“My seven year old won’t come out from under the bed. He doesn’t want to go to school, and his tummy hurts. And he hit me three times this morning. We’re late for school half the time, and it looks like we will be late again today. He has a star chart, and I’m trying to use it to help him get out the door in the morning, but he doesn’t seem to care. I don’t know what to do.”
Pandemic parenting is challenging, to say the least. We’ve been living the pandemic life for 23 months, and there is a steady stream of parents who, at their wit’s end, knock on my door for help with messages like this one. Their children are mostly delightful, except for when they are extremely challenging.
Their children sometimes play well, except when they tear their siblings’ hair out. Their kids are kind, except when their words are so sharp that their parents recoil in surprise.
Look, there have always been children who struggle more than others – children who genuinely need more adept pandemic parenting. But many more families are reporting higher challenge levels now than they did pre-pandemic.
So let’s talk about the stress that pandemic life has showered on families and children, and how we can support ourselves and our children so that we’re not in daily battles over the stuff of everyday life: toothbrushing, going to school or the park, getting along with siblings and just living a family life.
Your parents and their parenting styles can have a direct effect on how you bring up your child. Were your parents good parents? Watch this video to know more.
There is a lot of stress in our world right now, and it is showing up in our children’s behaviors. But before we get into that, I want to reassure you this: you are not the only one. Again, and again, and again when I host virtual groups for parents, the sense of relief is palpable: many parents are struggling with the same thing as you.
You are a good parent, even though it is hard.
I feel qualified to tell you this: for the last several years, I have teamed up with my mother (yep, we’re both PhDs in Childhood Mental Health & Education) to coach parents with research-based tools for supporting kids to cooperate. I’ve sat with hundreds of parents, the vast majority of whom have expressed how hard pandemic parenting is, and all of them are wonderful parents. If you’re reading this article, I can say the same to you if you’re reading this article.
When we think about pandemic parenting and what the pandemic has to do with your child stuck under the bed before school, we have to come at it from a brain-based perspective.
There are three parts of the brain that matter here: the pre-frontal cortex, where language operates and rational thinking lives; the amygdala or limbic system, the home of feeling & emotion; and the base of the brain, which controls automatic functions and safety responses (think fight/flight/freeze).
Parenting during the pandemic can be tough on parents, and the children. There are physiological changes to the brain when a child experiences stress. In a family, stress is anything that impedes your child from cooperating. So, let’s think about this child under the bed.
First, the child, stressed about going to school, saying goodbye to mom, wearing a mask that bugs his ears, or saying hello to new friends, loses access to the pre-frontal cortex.
This means he can’t access language and rational thought- so when you say, “you need to come out from under your bed right now, or we won’t get to school on time, and if we don’t get to school on time, you won’t get a sticker” it won’t matter very much- it’s too logical.
As the child gets more upset, he begins to lose access to his limbic system, which means that the parents’ efforts to cuddle and support aren’t received the way they were meant.
This little one is now struggling to relate to his parents: he can’t feel them (the limbic system is not very active), and even though his parent is talking about a sticker chart, it sounds more like “womp womp womp.” This child is operating from the part of the brain that is only concerned with a felt sense of safety.
Some of the ways professionals describe these meltdowns are brainstorms, amygdala hijacks, or flipping the lid. Anyway, you slice it. This is a child in dysregulation. He needs a parent to support him to calm down and ground himself into his body.
And yet, chances are his parents are frustrated, worried about getting to work on time, and possibly arguing about how to manage this situation. The parents are operating from dysregulation, too.
You see- we’re all in this pandemic life. Some of the stressors families experience are not knowing what is next, shifting rules, spikes in infection that cause worry, reduced social interaction, and decision-making fatigue – and for twenty-three months, that has been living in all of our systems.
And so, dear parents, the way to get your child out from under the bed and off to school involves no stickers, no bribes, and no dragging of your screaming child while you fight back your tears.
Supporting your child to cooperate involves soothing your system. Part of that work can be done by using relationship-based pandemic parenting tools that are soothing for parent and child, and part of that work has to be done before you go into your child’s room and support them to get ready for school.
So take a deep breath- you need to calm your brain, too. Acknowledge to yourself that it’s okay to be late, and flip your frame around what is happening for your child. Instead of “my child makes mornings so difficult,” soothe your system and set yourself up to support your child with “my child is having difficulty getting ready for school. My child needs me right now.”
To learn how to calm themselves down, get through challenges and tricky moments, and cooperate with the grownups in their lives, they need to experience those things inside of the relationship with their caregivers.
When I’m choosing tools for families who are experiencing challenges with pandemic parenting, I scan the research- but I also attune to the particular child. Here are some questions to ask yourself when your particular child needs help to guide how you respond:
1. What is going on in this child’s life right now?
Major transitions (birth, death, divorce, moving, loss of a pet, changing teachers or schools, etc.) can mean a child struggles to cooperate as they process new information. Choose tools that support the child to integrate the transition.
2. What kind of sensory support has my child liked in the past?
Many parents reach for strategies like explaining, coaxing, or using a reward system- but children under stress need solutions focused on their bodies (remember, the parts of their brain that govern language & critical thought are stressed and possibly offline).
Consider whether your child likes soft blankets, deep pressure, soothing nature sounds, being held, using lavender-scented hand lotion, or other sensory experiences. Choose supports that highlight your child’s preferences.
3. What does my child need right now from me?
Some children need only the next step in a task (open a drawer for socks or walk together to the car). In contrast, others need to know their caregiver understands their perspective (use words like “this is so tricky. I know you’ll get it, I can put on one sock, and you can put on the other.”)
Most children need a quiet environment- so turn off any sounds. A great tool to use here, too, is whispering. It is calming for both child and parent.
4. How can I support cooperation when we’re not in the middle of a meltdown?
The truth is, your best efforts at decreasing tricky moments don’t happen during the tricky moment. Rather, building in lots of moments in which your child does the right thing and gets attention and support from you is critical.
What does this look like? It looks like eating a meal together every day or involving your child in chores like folding laundry – and being present with them through the activity. It looks like cooking dinner together and connecting with your child (and offering high-quality praise) as they cut the tomatoes or fill the glasses with ice water.
Think of these moments as bank deposits – to support your child effectively through a tough moment. They need to have lots of positive experiences with you ahead of time. Everyday positive experiences are fine – no need for anything “extra.”
How to create a culture of connection & cooperation
The thing that will make the most significant difference in your child’s capacity to move through the day with ease (and with less stress!) is shifting your family’s culture at home. There are three parts to this:
1. The quality of your presence
Praise has gotten a bit of a bad rap lately. But here’s what we know from the research: the highest quality of praise is your presence, and your child needs a lot of it.
Your child also needs to witness you being present with your spouse and other beloved adults- when they see you work through conflict over and over again in peaceful ways, they begin to adopt those strategies for themselves.
How you communicate with your child is paramount. You can hold the exact firm boundaries using positive language. Usually, you will have a better outcome. We dive deep into using language so that your child wants to cooperate.
3. The planning you do to help your child with tricky moments
If your child constantly struggles, you need to make a plan. Perhaps the child who can’t get out the door even with a sticker chart doesn’t need a reward- but rather, a visual schedule to help them process all the steps that have to happen in the morning.
Maybe the kids who fight in the back of the car don’t need you to take their iPads- they need you to teach them what to do in the car so that they can be peaceful and calm.
I hope that today is the beginning of your journey towards cooperation. Join us in the upcoming Parenting Reset to rekindle the joy, harmony, and felt a sense of safety that everyone- you and your children, both!- craves.
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Dr. Chelsey Hauge-Zavaleta is a researcher & parent coach who helps families get their children to cooperate and connect. She uses tools & contemporary findings from neuroscience, education, and social emotional learning to help families create cultures of cooperation and find joy in their parenting.