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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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”
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.
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.
Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels.
Co-parenting frequently breaks down in parents’ efforts to organize home life or set limits. That may be in part due to the emergence of different parental styles in the planning process, such as when the parents are deciding on a bedtime for their child or establishing family rules. One parent may feel that the organizational plan (for example, setting a regular bedtime, the number of warnings a child is allowed before a consequence, whether a child is allowed an alternative meal choice, etc.) is too rigid, while the other parent feels it is not strict enough. These conflicts often arise from what seems natural or necessary because of the parent’s own experience as a child. Sometimes the parent believes that the way their parents treated them shaped them in helpful ways. Other times the parent believes that the way they were brought up was hurtful and insensitive to their needs. In addition to differences in the way they grew up, problems in “co-parenting” may also arise from basic difficulties the parents have negotiating a common agenda. One parent may tend to be more controlling or bossy than the other, provoking the second parent to dig in their heels or resentfully submit, etc.
When these problems occur, it is important to return to a focus on the child. What is the child telling you that she needs? If she is tired the next day, perhaps she needs an earlier bedtime or some other change in her bedtime routine. (Of course, telling her this when you are trying to get her to go to bed will not usually lead to a good result!) If she requests something else to eat at the dinner table, perhaps an alternative meal choice is justified. It is good to be flexible within limits. The problem comes when parent and child – or parent and parent – get into an escalating control struggle and share the perception that only one winner will emerge from the battle. The truth of the matter is that in a struggle, there are always two losers. That is because both parents and child want the child to grow up healthy and strong, but struggles build unhealthy and maladaptive patterns in the child’s mind which are reinforced with subsequent struggles. The pull to get into a struggle, often against a background of family tension, can interfere with generating or establishing healthier patterns of interaction. Good co-parenting occurs when one parent can see that the other parent is in danger of falling into a struggle pattern and can give them the emotional support they need to avoid it.
Children need routines and predictability, especially in families with co-parenting difficulties, or in families of children with school or behavior problems. Often these two things go together because difficulty co-parenting clearly interferes with effective parenting, and also because some children are harder to parent and generate more than usual stress in their parents. Children with school and behavior problems may lack the personal resources to accommodate to the typical demands of school and family life. A common set of problems that cause trouble in school and at home are problems organizing oneself in time and space. That makes transitions particularly challenging – the transition from sleep to an awake state or from an awake state to sleep, from an activity to homework, from a video game to supper, from a quiet indoor activity to outdoor play, from free play to paying attention to the teacher, etc. One way to help children in all these circumstances is to create routines and stick to them. Often children benefit from “visual cues” such as words or pictures on calendars. These cues must be kept in a visible place that is commonly visited, such as the kitchen or the bathroom. However, none of these aids will be useful if they are not practiced regularly and frequently. For example, it is helpful to refer to a calendar of the day’s events both at bedtime and at breakfast. This is an area of parenting that often breaks down. If two parents can maintain a routine, they are doing something right.
A while ago the mother of a 9-year old girl told me a story about going to the bookstore with her daughter to buy her a book in a series that the girl – we will call her Josie – loved. They had planned this happy errand ahead of time, and they both were looking forward to it.
Josie loved to read and could really get lost in a book. She sometimes used books as a refuge when life got hard, for example when she felt slighted or excluded by friends at school, especially at recess. Although her classmates could actually be critical or rejecting, it was also true that Josie lacked some of the flexibility that allows children to brush off casual meanness or to not take something personally. It was not exactly that Josie could not “pick up social cues”, because she could imitate for me with remarkable astuteness the body language of girls on the playground who turned their backs and circled the wagons as she approached. She even “understood” that sometimes friends had private communication that derived its value from belonging to those girls alone and could not be shared – at least not at the moment. But her feelings would be hurt, and she would get stuck on the unfairness of it all. Then she would either tell the teacher, which would not gain her points in the playground society, or she would isolate herself in a book, reading in a corner of the school yard. Of course, this broke her mother’s heart, and mine too.
In the bookstore, on the way to the display table featuring this new book, Josie spied a large glossy nonfiction volume about dog breeds. Grasping it up and clutching it to her chest, she begged her mother to buy it for her. Josie’s mother was taken off guard. She tried to reason with Josie – “Josie, don’t you want the new book in the series?” She checked the price of the dog book and determined that it was, as she had expected, quite expensive. “No,” Josie responded with emotion, “I want this, Mom. Please get it for me! This is what I want!” Josie’s mother suggested that they first go take a look at the display table with the new book, but Josie took this as a rejection and stamped her foot, refusing to budge. “This is what I want, and if I can’t have this, I don’t want anything!”
