I’m a Guidance Counsellor—Here’s How I’m Keeping My Kids Calm About Coronavirus

It’s not easy to parent during a pandemic, but a few simple strategies can help children cope with their new normal.

I’ve been soothing children’s fears and helping them face challenges for many years. I’m a licensed educational psychologist who has worked in Southern California as a guidance counsellor, written a children’s book about anxiety, and founded AutiZm & More, an organization for autistic children. I came significantly equipped to the novel coronavirus pandemic with a pretty full toolbox of solutions for calming my own three children’s fears, but it’s still been challenging. During the past few weeks of lockdown, my family and I have been teaching one another what it means to stay connected, calm, and brave. Here’s how we’re getting by and growing as a family.

Making sense of our new normal

Like everyone else, my family has had to adjust to a new way of doing things. One of the first changes we had to make was not running up to hug my husband, who’s a physician, when he comes home from work. This was especially challenging for our six-year-old son, Jivaan. He wanted to know why daddy had to change his clothes and shower before he even said, “hello.” So, I used that as an opportunity for a hygiene lesson. Jivaan and I did a project together that showed what the virus looked like and talked about how to wash and dry hands so that the virus is sent down the drain, where it can’t hurt anyone. This empowering exercise helped him feel more in control, as well as provided a context for why his typical behaviour upon greeting his dad had to change.

Ask first, answer second

The entire family jumped into remote learning right away. My daughter Ayana is 15, and Maliya is 13. Early on, Jivaan was learning about pandas in school and was asked to write about China, where they’re from. The first thing he wrote was that they have the virus in China, and then only afterward did he write about pandas. I realized that he understood more of what was going on around him than I thought.

That experience helped me to crystallize the following advice for other families: to give children, even small children, credit that they’re probably more aware of recent events than you may know. Before you jump in with explanations, first ask them what they know. That will give you a sense of where to start; then you can share the information that you think they need.

Dealing with a homebound child’s frustration

By definition, kids are in constant motion, so being cooped up at home can be very hard. Emotionally, the first week felt like an extended vacation, just another break. But as the weeks continued, I started to see more uneasiness, frustration, and antsy behaviour, especially in my son. I realized right away that my six-year-old was going to need a lot more hand-holding than my girls.

Patel familyCourtesy Reena B. Patel
Like all small children, Jivaan has a short attention span and limited ability to sit still in one spot. Being behind a screen for hours can be difficult. Even my older girls can sit for just so long. I learned to work around this by creating a study space for schoolwork only and then letting all my kids have access to the outdoors, once virtual schooltime is over. Once school is over, all three kids get to head outside to the backyard or porch. I also encourage them to take walks, with safety measures such as social distancing included, of course.

Sticking to our routines

Separating schoolwork from fun times also helps create a routine for our family. This savvy strategy is also recommended by the Child Mind Institute. Waking up at regular hours, keeping a bedtime schedule, and eating as a family at the regular time are soothing, calming strategies that help kids maintain a sense of normalcy, even when life is anything but.

Coming of age during COVID-19

My daughters have a deeper understanding of what’s happening, as well as the outlet of continuing to socialize with their friends online and via text. Even so, their frustrations started to kick in big time. I knew they were being more reactive because they were all cooped up and craving personal space. They were also missing face-to-face interaction with their friends.

I know that everybody responds to stress, anxiety, and worry. I also know that school is about socialization as well as learning. For teens, school is an opportunity to get away from parents and be with friends, which they need. Because of this, I am not micromanaging the girls during this time or trying to control them. My husband and I are trying to help them maintain freedom by not being on top of them 24/7. No 20 questions in this house!

Even so, certain milestones that require face-to-face contact have had to take a backseat, which the girls have taken in stride. That includes driver’s education, parties, and plain old hanging out.

Puppy power

Our Yorkie, Sir London, has played an important role in keeping the kids and us grown-ups calm and centered. Our dog helps with anxiety because he provides unconditional love. He distracts the kids, which helps to reduce stress.

If you don’t have a pet but want your children to benefit from the centering that animals can provide, try taking them bird watching outside when you can safely social distance, or stage squirrel sightings from your window.

Laughter is the best distraction

I’m all about getting my kids’ minds onto other things. Distraction is a great strategy, and of course, laughter is the best medicine. I find things to distract them and am very mindful of not having the news on 24/7. That’s not good for them—or for me.

Patel family missionCourtesy Reena B. Patel
Our family is playing more board games during the hours of the day when we used to rush off to activities after school. Fewer obligations mean more family time, which is a great silver lining. We’re making the most of this time by having movie nights, playing cards, and coming together as a family.

Need some ideas? Here are the best-reviewed board games to play while you’re all at home.

Giving back

Thinking of and doing for others is a coping strategy that my oldest daughter has personified during this time. Ayana has created an online, visual platform for kids struggling at home; she teaches an adaptive dance class for special-needs kids and does an amazing job. She’s been doing it as a way to stay connected, plus support her community.

These inspiring stories of neighbours helping during the pandemic might inspire you to do the same.

Finding an endpoint when there’s no endpoint in sight

My son has asked me when we can go back to the park, and what can I say? It is unknown. Maliya is worried about her grandparents. Ayana misses her friends. Nobody’s sleeping as well as they should, and reassurance is needed about when things will go back to normal, but none of us knows when that will be.

I don’t have a clear endpoint, and that’s what children need. So, instead, I offer constant reassurance and a “let’s see” attitude. I also remind them that this is just a snapshot, a small piece of the bigger picture. It’s not a never—it’s just a pause, for now. In the meantime, we’re coming together as a family and coping the best we can. This is not forever. This, too, will pass.

For more on how people are staying safe and sane during the pandemic, see our comprehensive coronavirus guide.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest