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.
There is evidence that infant reactivity is related to the predisposition to have an excitable limbic system. There is also evidence that there is influence in uterine environment that can affect temperament. But biology is not destiny. There are ways that parents and teachers can help HR children moderate the effects of their high sensitivity.
The balance between protecting and promoting is a challenge for all parents to achieve, but it is an even greater challenge for parents of HR children. By protecting, I mean softening the bumps in the road of life – allowing the child to stay home from a birthday party or speaking for the child when he greeted by an unfamiliar person. By promoting, I mean insisting that the child take the risks that he needs to take to build a strong body and acquire necessary skills, such as eat healthy foods and engage in physical activity. Often the parents of HR children tone down their expectations of their child, either because they fear the child will fall apart when required to take the risk, or because they “know their child’s limits” and have rationalized a permissive parenting style. Other times, parents of HR children push the child beyond her limits and cause her to withdraw further or “give up”. Even good parents can err in either direction. Sometimes one parent takes one position and the second parent takes the other. This is particularly problematic because the polarization that results increases the stress on the whole family and erodes parental collaboration.
How can parents find this balance? First of all, there is not one balance to achieve. Each family must experiment until they find the “right” balance for their family – and since families and especially children are always changing – the trial and error efforts never really end. Snidman reported that researchers who did extensive home visits on 4 families – half HR and half LR babies – found that in the HR cases the mothers who set firmer limits on their children’s behavior helped their children feel more comfortable taking risks. In the case of the LR children, the mothers’ behavior made little difference. Of course, this is a study with a very small n despite the extensive observational data, but it is consistent with my clinical experience. By setting limits on their HR children’s behavior, parents communicate to their children their comfort with their children’s initiative. It is also true that setting limits can slip into a struggle pattern, and that is a problem to be avoided if at all possible. In my experience, it is easier to get into struggles with a HR child then with a LR child. That is because stress causes everybody to expend energy in order to manage it, and that drains energy, pulling everybody in the direction of simpler, more reactive behaviors. Struggles definitely involve simple, reactive behaviors. The HR child is always under more stress than the LR child, and this is especially true when faced with a challenge. Those of you with HR children will recognize the dread provoked by adding an additional demand to the morning routine.
The ideal to work towards is one in which you “choose your battles” and support a child in taking health-promoting risks up a point, then protecting him if he shows that it is too much for him. These caregiving behaviors are always evolving and frequently include corrections or “repairs”. Corrections and repairs are not something to be afraid of. They are what we learn from.
I will discuss the ways teachers can respond to a HR child in the next posting.
One of the biggest challenges a parent or other caregiver faces is avoiding struggles with the child. Struggles are a no-win situation. Many children, like junior lawyers, are great at arguing. Caregivers (CG) often cannot resist getting pulled into a lengthy argument, in which the child usually gets the upper hand. Although some parents tell me about their child’s arguing skills with pride, I know that parents letting children litigate is making a fool’s bargain.
The argument usually starts with the CG setting a limit. For example, the teenager comes home from school, drops his back pack on the floor, and lunges for the couch and the t.v. remote. The CG asks, “How much homework do you have tonight?” Child responds, “Not much. I did most of it in study hall.” The CG represses her skepticism and asks, “What about that English paper that is due Friday?” The child says, “Why are you always always acting like that? My teacher says that kids need to relax when they get home from school! I’ve had a hard day, and I need to chill a little bit before I do anything like homework!” CG: “I’m sorry. What was hard about your day?” Child: “None of your business. Don’t be so nosy. I wish you were like Jason’s parents. They leave him alone when he needs his space!”
One can empathize with the CG. By now she has three people aligned against her – her child, the teacher, and (maybe 4) Jason’s parents! Also, she hears the stress in his voice and she agrees that he needs time to relax. At the same time, she replays in her mind the past few weeks, when he has stayed up until midnight struggling with homework with diminishing returns, or given up, after “relaxing” in front of t.v. or texting with friends for hours after coming home from school. What should she do?
Before giving suggestions, let me point out that this problem most likely started long ago. It is a pattern that has old roots. Consider this situation. Preschool child is in a bad mood when she wakes up. First, she wants her red pants that are in the wash, and nothing else can satisfy her. Then she decides that she will make do with her silver Cinderella sandals, but it is 10 degrees outside and there is snow everywhere. Her mother has left for work and her father (CG) is trying to get her ready for school, where she has pronounced she is not going.He is thinking of a difficult client he has an appointment with first thing, and he is feeling stretched to the limit. Finally he gets his princess downstairs to the kitchen, and she demands coffee cake for breakfast, remembering the special treat they served to a guest the morning before. He thinks for a moment about what her mother will say if he gives in, but he says, “OK, coffee cake and then eggs (pointing to the eggs he has already prepared). She says “OK” but after the coffee cake, she touches the eggs with a fork and proclaims, “These are not the kind of eggs Mommy makes. I don’t want them.” Sound familiar?