Josie’s mother had that sinking feeling that she sometimes gets when she and Josie are at odds with each other. Why couldn’t Josie be reasonable and see that she was changing course mid-stream? Why did she have to take their lovely plan for an afternoon together and turn it into another sad fight? For her part, Josie (as she told me later) was thinking, “Doesn’t my mom want me to have something that I really want? Does she only want me to have something that she picks out for me? I could learn all about dog breeds from this book! Maybe I will start a dog breeding business, and this book could be the inspiration for a great enterprise! My mom just doesn’t listen to me.”
In fact, Josie’s mom tried again to persuade Josie to be reasonable about checking out the new book, and Josie dug in even deeper. Finally, they left the store without any book at all, both miserable. Josie’s mom asked me what suggestion I could give her about how to avoid this unhappy stand off in the future.
I thought of the blog posting I had just written about growing flexibility in younger children and wondered how some of those ideas could be applied to a child Josie’s age. It is usually harder to work on something like this with an older child. One reason is that a 9-year old having a tantrum in a public place is more humiliating for a mother than is the case with a 4-year old. Also, you can’t pick up a 9-year old and carry her to the car.
Another important underlying reason is that a 9-year old has repeated this unfortunate pattern with you thousands of more times than the 4-year old has had time in his shorter life to do, and the pattern is more established, easier to slip into. Remember the metaphor of rain on a flat plain (Granic & Patterson, 2006). (This excellent article has “antisocial” in the title, but it includes general principles of family development that apply to all families and kids.) At first the raindrops fall randomly on the flat surface, but then some of them happen to fall near one another and a little depression forms in the dirt. After that, the depression draws more raindrops into it because it is downhill, and before long a rivulet of water is formed. Decades later the rivulet may have turned into a river. Whereas the 4-year old may be at the rivulet stage, the 9-year old may be at the stage of a small stream. It is easier to make a pile of dirt to dam the rivulet than it is to divert a stream.
Yet another reason is that the 9-year old hasn’t had the benefit of all the time to practice flexible reactions that the 4-year old will have had if he begins to learn them at 4. She has been working with methods that don’t serve her well all this time, and that has taken a toll on her whole repertoire of skills for getting along in the world. A crude analogy is that sometimes when you injure your foot, you adjust your walk to minimize the pain of stepping on the sore foot and in the process put strain your back, causing back pain, and that can cause you to stiffen your neck, giving you a headache, etc.
But take heart! 9-years old is not too late! Let’s think about what Josie’s mother might do to help things turn out differently next time. First of all, in the example of the 4-year old I stressed the child’s state of regulation. Here I would also like to stress the mother’s state. Remember that she and Josie had set out to have a fun time together, so when Josie abruptly went off course, she too felt disrupted. Her next reaction was to anticipate the inevitability of a standoff. With this unhappy thought in her mind, she experienced disappointment, frustration, even a sense of loss. She must also have felt controlled by Josie, even though she was actually in the grips of a pattern that she and her daughter had created together. So the first step is to attend to her own state (remember the admonition in the airplane to put the oxygen mask on yourself first and then put it on your child). She can try to calm herself, recognize the pattern and tell herself that it doesn’t have to turn out that way this time. Sometimes I tell parents to “channel” me, because I want them to feel less alone in this situation.
Next, she can try to imagine Josie’s mind. To do that, she can approach Josie in a similar way to the boy in the 4-year old example. She might say something like, “Oh, let me see that (dog breeding) book! That looks so neat! You know, I think the idea of breeding dogs is amazing. It makes me happy just to think of it.” (Here she would be matching Josie’s emotional state in addition to her intention.). Then she might say, “Bring that book with you, and let’s go see the other book too. Then we can consider all of our options!” I use the word “our” instead of “your” here, because it softens the idea of the choice that is coming up, emphasizing that Josie will not have to make a difficult choice alone. Josie’s mother will also have to slow down. You cannot rush through this kind of process. She will have to be willing to let Josie look at both books at the same time, flip through the pages of each, imagine what it would be like to be the proud owner of a book about dog breeds and what it would be like to enter the fantasy world of the series book. It will be hard, but with her mother’s help, next time she may be prepared to let go of one cherished (even if unrealistic) idea in order to choose another more realistic alternative. She will be building agency (the sense of being able to choose effectively) as well as flexibility.
