Struggling with Kids and the Pandemic? Look for the “Magic Moments”

During this time of social isolation and being cooped up with young children in small spaces, many parents describe their struggle to find an ever-elusive balance between working from home and childcare. Parents feel guilty about doing an inadequate job for their employers and feel guilty about not paying enough attention to their children. Co-parenting has also become more challenging—the question of who takes charge of the kids while the other is working can easily morph into the question of whose job is more important! If the children are fortunate enough to attend a school with online meetings, parents have to organize the day to accommodate the school schedule and help their child stay regulated and attentive during the virtual class meeting, one on one with the teacher, or “sharing time”. 

Meanwhile, managing work and the family is taking place in the context of a pandemic of huge proportions. When parents listen to the news or read the paper they are assaulted by the rates of infection and death, the loss of jobs, vulnerable health workers, and hungry families. The fear and sadness outside their protective windows is haunting, adding another cause for guilt. Children, who do not have the same cognitive capacities as adults, do not take in the enormity of the situation in the country, but they do sense their parents’ stress and anxiety. They miss their teachers and their friends, the comforting and organizing routine of the school day, the enjoyable activities. 

As the adults become tense and short-tempered, the children become demanding and irritable. Yet, there are times when children seem to escape the cloud of tension and experience joy. It may be the joy of mastery in doing a puzzle, or the joy of creativity in pretend, or even the joy of a favorite dessert. These moments of joy may be brief, but they are infectious. I remember watching young children in an orphanage in Central America–separated from their parents, recovering from neglect and abuse—play in the dusty courtyard. Struggling to wheel a wheelbarrow, following a bug in its journey through the bushes, listening to the conversations of the caregivers clustered on the front steps—their little faces bright with interest and pleasure. As I observed them, I felt pleasure too, pleasure and even inspiration. If they could take pleasure in such small experiences, maybe so could I. 

Researchers have known for a long that the positive expression of emotion of an infant or small child can trigger positive emotion in adults (Smith & Waters, 1976; Frodi et al, 1978; Fogel, 2006; Strathearn et al, 2009). Advertisers probably knew that even before scientists proved it—think of all the commercials with adorable young children!  Starting in infancy, infant smiles generate activity in the dopamine reward systems of an adult’s brain. Identification with the freedom and creativity of a child in the “magic years” brings pleasure to adults privileged to observe their play (Fraiberg, 1959). If adults can allow the meanings the young child makes of life to exist along side their more “rational” meanings, they may experience a delightful and liberating sense of disorganization—the kind of disorganization that brings enhanced perspective. How do you make bad guy soup and a birthday cake both out of the same pile of sand and bunch of sticks? These are moments I called “momentos magicos” in one of my trips to El Salvador, and if you recognize these magic moments and cherish them, they can accumulate. Accumulating magic moments can build on one another and—if you are lucky—create a cascade of wellbeing. And that is what we need in this time of hardship. So my message is—if you are cooped up with young children during the pandemic, look for the magic moments.  Hold onto them. They can do you good.

References:

Fogel A et al (2006). The effects of normal and perturbed social play on the duration and amplitude of different types of infant smiles, Developmental Psychology, 42(3):459-473.

Frodi A, Lamb M, Leavitt L, Donovan W (1978). Fathers’ and mothers’ response to infant smiles and cries, Infant Behavior and Development,1(187-198).  

Sroufe A, Waters E (1976). The ontogenesis of smiling and laughter: A perspective on the organization of development in infancy. Psychological Review, 83:173-189. 

Strathearn L, Fonagy P, Amico J, Montague R (2009). Adult attachment predicts maternal brain oxytocin response to infant cues, Neuropsychopharmacology, 34(13):2655-66.  

Older Kids and Teens in “Lockdown”

We have talked about infants and young children in the time of COVID. It is important now to talk about the experience of school children and adolescents. These kids have some of the same problems we have discussed in relation to younger children, and they have some different problems. The particular challenges faced by older children include school and academic work, friendships, screens, and obstacles to independence. I will tackle them one at a time.

School has become transformed from a classroom full of peers and a teacher to a computer screen. For some children who struggle with social anxiety, staying home can be a welcome relief. For most, the absence of the structure of the classroom and peer companionship is a terrible loss. The additional burden put on parents to supervise remote learning or even to create remote learning opportunities for their children can be onerous, especially if they also are working from home. Children who struggle initiating tasks may find they have more difficulty than ever when there is no teacher to help them get going. Children may misapprehend directions and find themselves lost without a teacher they can ask for clarification. The temptation for older children to escape into video games or social media when they are supposed to be doing homework may be even greater. Even when schools offer a remote learning program, it is hardly a substitute for the usual school curriculum and the activities of the school day. There is no recess, no playground time. The rhythm of the day has changed. 

