It is understandable that many children and adults are experiencing higher levels of anger, frustration, anxiety and sadness during this time. If it seems it takes less for you to become upset or to upset your child, it probably does. Many families have been quarantining for months and made it through online school just to try to figure out summer plans and keep children safe and productively occupied while managing work, health concerns, persistent financial loss or mental health challenges. In addition, social injustices and racism are a painful experience for many individuals with profound effects on functioning and this reality is becoming clearer to more people and more openly talked about and addressed in protests and social media. People are hurting, uncertainty remains, and there is a considerable emotional toll generally. It is no wonder that it might be harder for children or parents to stay calm and manage strong emotions.
So how do you help your child stay regulated and constructively express his or her emotions during this time?
1) CALM YOURSELF FIRST
Focus on regulating yourself FIRST. Parents model how to express feelings and react under distress. Children are always watching. They are far more likely to do what you do than what you say.
Take responsibility for monitoring and regulating your own emotions. Emotions are contagious. People naturally match the pace and emotional tone of others. Choose to calm down before interacting with an upset child.
Try to stay calm when emotions are escalating. This is difficult and takes practice. You are consciously slowing down, to help your child de-escalate. Do a body scan for tension. Notice your heart rate and muscle tightness.
Breathe. Stretch. Take a few minutes to calm yourself. Practice slow, deep breathing (in through the nose and out through the mouth, with a longer exhale). This is scientifically proven method to calm and reduce the fight-flight-freeze response.
This is particularly important when your child or teen is upset or behaving in a way that is challenging. (See www.parentsupportduringcovid19.com for parent handouts of research supported relaxation strategies: diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery).
Relax your face, body, and tone. It is impossible to feel angry and relaxed at the same time. If your child is anxious, relaxing your face and body will help him or her relax. This takes a lot of self-awareness; you can affect your child’s emotions and response.
Work to actually relax your body, not just be quiet or emotionally detach.
Ask yourself: Am I tired? Hungry? Thirsty? Is this an emergency?
The goal is to stay close and calm and say very little. Once a child becomes very upset (emotionally dysregulated) teaching and trying to reason will not work. The fight or flight response has kicked in.
Limit what you say if your child is already yelling, crying, melting down or having a tantrum. Don’t try to convince your child, negotiate, or make him or her use a calming strategy. Do make sure child is safe.
Try to take his or her perspective with compassion. Remember your child is not trying to make you mad; he or she is overwhelmed and lacks the skills to manage strong emotions.
If you are becoming too upset, gently say you need to walk away and will return. Speak slowly. Ground yourself (5-4-3-2-1 5 Senses exercise*) and try to remain present. You can provide reassurance of your love and say you're there to comfort when ready.
2) TEACH AND PRACTICE RELAXATION & RE-SETTING techniques with your child
Emotion regulation is a skill that needs practice. Practice relaxation strategies DAILY when already calm.
Help children manage their stress response with activities that help build self- regulation (breathing, exercise, mindfulness). See handouts on www.parentsupportduringcovid19.com for information about specific breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation tools, mindfulness activities, and guided imagery.
Try out different options and practice a variety of calming techniques to know what works best (but include breathing-slow deep breathing is always a first go-to). These must be practiced often and when calm. Set aside time. Do it together. Make it fun.
Getting active is also important. In addition to daily 30 minutes of exercise for overall stress reduction, there are quick active techniques that children can learn to expressive strong negative feelings: wall pushups, jumping jacks, time on a scooter or bike, stress press, tight self-hugs. Patterned, repetitive rhythmic activity: walking, running, dancing, singing, repetitive meditative breathing – helps regulate (See Dr Bruce Perry’s work). (See also The kids guide to staying awesome and in control: simple stuff to help children regulate their emotions and senses for more tools and activities https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20978895-the-kids-guide-to-staying-awesome-and-in-control )
3) PROBLEM SOLVE AND DISCUSS BEHAVIOR CHOICES
At a later time, when everyone is truly calm talk, about what happened. Discuss other possible choices to make when angry or frustrated. Use a calm and non-critical tone. Figure out why your child became upset to try to identify underlying feelings.