Of course, it might not work. Remember the metaphor of the stream. You can throw rocks in the way of a rushing stream, but one or two will not stop the flow. You have to do it again and again. But it can be done. Next time, I will consider building flexibility in your adolescent!
Granic, I & Patterson, G (2006). Toward a comprehensive model of antisocial development: a dynamic systems approach, Psychological Review, 113 (1) 101-131.
Our IPMH group has been having an extensive and interesting discussion about culture on email. I have been traveling and it has been hard for me to follow all of it on my blackberry, but I thought I would offer some thoughts. It refers to caregivers in that we often forget to figure in culture to our caregiving practices and aspirations. Recent writings in the popular press about Chinese and French child rearing have made many American parents doubt themselves. Of course, every path chosen in life leaves another untaken, and every advantage that a particular culture offers also has a price.
I just returned from Normandy, where I attended the wedding of the son of my best childhood friend. It was like stepping out of my life and into a French movie and then back into my life again. I got the thrill that I often get when I am part inside and part outside a life that is not my own. One of the visual memories I have of this experience is that of looking across a room of 82 people, gathered around one big table and several smaller ones, talking. There was something in their animation that struck me, and in the fact that whereas the group included young intellectuals in academic and professional careers, middle-aged tradespeople, retired teachers, one nun, one very old grandmother in a wheel chair, and about a dozen children, I had the impression that they were all leaning forward in their chairs and talking happily. Of course, this was a lovely group of people, and it was a happy occasion, but they were also French, and the French love to talk. They love their language. I would say that is probably the anchor of their culture.
There were several other observations that I made about culture during those two days of the wedding celebrations. The first was about children. The children were quite noisy during the ceremony at the church. They talked and squawked, and no one seemed to care. But what was remarkable was how the children behaved during the dinner after the wedding. The dinner began at 8:00 pm., and there were many children at the dinner, including an infant and several preschoolers. A not quite 3-year old was sitting next to me. He maybe was the one exception to my previous description of people talking happily. At the beginning of the dinner I wondered how long he would last. I tried to make friends with him, but he shrank away from me. Later (just to underscore what I said about language) someone explained to me that his initial rejection of me was probably because of my accent. He was doing little provocative things like poking the straw from his drink into each piece of bread in the breadbasket on the table near him. His parents were all over him about it, correcting him, telling him to be good, but they didn’t seem very upset. They just kept telling him to behave over and over again, in a way that punctuated but didn’t seem to interrupt their conversation with their friends. Finally he just stopped doing little naughty things and started to amuse himself in various innocuous ways. By the end of the dinner at 1:30 am, he was sagging a little, but he was still awake. When people were saying good night, at the coaching of his parents, he even offered me his little fat cheeks to kiss goodbye. We were not necessarily friends, but not enemies.
The second observation I made was the next afternoon when we all came together again for lunch. I noticed that the first thing everyone said in greeting after hello was, “Did you sleep well?” (“T’as bien dormi?”) Now, that isn’t surprising, since we all had been up very late the night before. I noticed that it wasn’t just that people were speaking simply to me because they didn’t know the extent of my French, because they were asking one another the same question. It seemed that there was something facilitating, even comforting about the convention of asking this question, as if it were part of a song that we all knew. Again, language was key.
The last observation was about the goodbyes. Probably many Americans have remarked on “the French goodbye”. It seems to us as if it goes on forever. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that the French, who value their language so highly, should use it to soothe the pain of parting. As an American, you have to be prepared, you have to realize that when a French person first says goodbye, he doesn’t really mean goodbye. He means that he is beginning to say goodbye.
How do all these observations come together into a more general consideration about culture? I realize that my comments are coming from a naïve point of view and that many have surely studied this phenomenon and written about it more knowledgeably, but I would guess it has something to do with the place of language in French culture. And as we know, language development begins very early in a child’s life – not necessarily words and symbols, but the aspects of language I am talking about. That is, the tones, the rhythms, the “sense” of communicating and probably even the “sense of what is being communicated”, through the matching of affect and actions with the words. So that when the parents of the 2-year old persistently corrected him verbally without ever giving him the impression that his leaving was an option, they were teaching him how to stay at the table. I am not suggesting that his parents were teaching him patience; I do not necessarily consider patience to be a French virtue, but staying at the table is. I am also not suggesting that all French 2-year olds could stay at the table that long and that late, but since they have been immersed in that culture from birth or before, many can. To return to my original point about culture, I suppose that the advantage of being able to stay at the table carries a price too, but I can’t for the moment think of what it would be.