Covid-19

Surviving lockdown with young children

Child development expert Annette Henderson has some tips for working parents to cope at home while caring for school-age children.

The announcement we will all be in lockdown for a minimum of four weeks means those of us who are parents or caregivers of young children have the seemingly insurmountable task of figuring out how to take care of them, and ourselves, during this time.

Here are some tips for parents to consider as we move into this lockdown period:

Develop schedules and routines: Humans are creatures of habit and routines. Indeed, research shows our sensitivity to regularities in our everyday lives is present very early in life. When we can reliably predict what’s going to happen next, our learning is enhanced and our anxiety levels remain in check. This is the same for adults and children alike. As such, maintaining regular routines as best we can is one way we can feel in control of an otherwise largely uncontrollable situation. Within the next day or so, get together with your family and determine a loose schedule of how the month will go. Ensure you include time for learning activities, self-care, chores, relaxation and most important, fun! If you have school-aged children, teachers will be providing learning plans. As parents, it’s important you do what you can to support your child’s learning environment. If your child is not yet school age, engaging together in some structured tasks (for example, drawing, colouring, crafts, etc) will help fuel their developing mind. While everyone’s learning habits are different, learning first thing in the morning might be the best way to get the day on track.

Making chores a fun family activity by harnessing your child’s inner ‘prosociality’ – that is, their behaviours that benefit or help other people: Many studies, including research conducted by our research group, have shown that children are prosocial beings. Even before a child is two, they can share resources, help someone in need and work with others to attain shared goals. Finding ways to use these developing behaviours to complete inescapable household tasks and chores will shorten the days and ensure parents don’t have an entire house to clean once the children are in bed! My sister, in lockdown in North America, shared with me what her and her family did the other day: they wrote down a bunch of household tasks on small pieces of paper and put them in a jar. Every day, each person pulls out a task from the jar and then, after a bit of training from mum and dad, everyone went off and did their tasks! I suggest adding in some fun music to really get into the cleaning spirit! For those with quite young children who cannot be left to their own devices, just give them a duster and chances are, they’ll follow you and lend their own little helping hands.

Children can play on their own and becoming bored is OK: Researchers have long argued that play is essential to children’s learning. Parents do not need to be full-time entertainers for their children. Providing children with opportunities to play on their own enables them to explore their environment and hone their creative skills. Free play also allows children the opportunity (yes, opportunity) to become bored, which is also OK. In fact there are many positive outcomes associated with boredom. Through boredom children learn how to regulate negative emotions that arise when they start to feel bored and learn how to “push through” by seeking out other things to occupy their attention. Being able to cope with negative emotions gives them confidence that they can solve problems. And lastly, when children experience boredom they get the space they need to use their imagination and form creative ways to entertain themselves.

Physical isolation does not mean social isolation: Humans are social beings. We seek out new social experiences and become happy when they are found. Being unable to leave home does not mean that you and your family cannot have new social experiences, we just have to get creative with the form these new experiences take. By taking advantage of video-conferencing technologies such as Skype, Google Hangouts, or FaceTime we can keep our social connections active. Arrange “virtual” play dates with friends where the children lead the interaction … you might be surprised how social children can actually be through a video-conferencing interface. Parents might just need to help very young children figure out where the camera is! For parents with older children, keep in mind peer relationships are critical to a child’s social, emotional and cognitive development. Ensure your child has time and the space to connect with their friends.

Physical activity is important to maintaining health and wellbeing: Although we cannot go to our local gym and our children cannot go to their regular activities, it is important to keep our health and wellbeing in check by finding other ways to stay physically active. There are many things you can do in your home to stay active as a family. Check out YouTube for family exercise resources. On the recommendation of my other sister, we tried Cosmic Yoga for Kids the other day, and it was awesome! Playing hide-and-seek in the house is a fun activity, or if you have space run outside the house a few times. And, an all-time fun activity when it rains - splash in puddles! Fortunately, the weather in NZ is still relatively fine so take advantage and go for family walks or bicycle rides. However, if you venture beyond your house, avoid contact with public surfaces (e.g., no playground equipment please!), remember to wash your hands with soap before and after you return and give others adequate space to respect social distancing.

Use digital media strategically: This is an unprecedented time and so parents might need to take some unprecedented measures to get through the next month or so. If you are a parent who usually tries to limit your child’s exposure to digital technologies, this might be the time to relax some of these rules without feeling guilty about doing so. However, I encourage parents use their child’s digital time strategically. Think about the times of the day that are toughest to get through – use digital technologies to make those times easier. Maybe you need to get some work done, or maybe it’s just before dinner and it’s been a very long day with everyone getting frustrated with one another. Why not give your child some device time? Ideally, this time should be family down-time in which parents and children are interacting with the device together. But, again, if you need time for self-care or work, now is not the time to be hard on yourself –this is a temporary situation that requires a few changes to rules so everyone can get through.

One last point, the internet has an abundance of great resources that will help over the next month or so. Of course, there is also an abundance of not-so-great resources. Here are some links I have been using to acquire good information over recent weeks:

Associate Professor Annette Henderson is from the School of Psychology in the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Science

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