Parents asked questions about living in lockdown. Penn GSE experts answered.

April 7, 2020
A house with drawings of rainbows in the window.

Stay-at-home orders, closed schools, and pandemic-induced anxiety are taking their toll on families.

We asked parents to send us questions about problems that were arising in their homes. They asked about short tempers, sleeping routines, screen time, parental roles, and if this is the right time to get a dog. Penn GSE’s Caroline Watts, a psychologist with decades of experience working with children and families, offered her insights.

If you have a question for Penn GSE’s counseling experts, you can ask it anonymously for use in a future mailbag.

Q: We received several requests for online resources for helping children and teens dealing with anxiety, depression, and suicide risk. Try these:

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has put together a valuable guide for managing stress related to the coronavirus.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness, which is always a go-to source for information, also put together a comprehensive list of resources.

In this highly stressful time, some people might be more at risk to harm themselves, and we should be attuned to their needs. The Suicide Prevention Hotline has created these helpful resources.

Sleeping problems

Q: My 9-year-old daughter is having anxiety at night when trying to fall asleep. She starts to imagine something bad happening. What tools can I give her to help her allay her fears and be able to relax and fall asleep?

Even before this pandemic, sleep problems were a growing issue for kids and adults.

Can your daughter describe specifically what she is afraid of? If you know what she is imagining, you’ll be better able to reassure her. If she is worried that she or members of your family will get sick, remind her of the steps the family is taking to keep everyone safe, like staying inside, washing hands, and wearing masks if you do have to go out.  

 If she’s afraid of something less real, like ghosts or monsters, explain that those aren’t real. Right now, facts are your friend.  Regardless of what she is afraid of, take her concerns and fears seriously and listen thoughtfully – sometimes the talking through can be helpful in and of itself. 

Looking for more advice for families? Subscribe to the Educator’s Playbook for Parents.

Look at your daughter’s nighttime routines. Can you help her move toward bed in a relaxed way? Try developing new rituals, like naming three things in the day that went well, and three things that keep her safe and comfortable.

 Two other ideas: Read together, especially fun stories. And try the Calm app, which has bedtime stories, music, and nature sounds to fall asleep to.

Regressing under stress

Q: I have three children, ages 8, 6, and 3. I am occupied with work and homeschooling the older two, and my youngest is missing her friends, her routine, and is regressing in behavior. She's not sleeping. She's wetting the bed. She's sucking her thumb. I don't know what I should be doing with her during the day to make things better for her, but she winds up spending most of the day crying.

Regression under stress is not uncommon at any age. Are there ways you could incorporate your youngest into some homeschooling activities for your older children? Are there things the 6-year-old could teach the 3-year-old? If so, she might feel less lonely, less lost, and more engaged. Explain to your other children why it’s important that they include their little sister right now. 

Is there a way you could show your daughter special attention? Maybe you could build a little more into her bedtime routine. But if the bedwetting continues, that is worth a call with your pediatrician.

Building kindness

Q: Hello! My normally-anxious 4-year-old has had a behavioral (and kindness) spiral in the past week. She hasn't napped (which she sometimes does at school), but we've otherwise established a nice schedule on weekdays. However, she is definitely attention-seeking (even though we're together a LOT), regressing in some ways (ex. baby talk), and being generally grumpy and mean - even to her little sister, who she normally adores. Do you have any advice for (a) ways in which we can give her attention, space and autonomy (and anything else we're missing) during this time, and (b) any exercises or activities to promote kindness and empathy even as she struggles?

We want to foster kindness and empathy in our kids at every age, no matter the situation. When we focus on a behavior, especially under stress, we tend to do more of it. In this case, if you harp on your daughter being unkind, she might continue that behavior.  

Maybe you can start recognizing acts of kindness, nice behaviors, and other good things that are happening at home right now. Reward these good acts with positive attention and the occasional treat.

Pushing extra online sessions?

Q: My kids (ages 2.5 and 5) have both been in daycare for the majority of their lives. So far, they are doing shockingly well at home, with more structure in the morning and more free time in the afternoon. Their daycare's Spanish classes and their weekend classes, running and tumbling, are now offered online, and they have groups of friends doing zoom calls. My kids have zero interest in doing these online classes. Should I be pushing them more, to maintain connections, keep up with Spanish, etc.? Or just roll with their preferences?

If your children are doing well, getting along with one another, and seem emotionally calm and resilient, I would stick with your current structure. Emotional stability is the most important thing right now. Don’t force them online. It sounds like their school provides a wide range of programing, and they can benefit from that when they return in person.

Having said that, it is likely that we are all going to be staying at home for a while. At some point, your children might want to join these online programs, so check back in with them.

Anxiety and returning to social settings

Q: Our child who experiences anxiety in large social settings seems to be calmer during the stay-at-home period, because our family is all here safely together and the social stresses of school are almost non-existent. As the stay-at-home period grows longer and longer, I'm getting concerned it will be more and more difficult for her to start up the regular school routine again.

Everyone will have to make adjustments when it is safe to go back to “normal.” We will have to prepare ourselves and our children.

Some anxious children might find this period of staying at home soothing. When social distancing restrictions ease, look for opportunities to reintroduce your child to social situations before school resumes. It’s also worth reaching out to your school counselor proactively to discuss the situation and see how they might be able to support the transition back to school. Some school counselors are offering virtual office hours. If yours is, think about touching base now. 

“Everyone will have to make adjustments when it is safe to go back to ‘normal.’ We will have to prepare ourselves and our children." — Caroline Watts


Focusing and screen time

Q: How do I help my child focus on a screen all day? The moment I turn to do something else (I also work full time) he is already doing something else. The teachers are unable to remind him to focus because they are also all online and can't see him.

It’s not good for any of us to be on a screen all day. Our children should have regular breaks.

Look at the school assignments your son is being asked to do. Is there a way you can break it into chunks so he can have some time off screen? If not, talk to his teachers. If he can’t focus on a screen all day, there should be another way for him to participate in his education to achieve his learning goals.

That leads to a question of what your son does during those breaks. Talk to him — not during busy school time — about how his day could be structured. What constructive things could he do? What non-school reading could he get done? Consider building a schedule that works for everyone in the house.

Supporting a spouse

Q: How can I support a spouse who is incredibly stressed right now - with the demands of his job, plus sharing the responsibilities of homeschooling our young children and caring for them - when I can barely keep my head above water with the same stressors?

There is a reason that so many internet memes about relationships are popping up. You can love your partner but still feel the strain of constant togetherness and needing to juggle new responsibilities.

Psychologist Laura Kasper recently wrote this essay with helpful ideas.

Daughter wants a dog now. I don't.

Q: My child keeps asking me if we can get a dog. She says this is the perfect time since we are all home to train it. She asks every day multiple times a day. Being stuck at home is hard on her - she is very social. She is very responsible and I know she would completely train and take over the dog responsibilities. I would love to make her happy but I’m not sure I want a dog, and I have an injury right now as well. How can I explain this to her so she stops asking and making me feel guilty?

Do you want a dog, ever? If you know you never want a dog in the house—pandemic or no pandemic—be honest about that. You might feel guilty, but we can’t always give our kids the answer they want.

If you are willing to get a dog at some point, talk about the reasons why this isn’t the right time to get a dog. Can you safely social distance while trying to pick out a new dog and make needed first trips to the vet? It’s also fair to tell your daughter that you know she would be responsible for most of the dog’s care, but you are not physically able to help out, or handle an excited dog jumping on you.

After that conversation—and if getting a dog really is a goal in the next year—you can start planning with her for that time.

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