These are difficult times, and Sam* is especially stressed. He is highly anxious, impulsive and suffers from learning disabilities and sensory and attentional problems. He is 5 years old, and his life isn’t fun anymore.
Prior to the pandemic, Sam was attending a good special needs program and doing well. After two years he was able to regulate his behaviors at school and at home, progress academically and he was beginning to make friends. Then suddenly, everything changed. His school, friends and beloved teachers disappeared. His playdates stopped and he wasn’t allowed to go anywhere, not even to visit his adored grandparents. His parents are home all day, but they are working and don’t want to be disturbed. When they do spend time with him they seem grouchy and yell at him. “Why is everyone mad at me?” he wonders. This is Sam’s take on his new life.
Sam’s mom, Jen, has her own perspective. Her life has also changed drastically. She now works from home, in addition to doing most of the housework and cooking. She also tries to help Sam with virtual school, which he refuses to do. She worries that if he doesn’t do the work he will fall irretrievably behind and his life will be ruined. So they engage in daily battles. In addition, all of Sam’s difficult behaviors have returned. He now has multiple daily meltdowns, over inconsequential things. “Why is he regressing?” Jen asks herself. She is often annoyed and frustrated with him, but also deeply anxious about his future. She worries that all of Sam’s hard-earned developmental gains will be eradicated, which propels her to put even more pressure on him. As if this weren’t enough, there are now financial stresses as well because both her job and her husband’s have been reduced to part time. No one is having much fun any more.
Does this sound familiar? When counseling Sam’s family and others like his, here’s what I suggest:
• Sam’s “regressions” are normal: Young children often respond to loss and stress by having meltdowns, whining or becoming demanding and oppositional. They may become excessively clingy, fearful of losing their parents as they have lost so many other things. These behaviors are a form of communication, but one that is so easy to misread.
• Work together as a family: Sam’s parents can tell him that since they now understand what he’s going through, they can better help him to control himself. Most importantly, they won’t get so mad at his behaviors.
• Hold a family meeting: Sam’s parents can explain to him, in simple terms, why coronavirus has changed their lives for now. Together with Sam, they should make a chart with pictures, describing his feelings about what is happening. Include things that make him mad, scared and even happy about his new life. Visual documents are important because they help children process difficult information and develop insight.
• Make connections for your kids (and for yourself!): Sam’s parents should help him make some important connections. They could say, for example, that when kids are mad about having to stay at home, when they miss things they love to do and when they are worried that people they love may get sick, they sometimes start feeling really grouchy. Then it becomes harder for them to control themselves. Drawing a visual summary helps Sam process what is happening and become more self-aware.
• Craft a story together: With Sam’s help, write and draw a story about a boy who is having the same problems as Sam. Talk about this boy’s feelings. End the story on a hopeful note by pointing out that his family knows how to keep him safe and that they are always ready to help. These discussions and stories help clarify and validate Sam’s feelings.
• Create predictability: Sam and his parents should create a visual schedule so that he will know what to expect each day. Ideally, the schedule should include special time with mom or dad each day. Throw in some surprises like a new toy or a special dessert. Going over the schedule every morning allows Sam to anticipate a day that is predictable and fun.
• Set expectations: Behavioral expectations should still be made clear and should be carried through. Sam can’t just go wild, but once some of the above suggestions are implemented, it will be easier for Sam to control his moods and behaviors.
• Go easy on your children (and yourselves!): Sam’s parents can relax about pushing academic learning if it’s difficult for him. He will catch up (remember, all kids are in the same boat!). It’s okay to give him more down time, even if it includes extra screen time. Right now it’s crucial to reduce stress and increase feelings of comfort and safety.
Your children are feeling the loss of so many things in their lives. If they experience you as stressed, irritable, frustrated and demanding much of the time, they may feel that they have lost you as well. While life is now stressful, how you communicate and implement these new parenting priorities will make all the difference. What is important now is to help your children feel validated, to reduce unnecessary demands, to allow for extra down time and to try to ensure that for some parts of each day, you are truly engaged with them and enjoying them. In spite of all the challenges, if you are able to create a home environment that feels safe, loving, fun and predictable, your children will certainly flourish.
Lois Mendelson, PhD, is the director of The Springboard School (formerly The Therapeutic Nursery at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades), a nationally recognized program for bright preschool children with a variety of developmental challenges. Lois can be reached at email@example.com or 917-692-8298.
*Names have been changed.