COVID-19 has drastically changed virtually every aspect of life for families. With the number of new cases expected to continue rising daily, parents may find themselves in this situation for quite a while.
Many parents are suddenly having to work from home while homeschooling their children. Others are working in essential positions,juggling work outside the home with limited childcare options.
Parents of just one child may struggle with hectic schedules and pressing demands. Parents with many children may feel overwhelmed. Parents of kids with autism face even more challenges.
Maintaining the health of a family isn’t easy in the best of times. During a global pandemic, the work gets even tougher.
But it’s not impossible.
Finding Balance During a Pandemic
All around the world, families are carving out new routines and best practices to preserve mental and physical health. They’re coaching and teaching their kids from their dining room tables and kitchen counters. And they’re doing this work amid social distancing, so their smiling faces are the only ones a child will see in real time.
Families raising kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or another mental health condition are doing the same work, but with different demands. The lessons they’re learning are likely to persist with the education and wellness community long after the lockdowns pass from reality into memory.
If you feel unable to rise to the challenge, you’re not alone. Everyone feels overwhelmed these days, and some parents are feeling like they can’t manage this new load. But with some planning and self-care, you can find a path forward.
We’ve outlined a few best practices that could help you weather the storm together, as a family.
The Importance of Overall Wellness for Kids & Parents
Of all the households in the United States, 66% have at least one child, says the United States Census Bureau. Before COVID-19 came, your family likely spent a portion of each day apart. Kids went to school, parents went to work, and the group reunited at night.
Quarantines and social distancing changed all that. Now we’re all together, all the time.
This new environment of constant togetherness places unique stressors on everyone in the family.This means we need to prioritize mental health, connection, education, and safety even more.
Create Safe Mental Spaces
Experts say most kids and adolescents have good physical health. Aside from routine visits for vaccinations and growth checks, most kids don’t need regular assessments of physical health. But a child’s mental health can be tenuous during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Routines are changing, and kids may feel adrift without their teachers and classmates. Children may also pick up on parental anxiety and wonder what the future holds.
Signs of trouble can vary according to a child’s age, experts say. Young kids may seem clingy, or they may forget crucial lessons (like toilet training). Older kids might seem touchy or unbalanced.
You can’t make the coronavirus go away any faster, but you can take steps to preserve your child’s mental health. Try these tips:
- Talk about the virus. Chances are, your kids have heard quite a bit about coronavirus. Ask them to tell you what they know and how they feel. Clear up misconceptions when you can, and answer questions as honestly as possible. Focus on what you’re doing to keep the family safe, and keep the tone reassuring.
- Incorporate fitness into every day. Moving the body can ease stress and anxiety. The Nemours Foundation says school-age kids are accustomed to brief bouts of moderate or vigorous activity. Add in dance parties throughout the day, or hop on your bikes fora race around the block.
- Put kindness first. Tight quarters and an uncertain future can make anyone irritable. Give your child grace on days that seem especially challenging. Now isn’t the time to expect perfection from anyone.
Protect Your Own Health
Parents often put their kids first. But the coronavirus epidemic is incredibly challenging for adults, and many of us are struggling to handle the pressure.
Nearly one in five adults told the Pew Research Center that they’ve had at least some type of physical reaction when thinking about the outbreak. People with financial struggles feel the stress most acutely.
Care for yourself. You’ll feel stronger and more capable of leading your family, and chances are, you’ll feel better too. Try these solutions:
- Take a break. Knowledge can be powerful, but incessant news is also stressful. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends taking breaks from newspapers, websites, and social media site coverage of the pandemic. Read the news only when you feel calm.
- Prioritize your health. Build your day on a foundation of healthy eating, exercise, and rest. Don’t stay up until the wee hours reading about the pandemic and then use cup after cup of coffee to stay awake the next day. Make healthy choices.
- Relax your standards. Plenty of parents now have secondary teaching jobs. If the endless schedules and assignments worry you, take a cue from the homeschooling crowd. Find the lessons in everyday tasks, such as cooking, taking a nature walk, or journaling.
- Build flexibility into the schedule. Your family no longer needs to catch the bus or beat the commute. If your kids seem extra sleepy, use their added snooze time to catch up on work or walk on the treadmill. Work when your kids are sleeping, and you might find more time to get your self-care steps completed. Flexibility is your friend during this time.
