Coronavirus parenting: Protecting your children during the pandemic

by Diana Hembree

Shortly after the flood in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, local residents risked their lives launching small boats into dangerous and unpredictable waters to rescue people stranded on top of their roofs. This ad hoc group, which included many skilled Cajun boat pilots, became known as the Cajun Navy, a volunteer group whose members have since saved thousands of people in other disasters, including Hurricanes Florence, Harvey, Irma and Michael.

Being from the South, I was especially gratified to see the photos of the Cajun Navy pulling people into their small boats, embracing survivors as some cried with joy and relief. What’s so dispiriting about the current disaster is that unless we are healthcare workers, almost the only way we can help people outside our home is by staying away from them. 

It’s hard and frustrating, especially since this isolation threatens the bonds that make us feel safe. “We’re all experiencing disruptions to some of the most important communities and relationships in our lives – friends, classrooms, teachers, teams, coaches, churches, extended families – the people we trust the most,” writes Pamela Cantor, MD, and Kate Felsen of Turnaround for Children.

On top of the pandemic, we are raging and grieving the horrifying death of George Floyd, who died telling a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck, “I can’t breathe.” The protests taking place in every state in the country are a reminder that racism kills.

Like COVID-19, racism is a public health crisis, one more deeply embedded in our country than any virus. As Harvard epidemiologist Maimuna Majumder points out in Vox, “The same broad-sweeping structural racism that enables police brutality against Black Americans is also responsible for higher mortality among Black Americans with COVID-19 … We can’t compare these two tragedies directly – but they both are public health crises that are operating at immense scales.”

You know best how to talk with your children about racism and the toxic notion of white supremacy, but if you are feeling at a loss, the Washington Post’s “How Black and White Families Are Talking About Racism in a Time of Reckoning” offers some counsel.

To inoculate our homes and families against “the intolerable stress of the scary, uncertain world we now live in,” the authors suggest that we parents focus on the Three Rs: relationships, routines and resilience.

Strengthening your relationship with your children may help calm their stress response (and yours). This is in part because expressing love for your kids will activate oxytocin, the so-called love and trust hormone. Healthy relationships are one of the seven domains of wellness that we often talk about in this column, which explores parenting and Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, such as neglect or the loss of a parent. 

Research shows that positive childhood experiences (PCEs) and strong, caring relationships with an adult, sibling or friend help protect children against the impact of ACEs, as do the other six domains of wellness: exercise, sleep, nutrition, good mental health, mindfulness and nature. 

Seven domains of wellness that help protect against COVID stress

Disruptions in your children’s life from COVID threaten their sense of security and well-being. Here are some ways to help them build resilience during the coronavirus crisis. 

Healthy relationships: California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris has said the COVID-19 pandemic is a “perfect storm” that could cause trauma and undermine kids’ physical health and behavior. However, she says, parents can turn this into an opportunity for growth and teaching. 

Some children may actually prefer being at home for a while, especially if they were bullied at school or struggling academically. Cantor suggests that as you and the kids “shelter in place,” create a daily schedule with time for healthy meals, play, schoolwork, movement, writing in a journal and hanging out together as a family: These routines will help create a sense of security and belonging. Celebrate achievements in a chart or scrapbook, and call far-away friends or relatives with your kids. As Cantor notes, “Helping others promotes the release of neurochemicals that boost the immune system.”

Exercise and play. If you’re cooped up in a small apartment, this may entail jumping rope, exercises or joining in dance or yoga workouts on YouTube. If you’re able to get out, put on masks and go for a daily walk in the local or regional park. Try to help the kids get at least an hour of exercise a day: It’s the closest thing to a magic bullet for staying healthy. 

For kids, regular workouts can reduce stress hormones, improve behavior and concentration during schoolwork and strengthen the immune system. Physical activity also promotes nerve growth in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory and thinking. And make it fun: Whether you’re playing tag or tossing a ball, playing together creates its own magic.

Nutrition. If you’re at home, this is a perfect time to plan meals together and even get your kids to help cook. Try to cover half the plate with colorful fruits or vegetables, including salad, beans or vegetable soup; produce is full of vitamins and antioxidants that are protective against all sorts of diseases; you can also try sprinkling frozen blueberries on cereal (some scientists have dubbed blueberries “brain berries,” because research suggests they are so good for the brain). 

Try making some old family recipes or check out new ones online. Baking bread can be big fun – little ones get to pound the yeasty dough – or turn your old bananas into banana bread. Biscuits and cornbread are even faster to whip together – try this recipe for cornbread from BudgetBytes, which comes out to only 19 cents a slice:

  • 1 cup yellow cornmeal 
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour 
  • 1/4 cup sugar 
  • 4 tsp baking powder 
  • 1/2 tsp salt 
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 large egg 
  • 1/4 cup cooking oil 

Just coat a cast iron skillet or glass pie plate with butter, stir the ingredients together until moist, and bake in a 425-degree oven for 20 minutes. Delicious!

Unless family meals themselves would be traumatizing, eating together as a family is one of the best ways to stay connected. Kids who eat five or more meals a week with their families tend to be happier and less stressed and do better at school, according to recent studies. They’re also less likely to smoke, develop eating disorders, substance abuse and obesity.

Sleep. It’s tempting to let kids stay up later since they don’t have to get up as early to go to school during the pandemic, but it’s good to stick to your bedtime routine. For little ones, this could involve a bath, a bedtime story or reading aloud, singing them a song, and hugs before the light’s out. 

Like family dinners, this can provide an important ritual to help kids feel connected and secure. Young kids need up to 10 hours of sleep to wake up refreshed, so if they wake up at dawn, try some darker “front” curtains you can pull back during the day. 

Teens also need between eight and 10 hours of sleep – without it they’re at higher risk for aggression, accidents and doing worse in schoolwork – so give them a “lights out and screens off” deadline. Some kids may actually appreciate a deadline, since it gives them an excuse to log off social media when they’re tired.

If you’re stressed about money, jobs and the future and have yelled at your kids, be aware that this is probably happening in households all over the world.

Good mental health. Mood and anxiety disorders among children appear to be on the rise during COVID. Children who continually ask, “Are we going to be okay? Is grandpa going to be okay?” may need extra reassurance, according to the Child Mind Institute. 

Kids may also be more moody, have trouble sleeping, and have more tantrums or meltdowns. Be matter of fact and reassuring – let them know that this crisis will eventually pass. The Child Mind Institute has a lot of free resources to help on https://www.facebook.com/ChildMindInstitute/.

Encourage your older children to help the younger ones with their homework and to do some chores (even little ones can help with dusting or watering plants). Teens may protest doing chores, but they will secretly like the responsibility and the feeling of being needed. Be sure to give them support for the chores they do, and don’t worry if you have to (gently) remind them to do their work: They’ll eventually get used to it. 

Mindfulness. If you’re stressed about money, jobs and the future and have yelled at your kids, be aware that this is probably happening in households all over the world. Wait to apologize until everyone has calmed down, says Michelle Kaplan, LCSW, a clinical social worker at the Child Mind Institute. 

Then, she advises, “Be honest with your kids and tell them if you’re tired, hungry, struggling or overwhelmed. Apologize for your bad language and let them know you will work hard to do better. You can even involve your kids in some problem-solving about what can be done differently next time.” 

You may want to teach your kids and yourself some breathing exercises that you can do when you find yourself getting stressed, such as breathing in through the mouth and then exhaling slowly through the lips. 

Nature. Getting out in nature can help relieve stress and encourage social bonds and exercise, according to UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco, which adds that this can also help ease depression, anxiety and isolation. Many states are letting people get out and walk (six feet apart) in state, county and city parks. 

If you have a backyard, you might try planting a garden with the kids, or even creating a windowsill or kitchen table garden. Get outside as much as you safely can.

Resources

COVID-19 resources for the San Francisco Bayview community, Center for Youth Wellness. https://centerforyouthwellness.org/covid19-local-resources/

Toolkit for Caregivers During COVID: The Domains of Wellness. https://centerforyouthwellness.org/wp- COVID: Domains content/uploads/2020/04/CYW_COVID19_Toolkit_FINAL_English.pdf 

Kit de herramientas de los dominios de bienestar para cuidadores (espanol): https://centerforyouthwellness.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/CYW_COVID19_Toolkit_FINAL_Spanish.pdf

References

Benefits of the Family Dinner. (2014, May). American College of Pediatricians position statement. Retrieved from https://acpeds.org/position-statements/the-benefits-of-the-family-table

Coronavirus Parenting: Managing Anger and Frustration. Child Mind Institute. https://childmind.org/article/coronavirus-parenting-managing-anger-and-frustration/

Kondo MC, South EC & Branas CC. Nature-Based Strategies for Improving Urban Health and Safety. J Urban Health, 2015; 95:800.

Diana Hembree is a science writer for the Center for Youth Wellness. She is an award-winning journalist who has worked at Time Inc., the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Energy Bioscience Institute and has written or edited for Forbes, HealthDay, the Washington Post, PBS Frontline, Vibe and many other places. She can be reached at stresshealthnow@centerforyouthwellness.org.