Wellness

A Therapist on Parenting during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Photo courtesy of Nicki Sebastian

A Therapist on Parenting during the COVID-19 Pandemic

A Therapist on
Parenting during
the COVID-19 Pandemic

Family therapist Ashley Graber is here to tell parents this: It’s okay to relax the reins—for now. Creating a positive space at home for everybody, says Graber, begins with lessening the pressure on ourselves and our children. “There’s a sense that we need to have it all figured out right now, and we just don’t,” she says. “So it’s time to let go of the strict rules and schedules and choose love and connection over some of those prior systems.”

Graber says the path to helping children cope with a crisis begins with asking them questions. Then: Lead by example and forgive each other for making mistakes. Graber shared tips, along with online resources, to get us through the next few weeks and beyond, as we try to cultivate more mindfulness and compassion at home. This work can be rewarding—and even fun. As Graber explains, parents, too, can benefit from childlike curiosity.

A Q&A with Ashley Graber, LMFT

Q
How do you talk about stressful life events with children? How do you begin to explain the pandemic?
A

It needs to be age-appropriate. One of the ways that we can figure out how to speak to a child is to ask them what they know and then ask them what they are worried about. Right there, we’re going to get information from them about where their head is at. We don’t want to talk past where a child is at; we want to deal with only what’s up for them in the moment. And we want to ask open-ended questions so that we don’t incite more fear in them. It’s definitely important to not be afraid to discuss the virus because what happens with children is when we hold back information, it actually makes them feel more anxious, and they can tell when that’s happening.

So we want to talk to them about it, because they’ve heard about it, their friends are talking about it, and schools are closed. If parents get to be the ones who are feeding the information to their children, it provides a great opportunity to talk about it in a factual, nonemotional way. Kids can anchor into that, and they can ground in it. Then you can dispel anything that they’ve heard that isn’t a fact. We want to be reassuring. We want to tell them the ways that the family is being healthy and how the schools and the businesses are doing this to be healthy.


Q
What’s the best way to approach this conversation?
A

Parents are the nervous system of their family, as teachers are the nervous system in their classrooms. Whatever the parent is doing or the teacher is doing, the kids are feeding off of energetically. So we want parents to take the time to calm themselves before they speak to their children. Kids read more of what we do and less of what we say.

It’s important that we’re honest about what’s going on and how we’re feeling because that helps children understand that they can trust what they’re feeling. If they’re worried and we tell them there’s nothing to worry about, they’ll think, I can’t trust myself.

So we want to have open discussions. In general, let the kids take some agency with it. With younger kids, for example, you could make it into an art project. So you could ask, “What are we doing to be safe?” And they could list and draw what the things are: We wash our hands, for example.

For even younger kids, parents could trace the child’s hand on a piece of paper because we’re talking about keeping our hands clean and then write all the other ways that we’re staying safe. We don’t want to be dismissive of feelings or not allow feelings, but in what ways can we make this fun?

And keep talking with kids. Keep talking because they’re going to have a lot of questions, and so are we. The best thing that we can do with our kids—and it doesn’t matter the age, but certainly with our littlest ones—is allow them to express what’s going on in whatever way feels good to them.


Q
How can parents establish a sense of normalcy?
A

Stick to a routine. Kids thrive on routine and structure, so the best thing that we can do is to get them into a new routine. But the caveat is to have flexibility and curiosity around what this routine is going to look like. One way to go about it is to have things that everybody does at certain times and be consistent with it, so that might be mealtime. Every day at the same time we have our meals. And then every day an easy thing to build in would be breaks. Kids are going to want to work for only so long before they need a break, so can we have quiet time breaks? Can we have outdoor breaks and then set those into the schedule? So we build it as we go, but we can keep some things in place and create structure around them and make it the new norm.

