COVID-19 is not the end of the world, and that’s what we should be telling our children, said two Arizona State University lecturers with the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics.
In fact, they say, not only can our children learn resilience from this crisis, but they can pass on these strengths to the next generation.
Denise Bodman and Bethany Van Vleet are mother and daughter lecturers at ASU with backgrounds in educational psychology and human development and extensive experience teaching about parenting and family relationships. With 10 children and grandchildren between them, they said the global pandemic has turned their homes into living laboratories and, together, they are learning on the fly how to strike a balance between home, work, family and school life during a stay-at-home order.
ASU Now spoke to Bodman and Van Vleet about how COVID-19 can be a tool in helping children to become adaptable, resilient and better able to deal with stress in times of crisis.
Editor’s note: Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Question: These are scary and unprecedented times. What are you telling your children and grandchildren, and what should we all be telling our youth about COVID-19 that is truthful and comforting?
Denise Bodman: The world can be a scary place for children, from something as simple as Halloween costumes and festivities to a major event, such as a global pandemic. Parents and guardians can act as an important mediator for children and youth of all ages. This means that parents can interpret what is going on according to the child’s level of understanding and experience, as well as the values and belief systems of the family. Honesty is always important, but the amount of information and how that information is presented can make a huge difference in how children perceive and react to this threat.
We learned from the experience of 9/11 and the twin towers that the constant drone of media with its accompanying visuals increased the likelihood of PTSD in both children and adults. The more television coverage people saw, the more likely they were to be affected. This means that now is the time to cut back on COVID-19 coverage. … Surround your children with positive programs and home experiences; empower them and provide a sense of control by encouraging them to come up with ideas to help others. I walked by a home near my neighborhood. On the ground, piled around the mailbox, was a large stack of child-painted rocks with positive messages on them. On top of the mailbox were boxes of sidewalk chalk. All were free for the taking.
Do these types of activities mean that we stick our head in the sand and ignore the crisis? Absolutely not! Explaining to the child at the child’s level that there is a disease that has spread around the world and has caused some problems with hospitals and medical people is honest and straightforward. Put COVID-19 in context by explaining that most people do not get very sick from this illness, that we can work at keeping our bodies healthy by eating right, exercising, sleeping and washing our hands, and that most people getting very sick are older or sick already. For adolescents, every fiber of their being screams invulnerability. At this age, they can think abstractly about concepts such as death, but most lack actual experience. They need to be reminded that stay-at-home orders are not necessarily for them but to protect others and help our medical personnel and first responders. Helping youth tap into concern for others, including their grandparents or immune-compromised friends, may decrease the number of “coronavirus parties” or sneaking out to be with friends.
Finally, it is important to understand that this is not the first time people have experienced extraordinary difficulties. Our parents and grandparents experienced war and the Great Depression, our great-grandparents experienced an even worse sickness (Spanish flu) before we had the wonders of modern medicine, our great-great-grandparents struggled as they crossed plains, immigrated from other countries and dealt with problems that had little help from governments or neighbors. Our ancestors learned new things because of this and became stronger people. We can learn to be more adaptable as we stay home and find activities, even new hobbies, to do there. We can learn to be more thoughtful of others, as we visit friends and family over the phone.
Asking your children to keep a diary will not only provide them with a means of expressing concerns and detailing their days, it will provide a lifetime of memories that they likely will share with their own grandchildren. Research has found that children who are aware of their own family histories have higher self-esteem, do better in school, have stronger identities and are better able to deal with stress. Being home together is a perfect time to begin talking about and writing your family history, if you haven’t already, or reviewing it if you have; you will be strengthening your children and grandchildren, perhaps for generations.
In short, mediate what children hear and understand that challenges can build strengths.
Q: Many families are also juggling work and family life, but with the caveat of being with their children 24/7. How are you balancing this, and what are some tips you can give other parents?
Bethany Van Vleet: The concept of “balance” is interesting, and the fact that working parents are often asked how they “balance it all” implies it is something we can and should achieve. Although most parents believe balance is possible, few believe they have achieved it. I would argue that aiming for balance sets up an unrealistic, often unachievable expectation that ultimately leads to a sense of failure or inadequacy. Life is constantly changing and different aspects of our lives will necessitate different levels of attention at different times. To suggest a parent can squeeze in eight hours of quality parenting time and education AND eight hours of productive work in a single, balanced day if they simply do things right is silly.
So, how am I balancing it? I’m not! I am striving for “good enough” as a baseline with moments of quality connection with my children and productivity with my work. And I think that is OK and that parents need to realize that is OK. If we do, it can reduce our stress and sense of failure, which can actually improve our parenting and connections.
COVID-19 parenting tips from Bethany Van Vleet
• Drop the guilt and be realistic. Parenting articles, schools and bloggers are offering massive amounts of advice, color-coded schedules, craft activities, educational resources, free yoga classes … While resources are helpful, the list of things parents “should” be doing but aren’t can be guilt inducing! A key aspect of parenting is realistic expectations, not only of our children, but of what is possible and achievable for the parent. … It’s not that you can’t achieve great things in both work and parenting on any given day, but they may be moments of greatness rather than an extended day of success.
One teacher explained to parents that this is not home schooling, this is crisis schooling, reminding parents to be realistic in their goals and expectations of themselves. I love the quote, “aim for progress, not perfection” — rather than trying to do it all, aim for realistic progress. Can my routine be just a little more organized today than it was yesterday? Can I set aside just 10 more minutes than yesterday to really play with the kids without checking e-mails on my cell phone? Can I strive for raising my voice slightly less often today than yesterday? Sometimes, the answer may be no … but, on the whole, are we trying?
