- Paula Madrid is a clinical and forensic psychologist who specialises in trauma and an adjunct faculty member at Columbia University’s National Centre for Disaster Preparedness.
- Madrid uses what she calls the ‘POWER’ method to help balance working from home full-time and homeschooling her daughter during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- She encourages parents to help their children verbalize their emotions, reframe quarantine with a positive mindset, and organise family movie or ice cream nights to have fun activities to look forward to.
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I am a psychologist and the proud mother of a 7-year-old, who, until last week, was coping remarkably well with what she calls “the crazy quarantine.” She’s created 3D models of the coronavirus, wrote a tiny book entitled “quarantine,” and has become quite the advocate for washing hands repeatedly and disinfecting all incoming packages. Going to bed on time is always a challenge, but she assures me it is only because she is busy and has lots to do, which I can certainly understand.
Many questions have arisen in parents’ novice efforts to homeschool. Is it normal for a child, in just a matter of days, to become wholly unmotivated to complete their schoolwork? Is your child complaining that school is too easy and boring? When your student is supposed to be listening to their teacher’s lecture, is it ok that they instead use the chat option to share emojis with their friends?
It is expected for children to exhibit changes, especially after weeks of being cooped up at home, unable to socialise with friends or engage in normal activities. Most of what we are all struggling with is normal, but there are measures we can take to foster our children’s resiliency.
Like us, children are still adapting to the new normal and the drastic changes in their lives. They also have a limited grasp of what is happening around them and are more confused than we probably realise. They may feel a sense of fear that persists despite their parents’ reassurance.
Fear and anxiety can be manifested in a number of notable behaviours. Some children become especially clingy, while others might regress to prior levels of functioning (becoming more infant-like); changes could also include having difficulty focusing or becoming a bit more “hyper” or emotionally erratic than usual.
Children look to their parents to understand what is going on in the world. If we are honest, even the most stoic among us have at some point during the last several weeks, expressed dismay at the COVID-19 situation. From a child’s perspective, the last several weeks have probably felt like a lifetime. They lack the experience and perspective to understand that this is temporary, and are anxious to return to what is familiar.
Children’s astounding ability and drive to engage in pretend play and to think without the inhibition of learned practicality can, in times of stress, cause trouble. That same capability increases the likelihood that they create frightening scenarios in their minds, possibly catastrophising their situation. Their fear can deter them from discussing what they feel, possibly resulting in nightmares, anxiety, misbehavior, or developmental regression.
I define resiliency as the ability to withstand trauma and adversity without serious long-term impact. This means that while increased stress, difficulty adjusting, or other symptoms may be inevitable, one can learn ways of adapting in the aftermath of a traumatic event. I use the word POWER as a model for resiliency-building in times of stress.
Practice verbalizing feelings
A great way to increase communication and emotional intelligence is to have an ongoing conversation about feelings. Helping children label their feelings not only expands their vocabulary, but also teaches them to process their emotions and recognise the feelings of others. I introduced to my daughter what we now refer to as our “meeting of the mind.” She knows that I will meet her in her closet or inside her tiny tent with a cup of cold chamomile when she asks for a meeting of the mind. During these, she shares her concerns and asks whatever questions are on her mind.
Ohana, the Hawaiian word for family, connotes a sense of interconnectedness and belonging with others. It is critical to ensure that children remain connected with friends and relatives as much as possible. Planning virtual dates, engaging in extended phone conversations, and even visiting close contacts from a protected distance are key to maintaining this sense of connection.
It’s ok to encourage your child to use technology more frequently to stay connected and practice interpersonal skills. Our daughter has Zoom calls with her friends where they take turns drawing an object, show each other their pet snails or ants, and sometimes keep each other quiet company while doing homework.
Work with strengths
While some children can learn new skills during this time, others need to focus on current strengths and preferred activities as a means of coping. Reading, using playdough, colouring, building Legos, and playing with toys can provide children with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. At my house, we started a playdough modelling contest. Each family member has 60 seconds to create an object. Grandparents are then called via Facetime to blindly vote on who is the winner. We practice maths by tallying up the number of votes.
Envision a better future
You can help boost your kids’ mood today by making future plans that are fun or interesting. Children can also learn to be grateful for what they have at any age, thereby reinforcing their positive emotions.
A pre-pandemic bedtime routine for my family involved taking turns sharing five things each person enjoyed the most from their day. Sometimes our child chooses instead to share the one thing she disliked most, which is fine too. It gives us a chance to communicate and problem-solve.
Reframe, routine, and ritual
I admit that in the early days of the pandemic, while concerned over the state of world affairs, I experienced a deep sense of excitement about the opportunity to spend much more time with my child.
With that in mind, as I explained the situation to her, I used what we call reframing. I let her know that while some negative things are happening in the world, we are very fortunate to be able to spend time together. When she worried about missing her friends and school, I acknowledged her feelings but also provided an alternative, positive frame. I explained to her that she will likely be attending school for years to come, so the next several weeks would be a unique time to spend together as a family. She began to make plans for what movies we could watch and what types of candy we would need.
Creating new routines that make sense and are enforceable can also help maintain order at home. This will enable everyone in the family to carve out free time and organise work hours, and will increase children’s sense of accomplishment.
As a family, take advantage of staying home to interact more. Play games, complete puzzles, read books, dance, take family hikes, and work on an art project together. Establish “family fun nights,” such as movie nights, cooking nights, game nights, and ice cream nights. Consider this time together as an opportunity to create family memories.
Adults can also practice self-care by staying connected to friends and colleagues, getting enough rest, and taking time for restorative activities (e.g., exercise, meditation, reading, prayer). Seeking help from a mental health provider is also important when adults struggle with very high levels of stress and other mental health challenges.
It’s important to remember that children’s well-being depends on the well-being of their parents or other caregivers. While homeschooling and working from home full-time is challenging, parents must also take care of themselves, so they have the emotional resources to care for their kids’ needs.
Paula Madrid is a clinical and forensic psychologist who specialises in trauma. She is an adjunct faculty at Columbia University’s National Centre for Disaster Preparedness.