Discuss or review family rules and safe options: it is ok to feel angry/frustrated/anxious but NO hurting yourself, hurting someone else or destroying property.
Emphasize that we all have a choice in our action or behavior. Talk through consequences and come up with a plan. Practice or role play plan when calm.
Share examples of how you managed your reactions when you became frustrated/stressed/angry. Share consequences if you did not make a good choice and identify the other options you could have made.
Encourage Helpful Thoughts and Self-Talk. Write out calming statements. Practice and post statements (“I can handle this”, “I can take a breath”).
4) FINALLY, REFLECT & RECONNECT
Once you and your child are calm positively connect. PRIORITIZE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR CHILD.
Notice, identify, accept, and allow feelings.
Listen and let your child express emotions. Acknowledge and validate feelings. This helps you connect and shows understanding.
Describe face and body cues. This helps to bring awareness of sensations (how his or her body feels) when experiencing different emotions. Noticing sensations and identifying early warning signs is essential (before escalation is the only time you can effectively help children use calming skills).
Label your own emotions and say how you are feeling. This builds self-awareness. Talking about feelings generally builds an emotional vocabulary and increases an understanding about one’s own feelings and those of others. Observe and comment on your child’s emotional state (“you look calm”, “you look like you are starting to get frustrated”).
Helping everyone in the family manage reactions and develop better emotion regulation skills is enhanced by having compassion for each other, creating predictable routines, building connection, focusing on relationships, practicing relaxation skills, and learning how to actively re-set. Keep expectations reasonable and appropriate. Make sure there are no unmet needs for you or your child (hungry, tired, sick). Use humor to diffuse tense situations when possible.
Please reach out if you are having difficulty and want support for yourself or your child during this time.
Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids Workbook by Dr Laura Markham (2018) https://www.amazon.com/%20Peaceful-Parent-Happy-Kids-Connecting/dp/0399160280
With all the events going on in our country recently, you may be wondering how to talk to your children about it. Some parents may be wondering at what age I should talk to my children about race. Some may be unsure of how much to share with their children. And others may not know what to say or how to start the conversation. No matter what your concerns or hesitation is with talking to your children, the fact of the matter is that it’s very important and crucial to talk to them about it. If not, then your children will learn about it through their peers and community and they may get very inaccurate information. To help you out, I’ve put together a few tips on how to teach and discuss race and racism with children.
This whole pandemic is difficult for anyone of any age to comprehend, but children may really struggle to understand what is happening and what may change moving forward. Adults may process through reading the news, talking to their friends, family or partners, making preparations, through helping others, etc... Children, especially younger children, do not process events in the same ways as adults. Most children process through play. For young children, the play may be with dolls or legos. For older children, the play may be with video games, physical activity or goofing off with peers. Through play, children make sense of the world and learn how to regulate their emotions, thus decreasing anxiety and increasing self confidence.
If we give children the time and space to play freely, they will find ways to process and accept the current situation. Younger children may put masks on their legos and play out a trip to the doctor or play “virus”. Older children may want to draw something goofy on a mask and walk around the house making jokes. Whatever their play is, it is helping them to make sense, to accept and to take steps forward.
Of course, there are times when limits need to be set during free play, especially around safety. The key to limit setting while allowing the child to express themselves freely during free play is to set limits only when they are needed. For example, a child may need to confine the imaginary character to the corner for two months (to process and make sense of how the child has been stuck at home for two months). If the imaginary character is their little sister, you may need to say, “I know you want her to be stuck there for two months. Little Sister is not for locking up. You may lock up this doll or this lego character instead”. Acknowledge the child’s needs in play, set the limit, and provide an alternative.
One of the best things parents can do is to follow the child’s lead in play. If the child wants to play “COVID Tag”, let them. You can be there to guide them if invited and answer their questions, but do not stop their process of figuring things out through play. And the best of the best things parents can do, is join in and enter the child’s world! There is no place more beautiful than inside the mind of a child.
