haven’t yet, check out Mr. Rogers. I say this as a mom, and also as a clinical psychologist who specializes in fostering secure attachment relationships and healthy personality development in childhood – his messages to children are golden).
Use co-regulation and go easy on yourself and your kids
It’s going to take everyone a while to get used to new routines and rhythms. If emotions are running high, acknowledge how you or your child feel without judgment.
Co-regulating with our kids can help them move through challenging emotions. This might look like validating their emotions and letting them know that you understand – don't try to talk them out of their feelings, or distract them from them.
If chaos erupts, try a validating response like: “Oh man, I can see that when your sister knocked over your tower that really upset you, you were working so hard on that.”
Once you validate, you can help them move through their feelings by asking them to participate in problem solving. “I wonder if we can rebuild it somewhere she can’t reach it. Can you think of a place that could work?”
Sometimes the answer will be no – they might just need to be upset, and that’s ok. You can let them know that you get it and that you’re here for them if they want to talk to you about it. Be aware that if your child is more difficult than usual, more defiant, having more tantrums, less able to be flexible, etc. this could just be the way they are managing this stressor. Again, acknowledge that. “I know having to share this space with your sister right now is really hard.”
It’s also ok to tell our kids when we are having a hard day. If you are struggling, your child already knows it – it’s better to let them hear it from you and process it with you than have to guess at why.
Just be sure to reassure them that things will be okay and that you will all get through this together as a family. Think of this as an opportunity to model for your children resilience in the face of adversity, and acceptance of challenging feelings.
Give yourself space and time to reflect on your priorities
How do you want this crisis to change the way you lived before? What do you want to make sure to hold on to and not lose?
We are going to come out of this as different people, different families. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. This is a time of great change, great disruption, and for many, great loss. It is also a time where the world is moving slower, where the noise of everyday life is quieter.
Allow this slowness and this quiet in, allow it to be the silver lining in all of this. Because for the vast majority of us, before this pandemic hit, there’s a fair chance we had lost sight of a lot of the things we may now be able to see clearly.
So pay attention to those things. Let go of what wasn’t serving you and your family and make new rules, new traditions, new connections. You don't have to wait until this is over to begin rebuilding.