Written by: Sue Clark, Kids’ Turn San Diego Group Leader and Retired Teacher

As businesses are slowly re-opening and you may be out and about with your children, they will notice everyone wearing a face mask, some people will be wearing gloves, and they may see protests or people walking around with signs. Children may struggle to understand or cope. These internal struggles will most commonly be seen through an increase in emotional outbursts or behavior problems.

My daughter asked me to help her with organizing distance learning for her two teenage sons and 10 year old daughter while she and her husband worked from home. As a retired teacher, I was thrilled to help. I worked several times a week with our 10 year old granddaughter and was allowed to virtually enter into her new world of sheltering in place. It sure made me realize how difficult this new reality was for a family trying to work together amid so many new transitions.

As a grandparent, my message to my adult children is simple: “I love my Zoom time with my granddaughter, so when you need a short time to catch your breath, you can count on me! I may need help to learn at first, and I may need some technical assistance the first few times. But I want to learn, I want to help my granddaughter, and I want to help you! Let me help you catch your breath!”

As a retired teacher, I oftentimes look at resources related to children and learning. During a call with my daughter, she shared with me some information from the Child Mind Institute sent from a school principal on how to deal with behavior problems brought on by pandemic-related transitions in our lives. The article started with one very important question:

How are your children coping with these new transitions brought on by school and sports shutdowns, social distancing and social unrest?

Here are my thoughts: As businesses are slowly re-opening and you may be out and about with your children, they will notice everyone wearing a face mask, some people will be wearing gloves, and they may see protests or people walking around with signs. Children may struggle to understand or cope. These internal struggles will most commonly be seen through an increase in emotional outbursts or behavior problems.

When children have frequent emotional outbursts, it can be a sign that they haven’t yet developed the skills they need to cope with feelings like frustration, anxiety, and anger. Other children may seem to struggle more with boundaries and following rules. They may be defiant, ignore instructions or try to talk their way out of things that aren’t optional.

Coping requires impulse control, emotional self-regulation, problem-solving and being able to communicate one’s wishes and needs to others. Parents can aid in the process of helping children cope and learn to develop internal strengths that will help them navigate challenging times. For example, remember, children mimic their parents. If observing a protest, try to calmly adjust to your environment and answer your children’s questions in a factual way. This is an opportunity to educate them and to ask them what they think may be going on or, for older children, what they know about the protests or how they think or feel about them. Another encounter may occur when you’re in the store and someone sneezes. With the sneeze, you may be more fearful than your child so try and manage your own feelings. If you find yourself needing to say something, saying something simple like, “I’m glad we are wearing masks because that person just sneezed. The person is probably not sick but wearing masks will help keep us safe and healthy.”

Remember, it is normal right now to feel uneasy or worried about our community and how things will look in the future. To help your children during these times, be consistent, give warnings about transition times and turn off the TV/social media/devices when your children want to talk with you. This is a time to open your ears and truly listen to your children.

Here are some tips for helping children have days full of positive behaviors and happy smiles:

  1. Set clear expectations and write them out together. When children are given the chance to help create the expectations, they are more likely to follow them. We encourage you to make this a fun activity by inviting everyone to sit together, telling your children what you hope to accomplish, like “I asked everyone to come together because I’d like us to create new family rules/summer rules/no school rules—you can even create a new name together—so we all know who is responsible for doing what and when things need to be done.” Be positive and make it fun. “Let’s start with the easy things.” Start with rules/expectations you already have that everyone is already following and go from there. Encourage your children to brainstorm, like, “What needs to be done in the kitchen? Bathroom?” Remember that your children do not always know what you want or how you expect them to behave, so it is important to communicate your expectations.
  1. Schedule breaks for your children and yourself. Children respond best when they have breaks. We encourage you to be creative — snacks, water, jumping jacks, or a brainstorming session with your children about what movie to watch tonight or what book to read.
  1. Remember, children mimic their parents. No matter where you are or what you are doing, try to calmly adjust to your environment and answer your children’s questions in a factual way. Remain calm and model the behavior you want. It is also helpful to go into the room to talk with your child and avoid calling out from a distance.
  1. If your child is having a bad day, focus on what they are doing well and less on what they are doing wrong. Before commenting, it is best to wait until a meltdown or tantrum is over. As long as your child is in a safe place, it is okay to ignore these types of behaviors and pay attention for anything positive and then comment on the positive behavior. For example, if your child is refusing to do their math homework but is willing to work on spelling, forget about the math for now and praise your child for their spelling skills and how much you like it when they ask you for help with spelling.
  1. If you notice that your child has a hard time with a specific activity or situation, this may be a trigger of some emotion or behavior. It may be helpful to notice or think about what generally happens before that behavior and what may be triggering the emotional response. Noticing and understanding what may be causing the behavior may help you anticipate the trigger and hopefully prevent those behaviors from happening. If you do notice a consistent trigger for emotions and/or behaviors, try increasing communication around transition time and see if you notice anything different. Sometimes seeking professional assistance is helpful.
  1. Let kids have a choice. Do you want to shower before or after dinner? Do you want to wear the blue shirt or the green shirt? When giving choices, make sure you are okay with both options, otherwise you may be setting your child up for a lifetime of thinking they always make the wrong decisions or choices.
  1. When transitions are coming, provide a countdown for the transitions. “We have 20 more minutes here and then let’s start packing up.” Making a schedule together or using a calendar teaches your children how to prepare for change and transition.
  1. Learn to communicate with your children by listening to them. Let them express their feelings and ask questions that elicit a response other than a yes or no answer. However, be cautious about not asking too many questions. When your child gets home from school, instead of asking about homework first thing, maybe try, “What was the best part of your day today?” Listen and share something about your day. If there is a schedule for homework time, when that time is approaching, you could say, “Homework time starts in 10 minutes. About how much do you have tonight?”
  1. Teach your children to be kind and helpful by role modeling through your own kind and helpful behaviors. For example, when you see someone who is homeless, if you would typically judge them for how they look or what they’re doing, instead teach your child empathy. “Looks like that person may be really struggling. I hope they are healthy and have a place to sleep at night.”
  1. Try to remain positive in these difficult times, so your children will be upbeat and positive. It’s okay to tell your children every now and then that you are having a tough day and need to take a time out. Children learn that parents struggle sometimes too and you’re teaching them that time-outs help people settle down and refocus.
  1. Create routines. Children feel safest and most secure when there are routines and they know what to expect.
  1. Use rewards and lots of praise. Praise them every day and thank them when they praise you for something. Also, remember to encourage your children too. Say “You got this,” or “I know this homework is really challenging, but let’s do it together until we figure it out.” Encouraging your children shows them that you believe in them.
  1. Spend time engaging with your children every day so that they have quality time with you. Quality time is when your children feel heard and understood. Ask questions that require a response versus a yes or no answer. Questions could be, “Tell me about ___” or “What was the best part of your day today?” Whether you see your children every day or a couple times a week, put everything else aside and make your time about your children. Even if homework needs to be done, do a little, take a break and do something together and then get back to the homework. The breaks may be totally unrelated to homework or perhaps make the homework more fun by putting the alphabet, multiplication tables or biology terminology to song or dance. Your children will appreciate your flexibility and you will find homework time to go smoother and maybe even faster.