The solution to both of these situations (and one does indeed follow the other) is strategy. When you are on the front lines of the battle, you can’t make strategy; you can only shoot or surrender. It is the generals who make strategy, and they don’t make strategy on the front lines but in the “war room”, protected and far away from the storm of battle. Strategy is also best made with at least two collaborators. They can bounce ideas off each other, balance each other’s extremes, recall data that the other has missed. They can make a plan. After they make a plan, they have to execute it, and then they have to practice it over and over again until it becomes a habit. When it is a habit, the old bad habit – the struggle pattern – starts to unravel and make way for the new pattern, a more secure and potentially collaborative one not just between generals but between generals and soldiers.
Let’s look at how strategy works in our two examples. With out teenager, CG says, “Well, I totally sympathize with you for needing to relax, but we agreed that there were no screens except computer for homework until homework is done. That lets you relax afterwards and get to bed in time for you to be rested. Can I get you a snack before you begin? I got you your favorite popcorn and a new vitamin drink of the kind you like.” If the child protests, the CG responds, “I’m so sorry, but you know that is what we (she and other CG) decided, and we all agreed that was best. I know it is hard.” Then she leaves the room. This last part is crucial, because if she stays, he may persuade her to give in or get into a struggle with him that takes up his homework time and drains her of all her emotional energy.
Now the preschooler: The CG says, “You know we said no coffee cake. You can have eggs or an energy bar in the car (he and his partner agreed on this beforehand). Which will it be? And, by the way, you can wear your Cinderella slippers in the car but your boots are going with you, and I am putting them in your cubby when we get there.” If she has a total meltdown, he can carry her to the car. CG’s of preschoolers, remember the example of the teenager when you feel tempted to give in. You can’t carry teenagers to the car, or anywhere. Start building healthy habits early. It is hard in the beginning, but it pays off.
A subject that comes up often in my conversations with parents or other caregivers is that of values or beliefs. I bring it up here as an asset in caregivers’ endeavors to set boundaries or limits for their children. One of the great features of this asset is that – as all of know who have relatives or close friends with different political or religious persuasions from our own – you can’t argue with someone’s values or beliefs. Therefore, when caregivers establish what their family values and beliefs are, they can use them to support whatever expectations they have of their children’s behavior.
For example, suppose one of your family values is to treat guests well – with politeness and generosity. In that case, if your child has a play date and gets into a conflict with his/her friend about sharing or who gets first choice, you know exactly what your position will be. The guest gets first choice of what to play with or which piece of cake. Now, as in all cases, this depends somewhat on the context. If you have a very young child or a child who has particular difficulties with sharing, for example, you will want to prepare for the play date by putting away special toys that could generate extreme proprietary reactions. However, there is no argument. If your child tries to argue, you simply respond, “In our family, that is the way we treat guests.”
The child may object, but you do not have to explain or elaborate. That is that. Now, let me be clear. I am not advocating the enforcement of rules in a rigid authoritarian manner, so that children cannot register their complaints or different perspectives on the matter. There are plenty of other opportunities to discuss these issues with children and many chances to listen to children’s objections or alternative points of view. What I am suggesting that one way for caregivers to avoid a struggle while trying to set a limit is to use family values as a basis for their decision.
Another time family values comes up is when siblings fight among themselves. If kindness and tolerance of differences is a value of your family (I am including children’s homes as “families”) you can also use those values to support your position in relation to the sibling conflict. If one child is criticizing the other, you can say simply, “In our family, we do not judge other people.” Or, “In our family, we do not talk to other people like that.” Sometimes, following that pronouncement, those words are enough. Other times, you have to take subsequent action, such as separating the two children or giving one or both of them a consequence.
The concept of family values is not a magic bullet, but it is important. That is because caregivers not infrequently become confused or ambivalent when challenged by the child. For example, “Why should Susie get to play with my new game when I want to go bike riding?” If the child is very persuasive or good as pressing his advantage, the caregiver might start to confuse considerations about the type of activity or the general issue of fairness with the main question – who should choose. In that case, the caregiver might hesitate, and that could lead to an argument. If, on the other hand, she has a simple rule to follow that supports her basic beliefs, she is clearer and more confident.The answer to this question might be something like, “I think you will have time to do both, but since Susie is your guest, we will play with the new game first.”
In another example, a child tells his sibling or playmate that he is stupid. The caregiver may say, “We don’t criticize others like that in our family (or home).” Even if the child who is criticizing does not retract the remark, the child who was criticized heard the caregiver pronounce the family values, and that is critically important.
In the next posting, I will talk about another issue in limit setting.