If you have concerns about your child’s play, reach out to a mental health professional. Tara Motzenbecker, Licensed School Psychologist, is providing telehealth services for the state of Florida and is available for consultations and therapeutic services. (941) 357-4090 www.ChildTherapySRQ.com
Everyone knows that getting enough sleep is very important for kids' health and well-being. However, it can be difficult to get kids to go to sleep when needed. Below are different ways to help create good sleeping habits for your kids.
It’s important to make sure you are consistent with following the sleep hygiene tips. It may take some time for you and your child to get used to the new routine. Don’t give up if it takes a while but just stick with it. You will start to see results.
Supporting the Emotional Well-being of Children and Teens during the COVID-19 Pandemic by Kirsten Ellingsen, PhD
Daily life has changed. Children and teens have been asked to adjust to new demands of distance learning. They have experienced a loss of social interactions and participation in extracurricular activities. Expected celebrations for birthdays, holidays, graduations, and academic accomplishments have changed.
In addition to managing disappointment and missing friends or extended family, many children and teens have also experienced increased worry, stress, and anxiety. The possible negative consequences of extended quarantine are more severe for children living in homes with food insufficiency, threat of violence, or separation and loss of a loved one. While research has found that children have lower physical risk with the COVID-19 outbreak, they can be more vulnerable than adults to the emotional impact of traumatic events.
The most important buffer of stress and trauma is a consistent, sensitive relationship with a parent or caregiver. Prioritize strengthening your relationship with your teen or child during this time. Children need to feel connected to feel safe. When children feel disconnected they do not feel safe, they also have a harder time learning and staying emotionally regulated. Some moments will be hard, some days may not feel or be very productive. Be kind to yourself. Keep the big picture in mind and focus on helping your child or teen feel safe, loved and understood.
Suggestions and Recommendations
Parent Self-care and Support: Self-care is essential to be able to support your child’s emotional well-being. Sleep, exercise, and good nutrition, as well as limiting triggering news, caffeine, and alcohol are essential. Taking deliberate moments to relax and be mindful are also important and help model effective coping strategies.
Reassure and Establish Predictable (but flexible) Routines: Reassure children about their safety and safety of family. Have routines to increase predictability and feelings of safety. Validate feelings and encourage engagement in activities that help self-regulate (exercise, mindfulness, relaxation, music). Help children and teens stay active and have downtime.
Time with Teens: Spending time with teens watching shows or movies and sharing meals is great, but try to add one-on-one activities that do not involve screens. Puzzles, art projects, music, taking a walk together, or cooking allows time to talk and provides an opportunity to check in with your teens. Validate feelings. Listen. Take your teens perspective. Encourage social connection with friends. Monitor online safety. Show patience and compassion when they react strongly. Try to create positive experiences during this time. Plan fun things to look forward to together. Acknowledge milestones and come up with creative ways to celebrate.
Play and Delight in your child: Children (even infants and toddlers) feel parent stress and are affected by the emotional environment. Taking time to enjoy and play with your child will help buffer this and promote a strong positive relationship. Aim for warm, sensitive, responsive interactions. *For young children see Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child for resources including: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/5-steps-for-brain-building-serve-and-return/).
Special Time with Each Child Daily: Add special play time to connect. Set aside 5-10 minutes each day. Have a designated time. One child at a time and give full focus and attention. This is deliberate PLAY that is child-directed, without negative talk, criticism, correcting, questioning or direct “teaching”. Bonus: children want your attention and spending intentional time in positive activities together will reduce trying to get your attention with negative behaviors. See more at: https://www.cdc.gov/parents/essentials/communication/specialplaytime.html
Laughing is an excellent stress reliever. For recommendations about funny and ridiculous movies to watch with children and teens see: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/lists/best-family-movie-laughs)
Regulate: Right now, it might be harder for you and your child or teen to manage reactions and emotions. While children and teens may respond to quarantine differently, expect changes in behavior and emotionality. You and your children/teens may have more tantrums (yelling), sleep disturbance, irritability, aggression, forgetfulness, crying, or withdraw.