In addition some preteens and teens may have to contend with application to secondary schools and university. This is a huge anxiety since the schools themselves are thrown into a state of disorganization, and their communications may be confusing. The preparatory activities offered to children to help them make a transition to the new school are disrupted. There is no chance to visit the schools, to tour the campuses. The matriculation of some children may suddenly be put on hold as their parents struggle with the decrease in family income caused by the shutdown. There is uncertainty about whether the schools will begin the school year in September!

Screens are hard to control during the “family lockdown”, even more than usual. Turning off the game is always hard, because as I will remind you, transitions require you to undo one state of organization and tolerate temporarily a state of disorganization before you achieve a new state of organization. For example, a state of highly focused attention on the game followed by the less enjoyable and relatively unstructured activity of the family dinner table or going to bed is a huge challenge for most kids, and for kids with organizational and regulatory problems it can seem impossible. Videogames are “external regulators” that offer the player a wide range of affect and arousal state without the player having to do the regulating. Many individuals cannot stay organized and engaged through that range of affective experience, especially in adolescence. Some children have to shut down high intensity states in order to stay calm, but that can give them a feeling of boredom, even depression. The videogames have highs that are regulated by the computer (even though the frustration of losing a game can cause meltdowns!) For that reason in addition to the usual difficulty leaving something you are enjoying, kids have a hard time turning off the game to rejoin life in the family. 

Joining the family—especially in adolescence—can in itself be hard. It is common knowledge that teenagers, at least in Western culture, face the developmental task of attenuating their dependent bond to their parents and establishing their independence. One of the major methods of achieving this goal is through connecting with and identifying with peers. When they are forced to stay home with their families and lose contact with their friends, this vital source of learning and of protection from the unwelcome pull of dependency is gone. Adolescents and even younger children can regress in their behavior and fight against the perceived control of their parents. 

Children learn from peers—about how to collaborate, how to communicate, how to take turns, how to share. Friendships play a greater role in the development of an individual than is typically recognized by psychological theories. Friendships often complement what a child’s family can give him– values not available in the child’s family, sometimes offering comfort when the child’s family cannot. I have often thought that the nurturing many people experience in their childhood friendships plays an important role in the adult the child will become. 

How can families deal with the enforced togetherness of these days of crisis?  I would suggest five ideas—exercise, lower expectations, make greater comfort, encourage contact with friends, and create a “higher level togetherness”. 

(1) Exercise is very hard to do inside, but it is possible. If you can get your kids to go on a bike ride or walk with you that is terrific. Indoor exercise may be accomplished by engaging screens—maybe an added inducement—in exercise programs. Yoga and meditation are excellent, but it can be hard to get older children in this culture to do it, especially without a group of peers doing it together. 

(2) By lower expectations, I mean try to accept a lower level of compliance with parental demands and a lower level of academic accomplishment than you might otherwise expect. 

(3) Strongly encourage remote contact with friends. There are games that younger kids can play remotely—some lego games, Bingo, guessing games, scavenger hunts, etc. I have included some online resources below. Adolescents don’t need you to plan their time with friends, but they need you to allow more of it. 

(4) I would also emphasize comfort—make the kids’ favorite foods, allow more t.v. and movies (and make popcorn!) 

(5) Finally, I suggest that parents come up with some ideas about what the family can do together that is more than entertainment, something that is constructive, something to remember. The family might create a family blog, a you tube channel, make a project to help others. This activity can teach family values.  Parents have to go all in to make this work. They have to take the time and expend the energy. They have to begin by giving the kids choices—would you like to make a family blog, would you like to sew masks, write emails to first responders in your town, design online games for younger children, or anything the kids can think up. The kids may not catch on to the idea right away. Parents have to hang in there. If one child refuses to contribute, for example, the parents could make a contribution for him (try to contribute something that relates to this particular child such as a paragraph in the blog post about something he did, or creating a game for little kids related to an interest of his such as cars or mazes. Then over time, he may come around. Again, it is important to keep expectations low. Don’t fall in love with the project and get mad if the kids don’t cooperate. Remember, this is a family enterprise. If they don’t like it, go back to the drawing board and see if you can negotiate something else. If that doesn’t work, just keep at it. Let that child know that he is part of the family and if he can’t contribute actively right now, you will still keep him in mind. It may be that the project outlasts the pandemic. That would be a good thing. 