- Learn together. Make a commitment to try a new craft or hobby, such as knitting or journaling. Show your child what you’re learning, and share your struggle. These conversations could inspire your child to model your study skills, experts say.
Safety During Coronavirus
It’s expected that the total number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. will exceed 100,000 in May. The risks are real for everyone, and as a parent, you play a vital role in keeping your child and your family safe.
Teach your child to:
- Wash their hands. Effective handwashing means wetting both hands, using plenty of soap, scrubbing all surfaces, rinsing with running water, and drying with a clean towel. A simple rinse and shake isn’t enough. Watch your child wash, and model proper technique. Children are often instructed to slowly count to 20 while they wash their hands, or to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice through.
- Clean up. Experts say the virus can live on inanimate objects for several hours, if not more than a day. Teach your child to use wipes to rub down high-touch surfaces like doorknobs, toys, phones, and tablets. If your child is too young for cleaning tasks, put this on your to-do list instead.
As tempting as it might be to invite friends and family over for a quick meal or small celebration, experts say this step just isn’t safe. Quarantines work, but only if families enforce them. Keep all visitors out, even if they don’t seem sick.
But quarantine doesn’t mean all socializing has to stop. Use scheduled Zoom or Facetime calls to connect to your child’s friends. Experts say a chat break that lasts 30 to 60 minutes could be ideal for a busy kid in the middle of an at-home school day.
If you must leave the house with your child, use a mask. Kids older than 2 can wear simple cloth masks that cover the nose and mouth in spaces where they can’t stay six feet from others. Your kid may not need a mask for a walk in the park, for example. But if the child needs to come with you to the store, a mask is required.
Special Resources for Special Families
Plenty of the information we’ve covered so far applies to families raising kids with ASD or another mental health issue. But modifications are critical for these families, and sometimes, advice that works for typical setups won’t work for them.
This added information could be just what your family needs during theCOVID-19 crisis.
Explain the Virus as Best You Can
All kids should know what COVID-19 is and how it works. But parents should tailor their messages based on the needs and abilities of their kids. Experts say anything you share with your child should be:
- Appropriate. Don’t give more detail than your child can handle. Older kids may be ready for information that the younger set can’t quite process.
- Tangible. Some people with autism spectrum disorder take in verbal information quite well. Others need photos or other aids to bring the data to life. Adjust your message to your child’s needs
- Plain. Don’t use complex language or euphemisms. Speak as clearly as you can, using the data you know.
Some kids with autism will find COVID-19 deeply frustrating, advocates explain. They’re accustomed to certainty and clarity. Since this virus is new and information is always changing, it can be hard to find the information people with ASD want to hear.
Talk through concerns as best you can, and be honest about what you know and what you don’t know. Remind your child that researchers all around the globe are working tirelessly to find out more and save lives. Return to this conversation as often as seems helpful.
Maintain Schedules if Possible
Neurotypical kids may perform well on a loosely written schedule with built-in flexibility. But kids with autism thrive on predictable routines they can control. Respect that preference.
Experts recommend creating a daily schedule with time set aside for:
- Waking and sleeping.
- Eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
- Making and eating snacks.
- Watching television.
- Household chores.
- Exercise breaks.
- Therapy sessions.
Make this schedule big and visually appealing. Put it somewhere your child can see it, and mark off each step with a sticker or some other visual cue as it’s completed. If your child struggles to move from one mode to another, use a timer to sound a two-minute warning before the next step starts.
Older kids face deep losses, including cancelations of field trips, graduation ceremonies, and parties. You can’t replace those dates when they pass by, but you can look for opportunities for future joy.
Experts recommend picking a date far in the future (like July 4th, 2021)in consultation with your child. Then, plan ahead for that big event. What will you eat? What will you do? Planning a far-off event gives the entire family something to look forward to, and it reminds your child that this current situation will end one day.
Preserve Your Team of Helpers
During COVID-19 quarantines, your house guest list shrinks to zero. But you’re not forced to work with your child all alone without the help of others.
Some doctors’ offices may have closed their doors, except for urgent needs, but telemedicine techniques bring health care to your home. The Center for Connected Health Policy says telemedicine policies have changed almost as rapidly as the virus. Now, plenty of health care providers are reimbursed by insurance providers for these visits just like office visits. That could lead to greater use of these tools.