Calm yourself first when children are upset to be able to respond compassionately and calmly. When our children are upset, we can easily become upset as well and vice versa. Children need connection during this time. Avoid physical punishment, this can increase aggression in children over time, does not teach a child how to behave, and hurts your relationship.
Stay calm when emotions are escalating. Do a body scan for tension and practice calming strategies. Work to actually relax your body, slow your breathing, and calm yourself (not detach). Learning how to regulate your own emotions first and showing children you are working to be calm will allow for connection. Choose to calm down. See relaxation handouts at https://parentsupportduringcovid19.com. Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids Workbook by Dr Laura Markham (2018) is also a good parenting resource to help and uses mindfulness and connection
In addition, the Child Trends website outlines several recommendations to support and protect children’s emotional well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic at https://www.childtrends.org/publications/resources-for-supporting-childrens-emotional-well-being-during-the-covid-19-pandemic.
If you are struggling, we are here to support you and your children or help connect you to the right support and resources you need. Please reach out and seek support if you are having a hard time managing anger or anxiety, if you are feeling overwhelmed or having a hard time coping and parenting during this time.
Effective discipline is a big topic especially when what we do varies greatly depending on the age of the child and the situation. This blog will offer some general behavior principles as well as some practical discipline strategies.
When it comes to discipline, especially right now you have to do what is right for you. It’s okay if the kids don’t get every lesson done for school or you don’t take advantage of every on line educational enhancement opportunity out there. It’s okay to make the decisions that are right for you, not what your friends are doing, not what you are seeing on Instagram or Facebook. Only you know how this is impacting you and your family, and what you are balancing right now.
Maybe this is a great opportunity with everyone home to implement some structure that you have been wanting to but did not have the time to implement before, or maybe you are just struggling to make it through each day and all the normal rules have gone out the window and now is not the time to make big changes.
Be kind and patient with yourself and remember that we are all doing the best we can.
Discipline is like a house
We need a strong foundation to build on. That foundation is parent self-care and positive reinforcement our children. If we think about building a house Positive reinforcement is the foundation, and elements of discipline are the walls that cannot stand up without a strong even foundation. The roof that ties the whole thing together and keeps everyone safe is predictability and consistency.
I want to start by emphasizing that it's important to look for opportunities to take care of yourself right now too. Put your own oxygen mask on first so that you can help your family. Try to get creative with how you can do self-care right now. Carving out time for yourself or time with others doing the things you enjoy that ground you or energize you will allow your best parenting to come forward. Any discipline we do is going to be more effective when we are calm and centered.
We all like to get positive feedback. Positive reinforcement throughout the day for what kids are doing well is going to be key to any discipline system you incorporate into your home.
Kids and Stress
Kids are picking up on our stress levels right now and being affected. There are different reasons why children may misbehave more right now.
For behaviors we want children to do more of we want to catch every time they do it without prompting (catch them being good), we may also want to figure out a way to motivate them to do it more. We can incentivize it with small rewards and use behavior charts to track their progress. There are a ton of behavior charts available at www.freeprintablebehaviorcharts.com or you can make your own!
Rewards don’t have to be something you buy it can be time doing something together or extra time earned doing something your child enjoys. Sometimes that means not giving open access to highly valued activities such as screen time. If open access to screens is the only way you’re getting work done and getting through your day then maybe you won’t choose to limit screen time right now. Again you have to make decisions that will be right for you and your family under current circumstances.
Rewards do need to be something that is motivating to the child, and that may change and be a bit of a moving target. Some pitfalls with behavior charts can be that the rewards have lost their value because our children’s interests have changed, menu of rewards. Or we may have set the bar too high. We want them to experience success right away and have the goal low enough to be attainable. Once they experience success and are motivated we can make that target gradually more difficult.
For those of you that give your kids allowance you can work allowance into an incentive system. Busykid is a chores app that allows you to give real money to your children. It also allows them to use that money for saving, donating, investing or spending so that they can start to learn financial skills and think about charity.