Definitely Not Business as Usual: Especially in Families of Young Children

Talking to parents the past couple of weeks has impressed upon me in full force the stress we are all under. It is clear that it is not “business as usual” on the home front. The stresses are mounting. Parents are worried about poor work performance or even losing their jobs. They are stuck at home with their kids . Both parents and kids have lost the supervised time away from home that work and school provide, plus the structure, intellectual engagement, and relationships with peers, teachers, and colleagues. School systems vary in the degree to which they conduct remote academic and social programs for students, and the best ones do not substitute for a day at school. Some parents have sick relatives, elderly parents, or they themselves are sick, all causing added worry. Even if they are not sick themselves, they may not be able to get childcare because of fear of infection—either from an infected babysitter or from virus in the family. The kids are going stir crazy. None of the usual supports–from religious communities or communal services, extended family, or friends—are available.

This is an emergency: I find myself reminding families that this is an emergency. Just because you are physically in the comfort of your home and your house is not burning down, just because there are no sirens in the streets, you are still in a crisis. Typical expectations must be put aside and new expectations must be established—new expectations for comfort, work hours, and treats for the children. New expectations must be established for children’s behavior—both greater compliance and also lower demands. You are in survival mode, and what you need to do is get by day to day—to ensure the safety of your family through providing food and shelter and doing what you can to protect from illness.   

Parents United: In these times, parents must get on the same page. This is not the time to polarize about setting limits—the “bad guy or the good guy”—or about bedtime—one more book won’t make a difference versus sticking to the plan. Of course, when you are under stress is typically the hardest time to collaborate, but your family depends on you now more than ever. When parents find a way of getting things under control, they feel more relaxed, and their children feel more relaxed, because they feel safe.

Priorities—The priorities are getting through the day safe and healthy. The first issue on the agenda is making a schedule. Parents often really dislike this part. Some think it is too rigid and they will never be able to follow it. Others think they can’t possibly organize their day into steps.  Whatever the details of the schedule, the parents coming to an agreement in itself is a victory. Family members negotiating together in setting boundaries is usually constructive (depending on the age of the child—I recommend only limited negotiating power for preschool and young grammar school kids.), but once the boundaries are agreed upon, all family members must respect them. Attempts by children to negotiate boundaries in the moment should be discouraged by both parents.  

Routine—All families have some kind of routine—some more flexible than others. Routines are closely tied to schedules. Schedules tell you when things happen. Routines tell you what you do over and over again. It is hard to implement a routine, because you have to practice it. However it is a high priority; it needs to be done. A routine clarifies expectations. It creates anticipation of what comes next. It smoothes transitions. It allows for planning.

Screen time—This should be more flexible, but as the physical isolation gets lengthier, it should be organized—in relation to parents’ work schedule, in relation to children’s sleep or nap schedule, in relation to children’s remote school schedule. Individual I pads, if affordable, are useful. They can give access to lots of educational material for children, such as https://www.abcmouse.com/abt/homepage and https://tinkergarten.com/blog/just-us-for-the-first-ever-live-online-tinkergarten-experience.

Limits and boundaries—Limits and boundaries are more important than ever in times of crisis. People’s lives are disrupted, turned upside down. Nothing feels safe. Boundaries create a sense of safety. But setting limits are harder when families are stressed. That is because the reasoning part of the brain is less available, and the fight or flight system is more likely to take over—for both parents and children. This is when routines help. And “natural consequences”. It seems easy to do, but I remember when my children were small that it wasn’t easy always easy to do the sensible thing. Parents can get paralyzed in the moment when their children try to argue them out of a limit.  In these times of families altogether all the time, children are more likely to demand things they cannot have, to push the limit. When your child grabs his I Pad and says he is not going to comply with the rule, if he is young enough, you take it away and he loses it for the next time slot on the schedule. During these days, siblings are more likely to get into conflict. If the older sibling insists on intruding into the younger sibling’s remote school meeting, you take the older sibling away into another room (if there is another room) and take away some small reward such as that child’s next screen time. Some children have an exacerbation of fears, of sleep problems. That is because they don’t feel safe. Parents need to take control in a benign but firm way. 

We can make an analogy to our current government. Governors are pleading for consistent leadership so that they can organize their state’s agenda and do their best to cope with the crisis. Your children’s testing behavior tells you the same thing. “Mom and Dad, please get your act together and make some consistent rules so that family life can feel safe and predictable. “

I must acknowledge that most of the solutions I am suggesting are for families not living on the margin. Families in homeless shelters, parents who work as waitresses or bartenders, or especially now–and for different reasons–health workers, families with domestic violence or substance abuse or mental illness or chronic illness, children with disabilities—all these factors multiply the stress one thousand fold. 

