Experts Give Tips for Adult Caregivers but Say 'Don't Worry About Being the Perfect Parent'
By Matthew Hansen, Managing Editor
Howard Liu is making time to sit on the floor with his preschooler.
Dr. Liu, like most doctors, is terribly busy these days.
And Liu, like most adults, is feeling stressed, anxious, afraid. He’s worried about his 100-year-old grandmother stuck by herself in a nursing home. He’s worried about his employees. He’s worried about a global pandemic that seems to be ripped from the plot of a sci-fi thriller…except it’s real and killing worldwide.
Liu, a child psychiatrist, knows that since coronavirus terrifies adults, it can bewilder and terrify young children, too.
That’s why he sits on the floor with his preschooler. They play together. If he senses anxiety, he asks: “What’s scaring you?” And, without oversharing, he tries to shoot straight with his youngest child.
“It is OK to be honest,” says Liu, the chair of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s psychiatry department. “It’s OK to say, ‘Mommy and daddy are kind of worried right now. But we are going to do our best to make sure we’re safe. And here is what we are going to do as a family.’”
I spent a few days speaking with experts and asking these questions: What do young children need during these troubling times? What can we as adults offer them, even as our own lives are upended by the coronavirus crisis?
The answer, experts say, starts with adult caregivers taking care of themselves.
Give yourself grace during these trying months, when the world is scary and your family is spending the vast majority of time together at home. Liu did an informal Twitter poll of friends and colleagues and found that yes, parents are allowing children more screen time than usual. Right now, that’s OK.
Try to limit your own screen time, and intake of coronavirus stories, to maybe twice a day, he says. Try to set a daily routine for yourself, because that will help in setting a routine or rhythm for the family’s day. Try to shift your mindset from “sprint” to “marathon”—that mind shift will better prepare you for a crisis that could last months. Try to be honest with yourself, because honesty will help your kids.
“Children are very sensitive to hypocrisy,” Liu says. “You can’t just say, ‘Be brave’ while they can easily tell that you are scared.”
Children need to be physically safe right now. This means at home, socially distancing, along with the rest of the family, says Sam Meisels, founding executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute. Take your children out of child care if you can, he advises. He recommends all child care providers who aren’t working with the children of essential personnel, like health care workers, to close if possible.
Young children can be sickened and killed by coronavirus, though it generally appears to affect them less than adults. And, even if young children show no symptoms, they can carry the virus and infect others.
“Don’t forget, children interact with other children and their providers at child care, and then they interact with their parents or grandparents, and eventually with the broader community,” Meisels says. “It’s potentially spreading the disease widely.”
Another terrifying thing about our current moment: Child abuse and domestic violence tend to spike during crises, says Gene Klein, executive direct of Project Harmony, the Omaha child abuse prevention nonprofit. The closure of schools, while proper, has taken away the No. 1 spot where abuse is reported. And care for children for an indefinite period at home, maybe after one or both parents have been laid off, can introduce massive stress into a family.
What can we as a community do to make these problems less likely?
Stay vigilant and connected if you sense a high stress level in an at-risk relative or friend’s home.
“What we want everyone to do is reach out,” Klein says. “If you know kids who are vulnerable, if you think the risk is higher…reach out, to that family and to anyone who can help.”
In addition to being as safe as possible, children need to feel as safe as possible, experts say.
What does emotional safety look like?
Use a warm, gentle, and caring tone as much as possible around young children while making eye contact with them, experts say.
Kind and supportive interactions with adults are a must for kids during trying times, suggests Kate Gallagher, the Buffett Institute’s director of research and evaluation. Concentrate on the basics right now, like one-on-one interaction. Everything else is gravy.
With young children, “hold them and talk sweetly to them and read stories to them,” Gallagher says. “That one-on-one interaction is important and does tend to decrease in the context of stress.”
For older kids, listen to what they need, try to help them through their loneliness for their friends and teachers, and support them when they are fearful.
Fulfill your child’s basic physical and emotional safety needs. Then, and only then, should you layer on some structure and education if possible.
Extend your child’s education by using language that helps them find new ways of describing and mastering their environment, be that in your living room, your backyard, or a park.
Build a routine or a rhythm to each day, so that children have structure to rely on. Try to create some balance: Exercise, outside time, quiet or alone time, one-on-one time, etc. Within that structure, let your children structure their own time.
For young children, find materials at home, like what’s in your recycling pile, and let them use them to create and pretend. For older kids: Suggest new books, help them learn a new skill from YouTube, and invite them to take responsibility for cooking and serving a special family dinner.
But again: Do the basics first.
“Don’t worry about being the perfect parent right now,” Gallagher says. “Just be present for your child.”
Remember, experts say: Young children take their cues from adults by what they read on adult faces. They feel stressed when their caregiver looks stressed, and when anxious adult faces confuse them.
Young children do not need to understand the global pandemic, Liu says. They do need to understand what’s happening with their friends, their teachers, their family unit.
Liu’s philosophy as a child psychiatrist is to tell children, in plain language, what he knows and what he doesn’t.
He asks many questions, while sitting on the floor and letting the child use play to help her communicate her feelings.
And he makes time for follow-up questions. This isn’t a one-and-done talk, he says. This is a rolling conversation that will continue until the coronavirus crisis has ended.
“That processing time is key, and parents get that,” he says. “Right now, if you are a parent, you are simply doing your best. All you can try to do right now is do your best.”
Matthew Hansen, the managing editor of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, is an award-winning journalist tasked with telling the stories of the Institute's work and early childhood care and education in Nebraska and beyond.
His columns can be read at https://buffettinstitute.nebraska.edu/news-and-events/early-years-matter.