Sometimes life gives kids natural consequences. One of their toys gets stepped on and breaks because they did not pick it up off the floor. They bonk their head when rough-housing with a sibling. Those natural consequences of the toy breaking or that head bump may be enough consequence in and of itself for them to learn to self-correct their behavior and we may not need any added consequence.
Setting the stage for consequences with clear directions
If we are ready to give a consequence we want to be sure that we are giving a consequence because a child has chosen not to obey and not because they did not understand our expectations. When we need something done and are willing to give a consequence if it is NOT done we want to start with giving a really good direction. PCIT gives us some great guidelines for making sure that you are giving an effective direction that we can remember using the acronym BE DIRECT.
One of the Master Trainers for PCIT (Dr. Cheryl McNeil) explains taking on discipline in the moment like challenging your child to a duel. So decide before give that direction if you are ready to fight that battle and see it through to the end. It is not helpful for anyone if we make threats that we cannot or will not end up following through on. We want to set limits only when we can and will follow through so we don’t undermine ourselves. We want to Save these clear effective directions for when you are ready to draw that sword and follow through. Otherwise do it for them, teach them how, give them choices, or ask them to help you by doing it and be okay if they decline your invitation. You can also consider contingencies. By contingencies I mean making what your children want to do contingent upon first doing what you need them to do. The important thing here is to be willing and able to withhold what they want the whole day if they don’t do what you need (put dishes in sink), which may not be realistic right now.
Expect that anything new you try to implement may be met with resistance. It will be less frustrating for you expect your kids to challenge it. Kids thrive under structure but that doesn’t mean they will invite it. If you draw your sword be ready to expect your child to follow your direction and be willing to deliver a consequence if they don’t.
There are a lot of parents who have reservations about time-out. Time-out means time-out from positive reinforcement so there still needs to be positive time and attention outside of discipline. It is giving a child a brief break you’re your attention will be returned quickly upon completion of their consequence. Time-out should be given in a very neutral not punitive way, and the child should be given a chance to know that the consequence is coming. We give a direction and wait quietly to give the child a few seconds to follow it, but if not followed repeat the direction so they can hear it again along with a calm warning that there will be a time-out. With little ones if they leave the chair we can bring them back calmly. We use 3 minute time-outs regardless of age.
As children get older somewhere around 8-10 and are too big to carry back to time-out we can still use time-out, but if they will not complete their time-out we can suspend privileges until they complete their time-out and follow the direction.
Somewhere in that upper elementary age range we will transition away from time-out to privilege loss. Pure privilege loss looks like taking one specific privilege away for not following directions. Again we want the child to hear our direction twice and have that warning with it the second time so that they know the consequence is coming. That privilege is lost for the day and cannot be earned back. A second privilege can be lost for a second direction not being followed. And if gets to the point of their being a third direction not followed then the child would be on total shut down for the day with nothing fun allowed. If they follow the 3rd direction they can get off total shut down but never earn back first 2 privileges. It’s important to keep the consequence to one day so that the child can have a fresh start the next day. When we get into taking things away for extended periods of time we are less likely to be able to stick with it ourselves and children adapt and learn to care less about whatever has been taken away and find other engaging things to involve themselves with. It risks keeping negativity going in the relationship for extended periods of time when really want them to have a chance at a fresh start the next day to try to do things better.
For having more control over screen time and electronics a lot of families use an app called Circle that allows them to control the devices in their home. You can also change passwords on electronics so that a parent needs to enter the password and kids don’t have open access all the time. Be realistic with yourself and what you are capable of implementing right now. Is the privilege that you want to take away something you are able to take away? Willing to?
Consistency and Predictability
The key to any structure of discipline is consistency and predictability. That means you being consistent in how you are approaching things across time, and ideally any other caregivers in the home supporting what you are doing and being consistent with it as well. Kids may not like the changes you decide to make, but they excel under structure and predictability so they will adapt if you stick with the changes you have decided to make and implement them calmly. Implementing them calmly is where that self-care and putting your own oxygen mask on first come in. If you are frustrated or angry in the moment it is okay to step away and take some time to regulate yourself before disciplining your children. You can even say aloud what you are doing, so that you are role modeling good emotion regulation for your children. You might say “I’m really frustrated right now and I don’t want to yell so I will talk to you about this after I take a few minutes to myself to calm down.” When we just walk away our kids don’t always know what to do. This tells them that you care not only about what they did but about them and about handling it calmly and that you will be back.
