Parenting

Is your kid faking sick? Here's what to do

Pretending to be sick is nothing new, but during the pandemic, an exaggerated headache comes with a huge ripple effect. Here's how to deal with it.

Watching the movie E.T. when I was 10 really upped my faking-sick game. Once I saw Elliott heat the thermometer against a bare light bulb in order to spend the day with his new alien friend, I realized I’d discovered a foolproof way to skip school.

From then on, when I hadn’t studied for a spelling test or if I just wanted to chill out eating Campbell’s soup and watching Star Trek reruns, I simply claimed I had a fever and let electricity inflate my temperature.

Like losing a front tooth or falling out of a tree, pretending to be sick to stay home is an elementary school rite of passage. To prove the point, my teenage daughter recently confessed that she invented cold symptoms to get out of school one day back in grade three. I don’t remember this, but apparently I was on to the con—my daughter says I refused to let her watch TV that day and made her stay in bed instead.

Even though many children try it and it’s developmentally appropriate for school-aged kids, malingering still puts parents in an awkward position. Do you call their bluff and send them off or let them stay home and derail your day? And what if you sent them to school and they were, in fact, sick? It’s even more complicated in the COVID era, when a child who fakes a cough to avoid gym class or a math quiz can quickly spark a series of events that disrupts the routines of their entire cohort and their families—or, if that cough was real and your kid is actually sick, it could cause an even worse cascade of events. Ultimately, it falls on parents to figure out if their child is truly unwell and then make a call. But how?

How to tell if your kid is faking sick

As parents, we know when our kids are sick sick. The vomiting and diarrhea, sky-high fever and flushed skin, zombielike lethargy, hacking cough or green boogers—these symptoms just don’t lie. It’s the unobservable symptoms that give us pause. “If I just scroll through what I’ve seen over the years when children are pretending, the common complaints would be ‘I have a headache’ or ‘I have a sore belly’ or another one is where supposedly they cannot walk,” says Peter Nieman, a Calgary-based paediatrician.

When parents relent and let the child stay home (when they suspect their kid is faking), there is often a miraculous recovery. The child who claims she has an upset tummy promptly eats a plate of eggs and bacon as though she’s forgotten about her nausea, for example.

Nieman urges parents to look for observable secondary symptoms that support the child’s primary complaint. If a child says
she has a headache that’s combined with dizziness or sleepiness, it’s probably legit. But if the headache victim puts in her ear buds and rocks out to loud music, you may have a faker on your hands.

Jessica Moran, a mom of two in Brantford, Ont., has used this detective technique to determine whether her son Martin, 10, is truly unwell. In the past, he’s trotted out the tummy-ache excuse because Mom works from home and he’s seen a day off as an opportunity to play video games.

“He was smart enough to make the symptoms vague,” says Moran. She would observe Martin’s behaviour at breakfast (Did he wince in pain with each bite or gobble it down?) and take his temperature. If everything checked out, she sent him off to school. “I told him that once he was there, if his symptoms escalated, he could talk to the office, who would contact me to come and get him. The office never called.” Still, she did sometimes question herself and her decision.

Why is my kid pretending to be sick

There are many reasons children pretend to be sick. Beyond conjuring an illness to get out of school or avoid sports practice, kids might fake it due to a situational factor such as a new baby in the home or a sibling who’s sick (so they want to stay home, too). “Also, honestly, I think kids are just tired sometimes,” says Sarah Rosensweet, a Toronto-based parenting coach. “Five days a week, eight hours a day, 10 months a year. That’s a lot of school. Sometimes kids miss their parents because they don’t have enough time to connect.” In fact, Rosensweet is a big proponent of what she calls “home days” (sometimes called mental health days). Her mom let her have days off as a child, and she’s carried on the tradition with her own three children.

When pretending to be sick becomes chronic

There’s a big difference between a child who’s just not feeling it every once in a while and one who develops a sore throat and headache every Monday at 7 a.m. When an imaginary ailment surfaces regularly, it’s a red flag, say experts. “It can be like the tip of an iceberg,” says Nieman, who sees a lot of stressed-out, anxious and depressed kids as young as five or six. “Dig a little bit deeper, see if the kid is happy, find out about bullies.”