• Seek out a supportive community. Have a Zoom meeting or group text with other parents who are willing to get real about this experience, who help you realize you are not alone in striving for progress rather than perfection. Recognizing shared parenting experiences and the normalcy in our challenges is an important aspect of well-being and positive parenting.
• Focus on kindness. We are in close quarters and we are all experiencing stress — parents and children. We have lost much of our personal space, both physical and temporal, so we need kindness more than ever. Discuss kindness explicitly as a family, create easy to achieve kindness goals, paint and hide kindness rocks, post kindness quotes around the home, aim for more kindness on screens, seek out awe-inspiring art and beauty in nature. Kindness reduces stress, improves health, and encourages connection and empathy. That can yield benefits on a number of levels.
• Develop a routine. Although our typical routines have been disrupted, creating new routines can be helpful for both parents and children. Routines and rituals in a family can have a positive impact on stress and well-being, help parents feel more capable, and result in improved behavior in children. Yet, as I said above, don’t beat yourself up for the days where the routine goes out the window.
• Don’t be afraid of unstructured time. Children can learn a lot from boredom and the freedom to play on their own terms. As you consider your daily schedule, allow your children the opportunity to create their own, appropriate, constructive fun.
• Participate in stress reducing activities. Stress and anxiety rarely lead to our best parenting behaviors; therefore, it’s important to find opportunities to relieve stress, have fun and laugh so we can have the presence of mind to act rather than react. These activities can happen independent of our children and may be nothing more than five minutes of “me” time doing something you enjoy; however, these activities can often involve our children as well and we should find ways to have fun together, such as taking a break for a family dance party.
Q: Do you suspect that parents are starting to appreciate teachers more these days?
Bodman: Parents traditionally have been their children’s teachers and they continue to do some of the most important teaching that children need — we call this “socializing,” which means teaching children how to care for themselves, how to handle conflict, what skills are important to do well in our society.
From our perspective with the Kyrene School District, we have an increased appreciation for teachers and how they are handling social distancing while attempting to keep their students up to date in terms of education. From preschool teachers to middle school teachers, we are seeing Zoom meetings for families who have phones, tablets and computers. Teaching packets are being made and distributed to families, as well, so those without technology are still in the loop.
Q: Bethany, you were used to taking your children to band practice, dropping them off at friends’ homes, dining out at restaurants, etc. How are they dealing with this lack of social activity and what are you doing to fill that void?
Van Vleet: In some ways, having fewer places to take kids has been a relief. Even my kids seem to be breathing a sigh of relief with fewer, or more flexible, demands on their time. It’s a reminder to consistently evaluate what activities we should keep on our calendar and what we can let go of, considering the research that suggests benefits from extracurricular activities but potential downsides to overscheduling our children.
However, the kids have missed the social interactions that come from school, drumline, scouts, park trips and playdates. Even with siblings in the home to interact with, the relationship between siblings and friends is different, and they are feeling that. To help address this, we have decided to get creative. We had family game night with another family through Zoom, our 8-year-old used Facetime with a friend while drawing pictures and touring the house, our babysitter listened to and assisted our 6-year-old as he read to her through Zoom, and we found safe and appropriate online games that allow friends to play together remotely. … Overall, research suggests that remote playdates are not a replacement for playing face-to-face, but they are a great option as circumstances dictate and they allow for similar amounts of social interaction as playing together in the same room.
We have also found that a number of independent activities can result in a sense of social connection. For example, participating in activities such as Chalk the Walk and a bear hunt get you outside and connect you to your community. Similarly, writing thank you notes and drawing pictures for essential employees can help occupy a child’s time. In fact, helping others has been found to reduce stress, along with a host of other health benefits, so finding opportunities that allow children to look outside of themselves and reach out to others is a great option.
It’s also important to recognize that children aren’t the only ones in the house who have a social void to fill. Social connection is related to physical, social and emotional health and it can offer opportunities for problem solving and support. Parents would be wise to also make use of remote connections at this time or find opportunities that help them feel connected to the community, such as writing notes of gratitude.
Q: Denise, how do you maintain connection with your children and grandchildren if you can’t physically touch or see them?
Bodman: Some families are being socially distant in an effort to protect the older adults in the family. Other families are already distant because of where they live. Either way, children may be anxious when they hear that COVID-19 is having a disproportionate effect on older adults, with greater likelihood of them dying. Again, most older adults will not suffer badly from COVID-19 and most will not die, despite the narrative carried in the media, although children might not understand this.
Children may be comforted by daily or weekly calls from grandparents. Grandparents can send their grandchildren regular cards and letters, perhaps with a surprise, such as a dried flower. These are simple and inexpensive ways of maintaining connection, but research has found that family strength is built through connection and adaptability.
Q: Bethany, what do you hope your children will gain from this experience once we’re allowed to return to our normal lives?
Van Vleet: I have told my children that life is full of adventures — challenges and difficulties that we must face and overcome with the help of people around us. Much like Harry Potter and Mulan, they will have hard times, but it is through these challenges that we learn and grow and create stronger connections to those around us. I believe that this experience has the potential to reinforce important lessons for our children. For example, I hope they can further learn that the hardest times eventually come to an end or become manageable, that they are resilient and have the ability to “bounce back” and adapt, that they can do hard things — perhaps harder things than they realize, and that we often want more than we need and need less than we think. I hope that they can learn to manage big feelings, to exhibit patience and forgiveness to people around them, and to see and be the good in the world.
Importantly, I also hope that these lessons are not only learned by my children, but by me — or at least I hope that this experience can serve as a reminder of lessons I may easily forget. In nearly every case, what we strive for in our children is something we can strive for in ourselves.