Simple Strategies for Parents During COVID-19
Ways to help your child cope during a pandemic.
Posted April 3, 2020
Right now, many families are in a difficult situation with children at home and parents still having to work. Some don’t have health insurance or have a family member working in the field.
Some readers may feel they are competing for “worst parent” due to extensive dependence on screen time, more arguments, and difficulty attending to their children right now. Aside from the stressors of everyone being cooped up and children at home, the rapidly developing news about the pandemic can be troubling and stressful for parents and for kids alike.
How does all this affect children and, especially, children with ADHD? No doubt some of my readers would have quite a bit of insight to offer! The situations readers are dealing with are no doubt highly diverse. All I can offer are general guidelines. These rely on what psychologists have learned from prior public crises (e.g., the 9/11 attacks, earthquakes, and some others). I thank my colleague Linda Schmidt, M.D., for helpful insights.
We are seeing increasing depression, anxiety disorders, and suicide attempts, including among youth. Everyone is prone to being more aggressive/moody/irritable, or more anxious, worried, depressed, during high-stress times. What can you do?
- Take the disease seriously without being alarmed. While the virus is way more contagious and dangerous than the flu, most people recover (and most won’t get sick). Child deaths are very rare, but children are not immune. Beware of scams and follow CDC advice.
- Keep prescription and over the counter medications in a locked medication bag (easily found online) if you have a moody or depressed teen.
- Do your best to manage your own stress. Reach out to friends, take a short break if a family interaction turns heated, limit news and internet searches, exercise, sleep.
- Recognize what you can and can’t control. You can’t stop the pandemic, but you can take appropriate precautions and love your kids.
- If you need help, mental health services are more available than ever. Telehealth service has increased dramatically. You can get counseling support. So reach out if you need it for yourself or your child. Pharmacies are staying open.
It’s important to have a line of communication with your children but at their level, depending on their age.
- For young children (7 years or under), try fantasy and play to process information. I like this free, downloadable book by Manuela Molina, a psychologist in Colombia.
- Reach out to see what they are thinking, feeling, hearing, believing. Listen.
- Children with ADHD can be especially sensitive to (and reactive to) what is going on around them. We know they are more easily traumatized by upsetting events. If they are acting out more, it may be due to their own stress or perceiving your stress. Don’t take it too personally. In addition to gentle correction, they may need extra support.
- You may need to “lend” them some of your coping skills:
Redirect attention: “Let’s turn off the news and play a game/watch a movie.”
Validate: “Your worry is normal and understandable. This is a hard time.”
Reassure: “Most people aren’t going to get sick; we know how to stay safe.” “Remember when our family had a big problem awhile back? We got through it, right? We will this time, too.”
- Answer questions honestly, including “I don’t know.”
- Keep some structure and routine. Give your kids a general schedule. Mealtimes. Study time. Rest time.
- Remind yourself and them that this too will pass.
Yes, excessive or improper media exposure hurts children’s development. One, it crowds out key experiences like social interactions, language learning, and physical activity. These are even more important for kids with ADHD to keep their emotional balance. Two, violent TV or gaming content stimulates more aggressive and inappropriate behavior for some children—including many children with ADHD, who can be socially impressionable. Yet extra media time may be unavoidable at present. Suggestions:
- Do your best to monitor content. Try to prevent exposure to violent content (a problem even in cartoons). Minimize children’s unsupervised exposure to the news channels during this crisis. Children have a very hard time putting such programs into context and can become very anxious or confused without parent supervision. Try for pre-selected content and minimize channel surfing and internet surfing if you can.
- Educational programs and games can be beneficial. Consider splurging on a new one.
- For toddlers and infants, the general rule is to avoid screen time. Under current duress, you may not have that luxury. Try to keep away from mainstream or streaming media and use pre-selected positive or educational material.
- Social media can be beneficial for social support—if your child has learned or been guided on how to manage it. Research shows that unregulated social media time can be detrimental to child mood and irritability, especially if they are not actively managing what they are interacting with—especially for teens.
- Take heart. Short term over-exposure is not so harmful compared to chronic year-by-year exposure, especially if you can monitor negative content per above. And media risks are counter-balanced by the other good things in your child’s life.
Overall, the most important things in a crisis are the same as always: give you children sensible structure and rules, plenty of love, and support their coping ability. The main change is to be alert to their own difficulty coping and their need for more than usual support, and this goes extra for kids with ADHD who have trouble coping anyway.
Stay healthy, stay in if you can, keep calm, and love your children even more right now.
Please note: Dr. Nigg cannot advise on individual cases for ethical, legal, and logistical reasons.