Rosensweet recommends speaking with a teacher to see how your child is doing overall. Are there any social problems? Do they have friends? How are they doing with school work? “Another reason kids might want to stay home is if they’re having trouble with academics,” says Rosensweet. “Maybe they have an undiagnosed learning disability. They might feel like school is hard but they can’t explain why.” Maybe they just aren’t getting along well with their teacher this year or simply don’t love all the school work.

Kathryn Grossman* nearly flipped her lid when her seven-year-old son, Jared*, turned up “sick” in the school office not once but three times over the course of three weeks at the beginning of the 2020 school year. The first two times, he claimed to have a headache and stomach ache, so Grossman picked him up from school and brought him home—only to watch him head straight for the snacks and iPad. He did remember to act sick whenever she asked how he was feeling throughout the day, though.

After the second incident, Grossman spoke to Jared before bed about the importance of being honest about his symptoms. “I told him that pretending to be sick is never OK, but especially now; if he pretends he is sick, his teacher and friends might think he has COVID, and that might scare them,” she says. She also explained that others might worry about catching COVID from him. Unfortunately, the grade two student wouldn’t confess, says his mom. “He got defensive and insisted he didn’t pretend.”

The third time, Jared complained he was winded and couldn’t breathe during gym class. This time, Grossman opted to leave him at school after speaking with the school secretary, who said he seemed fine. The faking hasn’t happened again.

Grossman thinks that a general dislike of school academics—combined with a pattern of more screen time at home over the spring and summer (because: COVID)—prompted Jared to see if he could ditch class by pretending to be sick. She also believes the faking finally stopped when he settled into a school routine, and possibly because he realized his parents weren’t falling for it anymore.

Be empathetic during COVID

Even if you’re pretty sure you’re being conned, experts advise letting your child stay home, if at all possible. That’s a tough message for working parents to hear, but as the pandemic rages on, there’s just too much at stake. Not to mention the optics of sending a child to school who’s complaining about a sore throat or upset stomach—no one wants to be that parent. “In the time of COVID, it’s best to be very cautious, just to be safe,” says Nieman.

If you’re 100 percent certain it’s an act, though, it’s still not necessarily best to call them out as lying. They’re likely to double down. Instead, opt for a gentler version of tough love. “Focus less on whether or not they’re telling the truth and more on the fact that they have to go to school,” says Rosensweet. “Sometimes we have to do hard things even when we have a headache.”

Another tactic that seems to stop faking in its tracks, say experts, is making sick days ridiculously boring: no treats, no screens, just rest. Kristen Halpen, a mom in Calgary, credits this strategy with ensuring that her two sons have never (to her knowledge) faked a fever, cold or upset stomach. “I think setting the stage pre-pandemic for sick days, their isolation and a lack of entertainment—no TV, no electronics—has worked and will help mitigate sick says into the future,” she says. “Knock on wood.”

At the end of the day, we’re all just getting through this pandemic, and although a mental health day could be disruptive to your routine, it could really help your kid. “Always remind yourself that your child is doing the best they can,” says Rosensweet. “They’re not giving you a hard time—they’re having a hard time. They’re not just trying to mess up your day. There’s probably something going on, so try to be empathetic.”

*Names have been changed

Parenting

Why telling kids to be grateful doesn't work—and what to try instead

As hard as the pandemic has been for your children, it's probably been even harder for others. And yet, telling that to your kids won't help them feel grateful.

This past December, mom-of-two Ramsey Hootman was busy planning a holiday activity for her seven-year-old’s Cub Scout den. Because of COVID-19, the group would forgo its traditional in-person carolling and toy drive. Instead, Hootman had arranged a project the children could complete from home: making cards for seniors at a local assisted living facility.

Unfortunately, the kids weren’t interested. “I had a really hard time getting any of the kids in our pack to participate,” Hootman says. She eventually persuaded her sons to make a few cards but felt disheartened by their lack of enthusiasm. Leading up to the project, Hootman had talked with her children about how lucky their family was to be together and how important it was to help others who weren’t able to see loved ones. Why didn’t her kids seem to be thankful?

In the midst of a global crisis, it’s understandable that we want our children to appreciate the good things in their lives. But experts say that asking children to show gratitude isn’t the same as cultivating it. Here’s how they recommend approaching the topic.

1. Ditch the expectations

When we want our kids to show gratitude and they don’t, reminding them why they should be thankful doesn’t help. Instead, “they sense the judgment or the pressure” fuelled by our preconceived ideas about how they should behave, says Emily Edlynn, a clinical psychologist in Illinois.

