Parents of young children are probably the most tired and affected during this time of staying safe at home. Young children, unlike older children, do not have the ability to separate this time of sheltering at home from “normal time.” This is why a parent of a young child needs to be careful in how they organize the days ahead, since your little one is developing and changing neurologically at a rapid pace, without care or worry of what is happening around them. For parents that have children under five, and are unsure about how to handle all the changes and the inability to do things that you regularly do, remember this: Young Children take their safety cues from you. This is true in parenting always, but it is especially true now. Your children and you are in an aquarium. You, the caregivers, are the water. The children are the fish. How healthy is your water? How is the temperature? How is the current? Let’s start to make you as inviting as possible. Here are ways to manage your own mood and stress.
First, let’s not be anxious about being anxious or scared about being scared. We are supposed to be anxious and careful right now because there is a lot of uncertainty and a feeling of a lack of control. So be gentle with yourself, be gentle with your sense of fear. Fear is not the most enjoyable emotion, but it helps us look for help and for facts. Anxiety is perfectly normal at this time. That is what you, the grown up, is supposed to be feeling because your brain is protecting you from a possible danger. It is, however, important to think about and manage your anxiety. Again, it's not optional for parents with children under the age of five because your children take their safety cues from you. Children under five look at you to see and wonder if the world is safe, if they are safe. You have seen this behavior when they fall down. They look at you and say to you with their eyes, “should I be worried about this fall?”
How can you manage your anxiety? First, by accepting the fear and doom thoughts that are bubbling up for you. When you notice those thoughts:
Accept them as normal.
Pause to breathe into the thought.
Label how they make you feel.
Pause to tolerate and feel the emotion.
Take the next indicated action to manage the information you just processed.
Also, please be mindful that if you have been stuck on social media, if you have 24-hour news on the background on the regular, this is causing many of your anxious thoughts. Do yourself a favor and turn it off. Go the old fashioned way, and watch it once a day, at 5 o’clock and keep your news intake low. Background TV exposure is associated with negative cognitive and language development for children under three, so you have two big reasons to turn that TV off.
In taking care of your children, expect that children under five will touch their face, and will put their fingers in their mouths. Fighting that fight is fruitless. Focus instead on keeping their toys and space clean. If you have many toys all over your house, you should pare that down so that you have less to clean. Most preschools will tell you that the best way to keep children healthy is to maintain their play area clean. This is really the best way to keep the little ones healthy. Another good reason to put away toys is that young children tend to dump all the toys out, play and then move on. Once they move on from their toy explosion, they get into things around the house that most caregivers dislike. If you keep toys out on rotation, the possibility of boredom or of going off and getting into your kitchen cabinet decreases. If every day there is a new set of toys to explore, the child is entertained. Please know that most children under three shift their attention quickly between experiences so plan around short bursts of play. Free play is the work of young children.
Next, keep a routine that's predictable and that you can stick to. Please remember that routine is more about the pattern than the hour of the day. The way to organize your hours is based on when you need to be ready in the morning, and past your morning routine of feeding, cleaning and dealing with tantrums. You do not need to use the color-coded schedules that have an activity every thirty minutes that have been shared on social media. Only use those if you used them before the pandemic. Instead, have a morning routine, have a midday routine and an evening routine of cleaning them, feeding them and sleeping them and stick to it. In between those morning, midday, evening musts of food and sleep, all your little one needs is play. Play inside, play outside, play alone, play with you. Children under five thrive in a predictable routine so make sure that your routine patterns are solid.
For those working from home, this is going to be difficult for your young child. Young children do not understand what you are doing, that you are behind a door and they can’t open it, so be mindful of their confusion. Your little one is still running on the old routine. They are used to having you and not seeing you on a computer. They will need time (up to three weeks) to understand that you will not respond the way you used to. If you are a two-parent family, be mindful of taking turns working and being with the child. You must partner to keep the boundary that “Mama's working, she will come out and now it’s time for you to be with Dada” or another adult that is helping you.
If you’re in a single-parent household, this is more difficult for you. Expect them to come in and check in with you, as children under four will check in with you every 10 to 15 minutes. (Yes this is why you felt crazy.) Plan around giving them something to do while you’re working. When they come over to check in with you, make sure that you look at them and say, “Hey how are you, oh you have a car in your hand” and then go back to your work. You could also preempt this 10-15 minute check in. Set an alarm for every 10 minutes, and when it goes off touch them, hold them, or say something to your child. Checking in with them preemptively will make it a bit easier.
Expect them to be unusual, expect them to be extra irritable, expect them to be extra challenging only because their world is also upside down. They are feeling the same kind of chaos internally that we are feeling. Routine is your friend. You are in charge of their routine. You are in charge of their cleanliness. You are in charge of them. You are in charge of staying home. Please let them play. Please let them be silly. Most of them are incredibly happy that their caregivers are home and around them 24/7. Everybody breathe; it's okay that you're anxious. It’s normal. It’s human. You’re supposed to be. We are all on high alert. Remind yourself that, as Glennon Doyle says, “you can do hard things” and be mindful to notice all the love and connection your little ones ask for is because you are their special someone.