The Future: In spite of the dire but realistic predictions, it is important to have faith in the future—the “This too will pass” attitude. As a psychoanalyst I rarely think in terms of “positive thoughts”, but I am also interested in the way the brain works and how positive thinking can affect the mood in helpful ways. It is true that reminding oneself of how one survived earlier hard times can help. I believe there will be a time when we can go shopping again without worrying. The kids will be in school again. We can go to work again in a protected time and space. One silver lining—and there are a few—is that if you institute these changes in the way your family works, you will be making an investment in your family’s future. You will be building a better “government” in your family. You will be preparing for your children’s adolescence!

One more idea that I particularly like was suggested to me by a Chinese friend who told me that families in Chinese cities rarely have outdoor space for a garden. She said that sometimes they grow a little plant inside the house to remind them that you don’t have to be outdoors to enjoy something green and to remind them that change is possible. 

I would like to recommend again the beautiful book about COVID by the WHO for children 6-11-yo.

More online resources for families.

I will follow this blog with a post on adolescents and young adults forced to stay at home.

Coping with COVID19

The World is a Different Place

I just received an email from a colleague notifying me of the cancelation of a professional meeting that we had been scheduled to participate in. He said, “The world is a different place,” and I was struck by how true that was. As all of you, I have been watching and listening to the news dominated by the pandemic. There is a lot of redundancy in the advice about how to cope, but I found some good ideas I wanted to pass on to my readers.

Vivek Murthy, Obama’s surgeon general, spoke eloquently on NPR. He recommended that all of us spend 15 minutes a day connecting with our friends, family, and acquaintances online or on the phone. He also suggested that when we are doing this we discontinue multi-tasking, in other words, pay attention to our conversation and stop doing other things. Finally, he suggested that we reach out and help someone. 

First of all, I liked his recommendation to spend 15 minutes connecting to others. I have been strenuously recommending connecting but hadn’t thought to put a minimum time on it. It reminds me of the suggestion that children sing the Happy Birthday jingle twice in order to achieve a good 2-minute hand washing. For those of us who have a tendency towards obsessionalism, it is useful to make sure to get those 15 minutes in, though I suspect that once we experience the satisfaction of reconnecting, we will be spending more time than that. It is true that the crisis has brought people to mind that I don’t think of in my typical daily routine. It brings me pleasure to feel connected with them again and a sense of urgency to make sure that they are safe and healthy. I, as many of you, have reconnected with friends that I have not been in touch with for a long time, and that feels good.

Second, the idea of multitasking is an interesting one. Multitasking is a more complicated subject than it might seem. Of course, it can be off-putting and even rude when someone doesn’t give you their full attention. It can also be a way of focusing attention if you are a little stressed, as long as the multiple tasks do not require the same kind of attention. For example, doodling or knitting or similar repetitive rhythmic fine motor tasks can actually help focus attention. But I know what Dr. Murthy means. It can be a good exercise to force oneself to focus attention exclusively on another person. That brings you further in touch not only with the other, but also with yourself—your own thoughts and feelings.

Third, the idea of reaching out to help somebody is something not as frequently mentioned, but the stories and videos of people in Italy, and now in New York, thanking health workers and first responders by making music, or clapping or cheering out their windows. There are other stories, though, of people leaving food or offering to shop for elderly neighbors, or others who are working to feed the homeless. These are important stories not only because they help those in need, but also because they help those who help.

Altruism is a human characteristic. We know that very young children engage in helping behavior. Shortly after their first birthday, children spontaneously begin to help others (Warneken, 2013; Svetlova et al, 2010). This is true even if it costs them something, for example, if they have to interrupt an interesting activity to help another (Warneken and Tomasello, 2008) or if they have to overcome numerous obstacles to do so. The desire to be helpful for its own sake is true of adults, as well. A study of adults offered a reward for giving blood found that the subjects who gave a donation for the good of others, rather than for a concrete reward, were more willing to give (Costa-Font et al, 2012). Even recalling memories of generous spending produced emotional reward, suggesting a “positive feedback loop” between prosocial spending and happiness (Aknin et al, 2012). 

I would suggest that a powerful motivation for altruistic behavior in humans is the persistent desire to restore disrupted connections, as they are experienced in relationships and also within themselves (Harrison, 2019). This includes loss of faith that their environment can be trusted. Giving to others is an adaptive, evolutionarily beneficial attitude and behavior that expands the individual’s repertoire for healing disrupted connections, for dealing with trauma and loss.

References:

-Aknin L, Dunn E, Norton M (2012). Happiness runs in a circular motion: Evidence for a positive feedback loop between prosocial spending and happiness, J Happiness Stud, 13:347-355.  

-Costa Font J, Jofre-bonet M, Yen S (2012). Not all incentives wash out the warm glow: The case of blood donation revisited (Centre for Economic Performance Discussion Paper No 1157). London, UK: London School of Economics and Political Science, Center for Economic Performance.

-Harrison A (2019). Altruism as reparation of mismatch or disruption in the self, Psychoanal Inq, 37(7).

-Svetlova M, Nichols S, Brownell C (2010). Toddlers’ procosial behavior: From instrumental to empathic to altruistic helping. Child Devel, 81(6):1814-1827. 

-Warneken F (2013). The development of altruistic behavior in children and chimpanzees. Social Research, 80:431-442. 

-Warneken F, Tomasello M (2008). Extrinsic rewards undermine altruistic tendencies in 20-month olds. Developmental Psychol. 44(6):1785-1788.

Parents’ Survival Guide

Some parents have organized their lives so as to address multiple goals. They are loving, devoted parents. They are highly invested in demanding careers. They have important friendships. How do they accomplish all these goals? Typically they are organized, hard working, and spend little time relaxing or taking care of themselves. If they go running or to the gym, they will do it early in the morning before the kids wake up or at lunchtime while the kids are in school. They get satisfaction from being creative and productive in their work. So what happens when they have to leave work and stay home with their children?  I have a long ago memory of saying goodbye to my husband as he went off to work, my newborn son in my arms. I had never loved anything more than this baby. Yet, when my husband walked out the door, I thought, “Wait a minute! What about me?!” 

Many parents have a rhythm of self-regulation that depends on intellectual stimulation and high productivity. Empty—or apparently empty—periods of time are not relaxing to them. They do not like waiting. “Empty” times make them anxious. They do better with their children in short periods of structured activity—a walk to the park, reading books. They sometimes have to control their impatience when their children hesitate or take a long time doing it themselves. These parents thrive when they have good schools and grandparents or babysitters to share the childcare. This is consistent with the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” 

These parents’ personal equilibrium requires feeling in control, and hanging out with young children does not allow much of that. Going with the flow is more like it. When it goes well, it is like playing jazz with someone, each with autonomy but also reaching for harmony, and open to novelty and surprise. If the parent feels the need for an intellectual focus, there are many opportunities for sharing ideas with older children, and for very young children, parents can become “baby watchers”, like Piaget was with his children. Infants and young children are fascinating. 

The parents I am talking about will likely have a hard time staying at home with their children during the time of the virus. Although in an earlier blog I noted the growth potential of being forced to live differently, this growth can be hard to negotiate. I have come up with some tips to ease the transition for these super people.

  1. Schedule your day so that you have time with the kids and time to work. If you have a partner, make the schedule with them and share the work. While you are working at your job, allow the kids screen time that you otherwise wouldn’t allow. In your time with the kids, plan some activities that you enjoy as well. Card games or board games–even some video games– are good for older kids. Messy activities that they can enjoy in school are to be avoided, even if they beg for them. While you are with the kids, discipline yourself to pay attention to them—what they are doing, what they are interested in, what their behavior is telling you. 
  2. Make sure that you schedule some car trips that involve an interesting or a constructive errand. If you are taking care of a household errand that you put off, you will be rewarded with a sense of accomplishment, and that will make you feel better. Take the kids with you unless they cause trouble in the car, in which case, scrap this idea. If they can tolerate the car, play games with the kids in the car. Depending on their age, for example, count all the red cars, black cars, or count all the Audis, all the Subarus.
  3. Everyone says take care of yourself by eating and sleeping right and getting exercise, but this redundancy does not make it less important! Sometimes you can combine these healthy activities with time with your kids by walking or sports, or by cooking with them. Other times, you will want to be alone while you exercise and cook. 
  4. Taking care of yourself also means being tolerant of negative feelings associated with impatience, boredom, and irritation. Criticizing yourself only drags you down further. Reflect on your style of self-management; try to maximize your strengths and make use of your usual self-comforting tools.  Just surviving this period will result in personal growth. In a comparable mode, try to be tolerant of your kids’ problem behavior. Remember that everyone is under stress, and if they behave badly it doesn’t mean that they will always act this way.
  5. Above all, stay remotely connected with other adults. Make sure you keep up to date with work projects with colleagues, commiserate with friends. Sit down in front of your computer, facing a friend, both of you with a piece of cake or a glass of wine, and pretend you are enjoying an evening out together.  

Cooped up Together: “Getting to Know You”

Cooped up Together: “Getting to Know You”

Many parents now find themselves in the company of their children without alternative caregivers and without distractions for a longer time than they have been for a long time, maybe forever. I wanted to reach out to them with my thoughts and some ideas about how to make this time more constructive and more enjoyable.

In some ways, this is a time to relax, to let go of the demands of your schedule and to stop worrying about getting to school and work on time, cleaning and organizing school clothes, and fretting about homework in older children. Sleeping in, eating when you are hungry instead of at regular mealtimes and munching on comfort foods, spending the day in your pajamas, allowing more screen time. It is good for families to enjoy this kind of release from the constraints of our hectic daily lives. However, for many children and families, this lack of structure, can generate problems after a short period of time. For that reason, I recommend making a schedule that approximates the one they follow during their regular work/school week, but includes more free time and a more relaxed tempo, and leaving unstructured time for weekends. Of course, this type of planning should depend on the personalities and needs of the individuals in the family–some families find routines more stressful in general! 

Parents could, for example, create a schedule that roughly follows the routine of their child’s school day—free play time, followed by a parent-child activity, then snack, more activity, lunch, nap, etc.—depending again on the age and developmental needs of the child. The closer the schedule mimics the school day, the more familiar and comfortable the child may be with the routine. It is important, though, to be flexible about it. If you follow the schedule rigidly, you will be sure to invite struggles. The schedule should maximize the fun activities. One family I know adopted an activity from the preschool’s morning meeting. The parent asked the child, as the “weather watcher”, to look outside the window and report on the current state of the weather. 

As you might have guessed, it is my opinion that although inconvenient and anxiety provoking, this family self-isolation can be an opportunity. When my husband and I were first married we won a lottery for junior faculty members to stay at a cabin on a remote island in Maine. It was beautiful and remote, without telephone or television and certainly without wifi. There was a logbook for guests to write about their experiences during their visit. One after the other of the entries described “getting to know my wife and children for the first time”. These workaholic and high achieving academics were describing a new experience, but they also were expressing regret about all the family time lost. It impressed me a great deal.

My friend and colleague, Alayne Stieglitz, an excellent source of knowledge about early childhood education and play, suggests that parents take this time to play with their child. “Let them lead and observe them closely. The better you get to know your child through play, the better you know how to interact with them in stressful moments. What makes them laugh, what are they interested in, what revs them up, and what calms them?” 

These are wise words and they recall Berry Brazelton’s famous statement about infants: The language of infants is their behavior. Of course, this is predicated on the fact that infants do not yet have language, but it also applies to older children and even to adults. Observing your child’s behavior gives you a new window into their inner worlds, into the meanings they attribute to their life experience. Even very verbal preschool children, for example, often have different meanings for words from our adult meanings. An amusing example of this occurred a couple of weeks ago. I had been preoccupied by how to “scale” an intervention to support infant mental health. In the playground of the preschool, I joined two 4-year old boys creating a “bad guy cake” out of sand and twigs and acorns in a bucket. One of the boys took a second bucket partially filled with sand and suggested that they “scale” the second bucket as part of the project. I was fascinated and asked how he planned to do that, imagining in my fantasy that this intelligent 4-yo might give me some tips. He said, “Well, we could put this bucket on a scale.” 

I am not going to address the very important subject of home schooling, which local school districts and Internet sites will cover far better than I. I am including a few sites that Alayne sent me for younger children.  My favorite one is #frommywindow. It started in Spain and involves children drawing pictures and taping them on the inside of their windows so that passersby can view them, a way to cheer people up similar to Italians singing or playing musical instruments out their windows for their neighbors to enjoy. 

Parents can also keep a journal about what they did that day. What was your child’s response to the various activities, what was your response? What did you do to comfort yourself, what did you do to comfort your child? If you can motivate yourself to do this, I guarantee that it will be a source of inspiration and amusement in the future.

https://kids.sandiegozoo.org

What to Tell Your Children About COVID 19

Many parents may worry about how to talk to their children about the corona epidemic. I would advise following the guidelines for any important conversation with your children. (1) The first is to be truthful. (2) The second is to be brief. (3) The third is to use language your child can understand.

  • Truth is critical. We know that trust in a leader—in this case the parent– is an essential ingredient in managing fear. Trust is undermined when the information given by the parent is ambiguous, contradictory, or frankly untruthful. 
  • Brevity is important for several reasons. The first is that effective communication is organized into salient “bullets” that then can be elaborated. If the listener is a very young child or even an older child who is stressed it will be harder to take in complicated information and make sense of it. Comprehension is facilitated when the most important ideas are emphasized in brief communications with pauses in between. These pauses allow the child to process the information and to ask questions of their own. When answering the questions it is important to follow the same guidelines and avoid giving overly long and complex explanations.
  • It is also essential to choose words that children can understand, language that is comprehensible to the child’s developmental age. It is also preferable to avoid technical words (unless speaking to an older child) and especially alarming words. For example, with younger children you might talk about people “getting sick”– rather than using terms such as “epidemic” or “disease”–while emphasizing the fact that children are less likely to be affected. 

In addition to these three guidelines, I want to emphasize the importance of parents managing their own anxiety. Most parents will attempt to hide their worries from their children. It is good to avoid burdening children with parents’ anxiety. However, video observation research demonstrates that we communicate emotion through facial expression, out of our awareness, in time intervals of seconds and split seconds. In other words, it is unrealistic to think that we can hide our emotions from our children. A more effective and practical alternative is for parents to focus on managing their own emotions, much like the airlines’ admonition to put on your own oxygen mask before helping your child put on theirs. 

Everyone does better with exercise and adequate sleep. In addition, I would suggest that parents use whatever method they find useful to calm themselves. Some people manage anxiety by reading everything they can get their hands on about the subject. Others do better by avoiding reading anything. Some people comfort themselves by staying busy, others by taking a break. Some find that reading novels, cleaning, baking, or cooking is relaxing.  

Finally, emphasizing matter of fact routine behaviors is grounding. The CDC recommends hand washing, coughing into your elbow, keeping surfaces clean, and maintaining social distancing. These behaviors, which can be incorporated into family life, can be observed in a non-alarmist way. At the school where I consult, hand washing and “catching your cough” are part of the normal school day, and children observe these behaviors as a matter of custom. Children can also work alongside parents to keep household surfaces clean. I would not recommend social distancing within the family unless one family member is actually infected, because in unusual times such as these children are likely to need more physical comfort than ever. 

I would also like to direct parents to a beautiful book put out by the WHO for children about COVID.

I am including this helpful daily schedule from NESCA (Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents) for parents whose children are staying home from school.

More good advice for parents wanting to homeschool during the school shut down comes from Zen and the Art of Early Childhood Education blog and FB page by Richard Cohen is not to focus on academic work: “It’s going to be stressful. … Arguing with your kids to do work is not what anyone needs right now. Instead, cuddle up together and read, read, read…. Do a puzzle. Build a fort. Bake. Watch TV together.”

Here are some other ideas:

I want to thank Alayne Stieglitz for her help in finding these wonderful sources of information.

“Silly” Behavior

What do people mean when they refer to a child as “acting silly”? Usually they mean that the child is laughing or smiling, giddy. This is a wonderful part of childhood—the freedom to be gleeful. Other times, though, it can mean acting like a clown, for example to gain peer attention. This is frustrating to teachers, because a student’s “silly” behavior is usually disruptive to her class. Typically, it will be hard to get the child’s attention. Teachers and parents express frustration with the child’s behavior and report multiple attempts to correct the child verbally. Sometimes verbal corrections work. Often they do not.

The reason verbal corrections fail to work depends in part on the child’s state of regulation. If the child is a little giddy, he will usually consider the positive consequence of complying with the adult’s redirection—and the negative consequence of not complying– and will settle down. If a child is significantly dysregulated, he isn’t processing auditory information in an efficient way, and it will be hard for him to “hear” the teacher; he will also have a harder time using his higher level cortical thinking to “think things over” and change his behavior.

In addition, children learn patterns of behavior—first at home and then in school and with peers. A child’s ability to self-regulate and negotiate power and authority begins with his family relationships. This does not mean that parents cause the problem, but it does mean that their response to their child’s noncompliant behavior plays a role. 

The child’s temperament also plays a role. A sensitive “orchid” child will be less resilient to the stress caused by an adult’s demands. Most of these demands require a transition from the child’s current activity and the state of regulation he is experiencing in the moment, to a different activity and a disorganization and reorganization of regulatory state. For example, a parent’s request that the child stop playing and come to the dinner table requires a whole set of sequential transitions that include changes in emotion and regulatory state. An “orchid” child will have a much harder time managing all these transitions than a “dandelion” child.

There are many factors involved in a child’s “silliness”. I think most problematic silliness is related to difficulty with self-regulation at some level. If that is indeed the case, getting through to a “silly” child means helping the child become more regulated. That will often mean separating him from the group to help diminish the overstimulation of his peers’ attention. When he is calm, it as usual helps to talk the situation through with him.

“Racehorses”: An Issue of Temperament

Although I have written about this before, I am revisiting the issue of “orchid” in contrast with “dandelion” children, or what I typically call “race horses”. These are “high reactive” children who are temperamentally sensitive. In India my students have referred to them as “rose children” in contrast with “grass children”. Jerome Kagan is famous for identifying this group of 10-20% of the normal population who are “slow to warm up” to novelty – strange people and experiences (Kagan, 1998, pp. 70-76). They are like the children who clung to their mothers when the experimenter introduced the robot in Kagan and Snidman’s lab (Kagan, Snidman et al, 2018). These children are wonderful – in fact, I am partial to them because they tend to be so interesting and are often very creative – but they are much harder to parent. 

