Illustration: Jay Stephens
Before COVID, Felien Torres Lyn's sons would be out the door first thing in the morning. The family once relied on a daily schedule of specialized school and therapy for Brandon, 10, and Jakob, 13, who both have autism, and the boys thrived on the comfort of that routine. Now, it’s after 9 a.m. and the boys are playing video games or on the iPad—two of the only activities that seem to help them cope with the stress of, well, everything. More anxious and sad than they’ve ever been, the boys are really struggling.
And they aren’t the only ones feeling crushed by the realities of the pandemic. “I’ve been having on-and-off anxiety attacks,” says Torres Lyn, who lives in the Toronto area. Almost overnight, she and her husband have had to come up with a way of doing almost everything for their boys from home, despite no prior experience in special education or autism therapies. They’re doing the best they can, but the disruption has wreaked havoc on their sleep, which only compounds the problems.
While Torres Lyn’s situation may be an especially challenging one, we’ve all had to deal with the fallout of school closures, limited in-person activities and less outside help. And for many of us, letting limits, structure and consistency slide has been the only way to cope.
Kirstin Cohen, a registered social worker and child and family therapist based just outside Toronto, encourages parents to remember that these are unprecedented times and it’s OK if you’ve relaxed the rules. “I tell parents to be gracious with themselves,” she says. “This is uncharted territory for all of us, and we cannot show up perfectly for all the demands being made of us.”
But if you’ve found yourself panic-googling “pandemic parenting help now please,” maybe it’s time to create some new habits and routines. After all, despite the good news on the vaccine front, this thing isn’t over yet. Whether your pain point is discipline, battles over screen time and snacks, or just getting your kids moving, read on for expert strategies for a 2021 parenting reset.
The problem: The TV has become the nanny. The reboot plan: Whether it’s because you need a reprieve to attend that Zoom work call or because 24/7 together time is a lot, it’s only natural that your kids are spending more time in front of the TV or computer. Stacy Thomas, a clinical psychologist in Toronto, says parents should ditch the guilt and keep in mind that not all screen time is created equal. “If your child is connecting with friends on video games, this is how they can engage with their peers,” she says. Even if it’s many more hours than you would previously have allowed, it’s a necessary evil so kids have some kind of regular social contact.
If you are looking to institute some kind of limits around screens, Cohen encourages parents to work with their children instead of laying down the parental law unilaterally. “I’m a big believer in talking to kids and coming up with a plan together around an agreed-upon amount of screen time,” she says. She suggests that parents and kids reach a happy medium that may mean more TV or video games than is recommended in normal times—and while that may not be ideal in your eyes, there are ways to mitigate it. For example, get involved in your kids’ screen time, she says. “Take an interest, ask questions about the characters and let your kids teach you the game, which supports their leadership skills.” (Yes, this might mean you have to finally figure out how the heck to play Fortnite or why your kids keep saying “blue looks sus” when they’re playing Among Us.)
There are also plenty of games and shows that are more educational in nature, which you might feel a bit better about, says Cohen. “Games like Prodigy and Boom Learning are ones that I have used and find to be engaging,” she says. And if you have a Minecraft fanatic at home, she recommends supplementing the game with free downloads from its education collection, with topics like astronaut training or a tour of the human body.
The problem: There’s a permanent, kid-sized dent in the couch. The reboot plan: With many kids learning at home, there’s no built-in recess to burn off energy. Even if your kids attend school in person, combine the restrictions on extracurricular activities, fewer team sports and the cold weather and it’s no wonder many kids have gained weight or just feel sluggish. “Kids have to go outside every day, even if it’s just a short walk. The daylight outside is essential for our mental health and our circadian rhythm,” says Thomas. “Just being in a natural environment is a calming experience. Parents need it, too.”
If you’re experiencing your own struggles with getting active, now’s the time to motivate each other by moving en famille. Movement-based video games, like Ring Fit Adventure, Just Dance and Arms, are an accessible way to start. You can also try adding a physical component to everyday tasks, suggests Cohen. “Add a challenge like who can do something the fastest, doing something on one leg, doing something standing up that would usually be done while sitting down, or tossing clothes in the laundry hamper from a distance. It can be competitive or just for fun.” She also encourages parents to exercise with their child. “Getting to spend time with you will make them more likely to try something new,” she says. The Body Coach TV and Cosmic Kids Yoga on YouTube are good places to start.
The problem: Kids are eating their pandemic-related feelings. The reboot plan: More time at home means more time within grabbing distance of the pantry. Thomas explains that excessive snacking is often a result of boredom. With kids cut off from their regular routine, food becomes a way to distract themselves. To avoid power struggles over snacks, Thomas suggests a simple but effective solution: offering a finite daily amount of nibblies that the children can completely control. “Have a snack table and let kids help themselves every day,” she explains. “That way they don’t have to bother you. Put it out, have a spot for it and when it’s gone, it’s gone.”
It’s also a good idea to teach your kids about the three kinds of hunger, says registered dietitian Cara Rosenbloom: stomach hunger (true hunger, where their bodies need food for energy), mouth hunger (their taste buds are asking for something delicious even if their body doesn’t need food for energy) and heart hunger (the need for treats to manage emotions like boredom or sadness). All three types are normal and can even be indulged, but it’s great for kids to be aware of the difference.
The problem: You now live in tantrum city and your kid is the mayor. The reboot plan: Cohen counsels parents to take an honest inventory of their expectations for both themselves and their kids right now. Doing so often results in the realization of how many responsibilities parents have on their plates and helps them readjust expectations all around. It helps them figure out which behaviours are most important to tackle, because perfection is not the goal here. “When trying to address an issue, instead of just imposing an arbitrary punishment like taking away screen time or access to devices (which might result in a new issue), ask yourself: What is the expectation I have of my child right now?” says Cohen. “What do I want my child to learn? Is this truly something I need to make into a thing right now?”
If you’ve reached a boiling point where you’re acting out of frustration or anger, ask for help if it’s available. “Sometimes you just have to tag in another adult in the home when you have reached your capacity,” says Cohen. Of course, if you’re a single parent, that’s not an option. In that case, she says, “Let the child know you’re going to take a break for a moment to help calm your frustrated or angry feelings.” (As a bonus, this teaches kids how to do the same.) If your child is anxious or follows you, let them know how long you’ll be gone for and reassure them you’ll come back. Later that day or the next morning, it’s a good idea to acknowledge and apologize for your outburst—just as you’d hope your kid would.
Obviously, this technique works only with kids who wouldn’t be in danger if left alone for a few minutes. Thomas says including kids in conversations about expectations and consequences during a weekly family meeting can help kids buy in. “Invite children to contribute, so they’re not just passive recipients,” she says. “Each person in the family gets a turn: ‘How was this week for you? Is there anything that you want or need to make things better?’ We underestimate what children are capable of. This is how we build self-esteem and confidence.”