Florida residents are several weeks into the stay at home order during this COVID-19 Pandemic. If you are living with your partner, then this means you are seeing each other a lot more than usual. For some couples, it means that tensions and frustrations are happening more often and seem inevitable. Couples are having to navigate through living in a confined space while also managing stressful situations including loss of employment or working from home, financial issues, child-care, helping children with school and many other new issues. All of this, coupled with the uncertainty of when this will end, leads couples to take out their frustrations and anxiety on each other. Below I will give you a few tips on how couples can help their relationship survive the pandemic.
In addition, it’s okay for your partner to not be “okay” or “okay” with the current situation. Couples aren’t necessarily going to agree on how to manage the pandemic. It doesn’t mean that one person is wrong and the other is right. When having a disagreement with your partner, do your best to try to figure out what they are really feeling and thinking rather than dismissing it. Use active listening in which you hear what they say and then say it back to them in your own words. This can help them clarify any misunderstandings but it also helps them feel heard.
When stress and anxiety are high, it leads to people having a decrease in their frustration tolerance. Be mindful of how you are reacting to your partner. If you are starting to get heated, then take a break. During that break, don’t think about the conversation with your partner but rather engage in self-soothing activities. Once you are calm and out of the “Flight or Fight” mode, return to your partner to continue the discussion. For some, you may need to take several breaks before the discussion is finished. Don’t let that discourage you. If you or your partner can’t discuss calmly, then you’ll never resolve the issue.
When using an “I” message your partner is able to really hear what you are saying without becoming defensive. This allows you to create less opportunities to be misunderstood or for your partner to feel attacked.
While these tips will help you and your partner’s relationship, it’s important to note that nothing is perfect. Be patient with yourself and your partner as you both begin to make these changes. It will not happen overnight. It’s also important to make sure you are acknowledging each other’s efforts at making change. Compassion goes a long way during times of stress.
Below are some general recommendations for talking to your child about the Coronavirus/COVID-19:
Helpful websites for Supporting Children and Teens During the Coronavirus/ COVID-19 Pandemic:
Talking about the Coronavirus/COVID-19 Resources
CDC Talking with Children: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/ talking-with-children.html
For Preschoolers: https://www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/how-to-talk-to-your-kids-about- coronavirus
Zero to Three- Answering your child’s questions about Coronavirus: https:// www.zerotothree.org/resources/3265-answering-your-young-child-s-questions-about-coronavirus
Workbook: This book might be helpful to talk with children about COVID-19 https://www.mindheart.co/descargables
Comic Book: https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/02/28/809580453/just-for-kids-a- comic-exploring-the-new-coronavirus
A good simple explanation with photos: https://carolgraysocialstories.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Pandemics-and-the-Coronavirus.pdf
For children with ASD: https://childmind.org/article/tips-for-talking-with-your-child-with-autism-about-the-coronavirus/
Websites for General Support
Child Trends has the following recommendations in an online article: “Resources for Supporting Children’s Emotional Well-being during the COVID-19 Pandemic” at https://www.childtrends.org/publications/resources-for-supporting-childrens-emotional-well-being-during-the-covid-19-pandemic
Child Mind Institute. This website has great information and several good resources-https://childmind.org (You can also join them on Facebook for videos https://www.facebook.com/ChildMindInstitute/videos/535366040722045/)
KidsHealth-Coronavirus (COVID-19): Calming Coronavirus Anxiety https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/coronavirus-calm.html?ref=search
How teenagers can protect their mental health during the coronavirus: https://www.unicef.org/coronavirus/how-teenagers-can-protect-their-mental-health-during-coronavirus-covid-19
Parent and Child Psychological Services is a private practice serving children and families in the Sarasota, Florida area. The practice is owned and operated by Dr. Gibson, a Licensed Psychologist who is Board Certified in Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology.