Monthly Archives: March 2020

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.


-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.

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.