For example, I live in a very small home, so I don’t have a designated office in my home. Yesterday I tried one place, today I’m trying another one, and I’m just seeing what works. Could we do that with our kids where we bring curiosity into these things together? Let’s set it up this way today and then, if it doesn’t work, we can see how we could improve on it tomorrow. Then we can put our favorite “stuck” activities in a certain place, and we can put school activities in another place. We can take a special walk or do something that makes it more special and less scary.


Q
How do you enforce boundaries if you’re a parent who is working from home?
A

Here’s the first and foremost thing that I would say: To all the parents out there attempting to do this, and certainly those without any help, give yourself a BREAK, with capital letters—and 14,000 exclamation points. If your child never learns whatever subject or task because you have an important meeting that day and you need to have your child occupied with anything that works, do that.

We can explain boundaries to kids age-appropriately. We can explain that during a certain time, the door will need to be closed. Parents with very young children will need to think about whether the children can be alone during that time, but others can try to schedule it at a time when the kid will be occupied with online learning and then explain to the child that this is a time when Mommy or Daddy needs to do a meeting. Have meetings where you can talk about it, explain it, and help the kids understand that parents have a schedule just as they do.

It’s not going to be a perfect system. If there’s another adult in the house, the support around tag teaming is going to be important—one is going to take care of the children while the other one’s on a call. But it’s really going to be parents giving themselves a break about trying to set up the rules and then helping children understand what’s going on—and knowing it’s not going to go perfectly.


Q
How can parents deal with shame or guilt during this process?
A

This is a crazy way that we are being forced to slow down and connect with our loved ones. Certainly, it isn’t what we would want to do, but it’s what’s happening right now. We’re all in this together. When we can widen out a little bit and tap into that, we can feel less alone and feel more compassion for everyone. None of us know what we’re doing, so have compassion for that, too. It’s okay that we don’t know what we’re doing. We’re figuring it out, day by day, moment by moment. So, parents: Take a deep breath, get the resources you need, and ask for help.

This is a big test for all of us as humans because we don’t like change, and we don’t particularly care for the unknown. It makes us feel unsettled when these things are happening, so it really is a call for everybody to adapt and for our children to adapt. Our children watch everything that we do, and they listen to everything we say. And if we adapt in a rubber-like way that’s more resilient, our children will have the ability to bounce back as well. If every time we run up against something, we throw our hands up in the air and say, “This isn’t working,” they’re also going to think it’s not working. We’re all going to have to learn to be more open and flexible now.


Q
Are there at-home tools that can help kids express how they feel?
A

I put together a resource list for my clients that includes dance, yoga, art, music, and all different kinds of things that kids can do that allow them to express themselves in whatever way they want to. But you can do that through rolling in the grass or staring at the clouds, too. The most important part is to get everyone in the family moving. Get outside if you can, with safety precautions in place, or do movement inside. Make it part of the daily routine because it’s a huge anxiety buster. It’s a way for families to connect and have some fun, especially if they do something like a dance video together.

Another thing that has been successful for my kids and clients is Zoom sessions with friends. Kids are missing the connection of going to school and seeing their friends, so parents can get a few friends together and the kids can meet and talk through Zoom. I’ve had some six-year-olds who are reading books to each other on FaceTime calls and coming up with games together.

[Editor’s note: Scroll down for a list of resources from Graber.]


Q
What tools are there for teenagers?
A

It’s about finding resources for what they’re interested in. For a teenager who’s artistic, there are tutorial sites that can teach you to do really cool art. There are a lot of podcasts. There are book resources, art resources, science resources, and online learning schools that have cool projects. If somebody says they’re into cooking, what kind of online classes could you find? There are YouTube videos, and plenty of people and companies are offering services right now for free that were once subscription-based or that you paid for.

Get creative about how you can use the internet as a way to help kids connect and not feel so isolated, which helps ward off boredom. Kids, and teens especially, connect through their screens. This is how they’ve grown up. Now they might want to have a group chat or video session every day at 2 o’clock, which is a normal break after lunch.

And again, get them outside, if it’s safe to do so. I hear from a lot of parents who say, “My kid doesn’t want to move. My kid doesn’t want to walk.” This is going to have to be one of those times where we say, “Okay, that’s cool, but let’s just go walk around the block. We’re all cooped up.” And you could explain how it helps shift our perspective when we can get outside and change our environment. And when our perspective can shift, we can have a wider view and things don’t feel quite so awful.


Q
What else can we do to help ease anxiety and tension in the household?
A

On the resource list, there’s a whole section about meditation and mindfulness and yoga. You might take ten to fifteen minutes to do some yoga and stretch, go outside, and tap into your senses. We can’t help but be present if we’re using our senses. Can they go take a mindful walk? What do they smell? What do they see? What do they hear? What can they feel?

Headspace has a great section for kids, and parents can sit and do the meditations with kids. These are two- or three-minute-long meditations. Doing something like this consistently can help lower anxiety and bring more awareness to the fearful thoughts, which makes it easier to pause and step back and get a little more realistic about it.

Another idea: If you have a printer, try downloading a picture of a mandala off the internet and color it in with your child. Grab one that’s pretty detailed, maybe a little more advanced than your child would normally do, so it takes some time, and then you and the kiddo can sit and color for fifteen minutes a day or a half an hour a day. Just connect and color and be present—that’s a mindful practice.


Q
What happens when this is all over? How will we help children transition back to normalcy?
A

Answer their questions as they come up. Talk to them regularly. And ask them about their worries and tell them the truth or give them realistic answers. If you’re reflecting their feelings and holding space for them, then my hope is that we’ll be able to feed information to them in ways that aren’t overwhelming.

The expectation that anyone would have it all figured out is too much pressure on us. It’s worth driving home that parents should just be really kind to themselves right now. Everybody: Be kind to yourself right now, whether you’re a parent or not. Take a lot of breaths and know that if a meeting or a class assignment is missed, in the bigger picture, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is our health, our safety, our connections, and our relationships.

Parents can often feel so much pressure to do it right and get it right, but there is no template for this. As much as possible, let that go and know that a moment of laughter with your kids is going to be much more impactful and remembered during these times than any math homework.


SELECTED RESOURCES FROM ASHLEY GRABER

Art:

  1. Crayola, for free coloring pages

  2. Art Hub for Kids TV, for hundreds of how-to art videos on drawing, painting, sculpture, and origami

  3. Drawing Now, for step-by-step drawing tutorials

  4. TinkerLab, for creative activities focused on artistic experimentation and exploration

Movement:

  1. Gaia, for yoga and consciousness-expanding videos on intuition, metaphysics, and transformation for all ages

  2. GoNoodle, for free movement and mindfulness videos created by child development experts

Mindfulness:

  1. PositivePsychology.com, for mindfulness activities, worksheets, and breathing exercises for kids

  2. GoZen, for teaching kids research-based coping, resilience, and happiness skills

  3. Susan Kaiser Greenland, for a mindfulness and meditation teacher’s tips and resources

  4. All the World, for a weekly kids show (ages four to ten) on socio-emotional growth, self-awareness, and empathy

Online learning:

  1. Newsela, for finding trusted, aggregated content to use for distant learning

  2. Adventure Academy, for a reading, math, science, social studies, and language arts online learning program

  3. Outschool, for classes taught by qualified teachers over live video

Podcasts and video:

  1. NPR’s Wow in the World, for science and technology talk

  2. TedEd, for fun, video-based lessons, riddles, and logic puzzles

  3. WBUR’s Circle Round, for adapted folktales that explore kindness, persistence, and generosity

Math and science:

  1. National Geographic Kids, for online games, science experiments, and quizzes

  2. Best Academy, for interactive math curricula for kids ages eight to thirteen

Reading and language:

  1. Epic!, for a digital library for kids twelve and under

  2. Duolingo, for learning new languages


Ashley Graber is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a meditation and mindfulness educator and speaker. She has a private psychotherapy and meditation and mindfulness practice in Santa Monica, California, and created the Mindfulness for Families Program at the Center for Mindful Living.

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