Schedule regular telemedicine appointments to keep your child engaged in therapy. Lean on those visits for medical concerns too.
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy sessions can sometimes be done via video calls as well. Providers are also taking additional steps to ensure home visits are safe during this time.
Your child needs more than medical experts to stay healthy. Social isolation is a problem for those with autism, experts say, and positive social support is critical. Forge digital connections via text messages and video calls between your child and:
- Family members.
- Friends and teammates.
- Teachers and coaches.
Let them connect and chat, or encourage them to share in an activity, such as playing chess or finishing homework.
Reward Stress-Relief Strategies
Anyone can feel on edge about the coronavirus and the future. Now is an exceptional time to help your child learn critical self-soothing strategies. With you as a helpful coach, your child could pick up lessons that reverberate for years.
When your child seems upset or worried, try:
- Physical activity. Suggest a game of tag, or grab the sidewalk chalk and make a mural outside. Physical activity can pull a child out of the mind and into the body, and work done outside can be a mood lift too.
- Detective work. After a meltdown, hit the mental rewind button. Look for the moment that something went wrong, and talk that over with your child’s therapist. If you can, include your child in that conversation. Simply ask what happened, and your child might answer. Talk about how you might handle it next time.
- Mindfulness. Ask your child to focus on the breath moving in and out. Then, ask your child to slow down that breath. As a practice, mindfulness goes much deeper. But this simple technique can sometimes help a child work through a worrisome moment.
Looking to the Future After COVID-19
Children need to feel secure about the future, and this can be tough when the bad news seems to build every day. But parents can show their kids that there is so much to look forward to on the other side of this pandemic and so much to appreciate in everyday life.
Parents can emphasize the power of hope and recovery. Telling stories about what you as a family have overcome in the past can show kids what is possible when you join forces and persevere.
And remember that you’re not alone. There are resources available to help you, whether you are raising a neurotypical child or an autistic child. With support from your community, you can successfully guide your family through this incredibly unusual time into a healthier and happier future.
Models Project Sharp Rise in Deaths as States Reopen. (May 2020). The New York Times.
Order for Quarantine Under Section 361 of the Public Health Service Act, 42 Code of Federal Regulations Part 70 (Interstate), and Part 71 (Foreign). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2012. (August 2013). United States Census Bureau.
Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) and Mental Health for Children and Adolescents. (April 2020). JAMA Pediatrics.
Keeping Up Kids’ Mental Health During Coronavirus. (March 2020). National Geographic.
Talking to Kids About the Coronavirus. Child Mind Institute.
Fitness and Your 6- to 12-Year-Old. (June 2019). The Nemours Foundation
People Financially Affected by COVID-19 Outbreak Are Experiencing More Psychological Distress Than Others. (March 2020). Pew Research Center.
Stress and Coping. (April 2020). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Self-Care in the Time of Coronavirus. Child Mind Institute.
Distance Learning Isn’t Working. (April 2020). The Atlantic.
Teaching Kids at Home During Coronavirus: Pro Tips From Homeschoolers. (March 2020). Education Week.
The Role of Parents. (August 2012). Public Broadcasting Service.
COVID-19 Q&A: Safety for Kids. University of Maryland Children’s Hospital.
Coronavirus (COVID-19): Social Distancing With Children. (April 2020). The Nemours Foundation.
How to Keep Kids Learning When They’re Stuck at Home. (March 2020). Common Sense Media.
Cloth Face Coverings for Children During COVID-19. (March 2020). American Academy of Pediatrics.
How to Talk About COVID-19 With People Who Have Autism. (March 2020). National Public Radio.
COVID-19: How Does the Coronavirus Pandemic Affect Autistic People? (April 24). Patient.
Coronavirus (COVID-19): Helping Kids With Autism Cope. (April 2020). The Nemours Foundation.
Strategies to Support Teens and Young Adults With Autism Spectrum Disorder During COVID-19. (April 2020). Harvard Medical School.
COVID-19 Coverage Policies. (April 2020). Center for Connected Health Policy.
Foster Connections (From a Distance). Autism Focused Intervention Resources and Modules.
Tips for Calming Anxious Kids. Child Mind Institute.
How Anxiety Leads to Disruptive Behavior. Child Mind Institute.
The Power of Mindfulness. Child Mind Institute.