I recently consulted to a lovely family with a 3-yo who was definitely a “race horse”. She was beautiful and articulate and an amazing pretend player with her parents, who were great at scaffolding her play. However, when I invited her to join me in play, while her parents sat in two chairs in the same room, she clung to her father and refused. The parents’ response was so helpful that I showed it to them on videotape, and I wanted to capture it for the sake of other parents.

After my invitation, when the girl clung to her father, her mother first lay down the expectation – “Daddy is going to stay right here, and you are going to play with Alex.” Despite the fact that the girl maintained her iron grip on her dad, the mother’s articulation of the expectation was crucial. Also helpful was the way both parents worked together – neither undercut the other by taking over or by criticizing the other’s actions. As I began a pretend play that interested her, the child pulled her father from his chair towards the play area on the rug. At first he resisted, but I encouraged him to accompany her, and he lay on the floor near his little daughter while she enthusiastically joined me in play. 

When I showed the video to her parents I suggested that they keep a mental image of this experience of scaffolding their child through her anxiety about a stranger, to her successful engagement in play. In two steps – the clear articulation of the expectation, and the (in this case physical) presence of a parent during the transition, they made it possible for their little racehorse to enjoy a game with a new person. Her pride at this mastery experience was demonstrated the next day when she told her teacher, unprompted, “I went to Alex’s house. It was fun!” Her parents will have many chances to repeat this scaffolding during her lifetime. I can imagine them taking her to college – telling her that they are going to leave at a certain point, allowing her to cling while they help her set up her room, maybe even spending the night in a hotel nearby the first night, making sure she connects with her roommate, etc, to ease the transition. 

Where do racehorses come from? Generally speaking, temperament is inherited. That means that high reactive parents tend to produce high reactive children. However, it is not only the DNA that is passed on to the children. We have seen in other postings (cite) that epigenetic changes also are inherited. Epigenetic changes are the way the environment influences the genome. For example, trauma in the life of a parent may affect the structure of the methyl groups sitting on top of the parent’s DNA and impact how the gene is turned on and off Epigenesis accounts in part for how trauma is transmitted across generations. Grandchildren of Holocaust survivors often showed signs of disturbance in their stress regulation. The general feature of this transmission of trauma is lowering the threshold for stress reactivity. 

Kagan J (1998). Three Seductive Ideas, Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. 

Kagan J, Snidman N, Arcus D, Reznick J (2018). Galen’s prophecy:           Temperament in human nature, New York:Routledge.

Dealing with Stress Reactions

In many people, especially young children with developmental quirkiness, a combination of highly reactive amygdala (one of the primary brain centers that responds to threat) and poorly developed cortical inhibitory processes, can generate maladaptive reactions to even minor stressors. The task of the caregiver is to grow the capacity to inhibit these maladaptive stress reactions. 

One way to do this is to make links between the stressor and the perception of threat, building more benign associations than the initial ones. These links include a more realistic assessment of the perceived threat (the shadow, the provocative driver) through the engagement of the more mature inhibitory system that can allow for reflection about the situation. This linking is often accomplished with explanations. For example, “I think that the reason you pinched the other child is that he was sitting in your place.” This simple suggestion can be followed by a reflection on a more adaptive response such as, “Maybe next time you could tell him that was your place and ask him to move.” Such an explanation, in order to be helpful, usually requires the context of a “safe” relationship, one in which trust has been built up over a series of empathic interactions. 

Other ways to build this self-regulatory capacity include occupational therapy (OT) and behavioral therapies. OT is particularly helpful when it involves frequent opportunities to practice activities that support brain growth, either with frequent therapy sessions or – preferably – when the therapist works with the parents and the school to institute therapeutic activities in the child’s home and school. Many activities support the development of self-regulation. They include repetitive, rhythmic, motor activities such as drumming, swinging, walking, (Perry, 2006). I have had good experiences with singing, primarily because of the soothing quality of some music, but also because of the regulating quality of controlled breathing involved in singing. Regarding behavioral therapies, I am biased towards behavioral therapies that emphasize the relationship between the clinician and the child. 

Unfortunately, many parents and teachers grow impatient with the slow pace of these therapeutic interventions or with the intensity that is sometimes required. They can be helped with gentle reminders that these interventions are not designed to “cure” a problem, but rather to “grow” new brain capacities. 

Dealing with Stress Reactions

Perry B (2006). Applying principles of neurodevelopment to clinical work with maltreated and traumatized children, the neurosequential model of therapeutics, reprinted from Working with Traumatized Youth in Child Welfare, edited by Nancy Boyd Webb. 

Porges S (2009). Reciprocal influences between body and brain in the perception and expression of affect, In: The Healing Power of Emotion: Neurobiological Understanding and Therapeutic Perspectives, Eds: D Fosha, D Siegel, M Solomon, WW Norton & Co.