“It’s hard to preach gratitude,” says Laura Greenberg, a registered psychotherapist in private practice in Toronto. While parents should encourage kids to take part in different experiences—from volunteering to donating toys—we need to let go of any expectations that kids respond a certain way to these activities. Gratitude is a feeling that comes from the inside, Greenberg says, “so we can’t just tell someone to be thankful and that person becomes thankful.”

2. Make space for all emotions

Lindsay Holly, a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Marquette University in Wisconsin, says embracing gratitude can be hard for kids “when what they’re experiencing is a lot of loss right now of things that they used to have,” like the ability to see friends and socialize freely outside their homes. But kids don’t have to choose between being sad and being thankful. “Both are real, both are important, and both are useful emotions to have and to talk about,” says Holly.

When our kids are upset, we tend to jump to “fix-it mode,” says Greenberg. But if we allow ourselves to be present in those tough feelings with our children, we’ll help them understand that all of their emotions are valid, even the uncomfortable ones. Over time, this practice enables kids to develop emotional self-efficacy—the ability to tolerate and cope with different feelings—and become more receptive to gratitude.

3. Model gratitude 

Children are constantly observing us, says Edlynn. Rather than telling them how we’d like them to feel, we can be role models in expressing our own gratitude. That might mean sharing what brings us joy during the pandemic. For example, you might say to your kids, “Even though I’ve missed seeing a lot of people this year, I’m really grateful that I’m still able to meet up with a friend to walk our dogs.”

4. Recognize that kids’ perspective-taking skills are developing 

Let’s say your kids complain that school is boring now because of pandemic restrictions. Your knee-jerk reaction might be to remind them that some kids haven’t been inside a classroom since early 2020, and that they should recognize how lucky they are in comparison.

This type of perspective-taking is an important skill, but it’s one that kids are still developing—and the younger the child, the more difficult it is to practice. Children learn mainly through experiences, so “talking about something in that abstract way doesn’t sink in like it does for us,” says Edlynn.

Along these lines, Hootman realizes why the card-making project didn’t resonate with her kids: They couldn’t see or otherwise interact with the people they were supposed to be helping.

We can encourage our kids to practice perspective-taking by asking them open-ended questions. You might say, “I was reading about so-and-so,” suggests Greenberg. “What do you think it would be like for that person?”

5. Remember gratitude isn’t a fix for negative feelings

For kids and adults alike, some amount of anxiety and depression is considered “normative” right now, says Holly. While being thankful can potentially help us feel better, gratitude interventions alone aren’t likely to alleviate anxiety and depression, according to a study from The Ohio State University. If children are experiencing intense symptoms, “then the recommendation would certainly be to seek out professional forms of therapy,” says Holly.

Gratitude is valuable in itself, but it’s not a cure for negative emotions—nor does it need to be. There’s power in embracing gratitude, says Greenberg, “but there’s also the power that comes from learning to accept the negative feelings that you have.”

Parenting

I’m Black, therefore my kids are, right?

Alicia Cox Thomson was raised to embrace both her Bajan and Polish cultures, and feels it’s crucial that her own kids embrace their blackness.

My daughter and I were in the produce section when it happened.

“What a beautiful baby!” Pause. Eyes flick up. “Is she yours?” My jaw clenched. I felt awkward, angry and, weirdly, embarrassed. I was so floored that all I could say was, “Yes. Thank you,” with a smile that didn’t reach my eyes.

My daughter and I do not look alike at first glance, so I guess it’s a fair, albeit rude and intrusive, question. I’m mixed race* (Black dad, white mom), with curly dark hair and brown eyes and skin. My husband, Mike, is a blue-eyed white man. Simone, 22 months, is fair-skinned with blue-grey eyes and straight hair, while our son, Theo, 4, is darker-skinned with big brown eyes and curly hair. Neither of my kids look Black, and I do. I know this. But I never considered the optics until that day in the grocery store—which, considering how I grew up, was perhaps naïve.

My older brother and I were the only mixed-race kids I knew in our predominantly white, mid-size suburban town. My parents always told us, “You have the best of both worlds,” and I took it to heart. I loved eating my Polish Babcia’s perogies just as much as my Bajan dad’s coconut bread. I danced polka around the living room with my Dzia Dzia and wined to calypso and soca with my large Caribbean family.

Only one time do I recall anyone questioning if my mom was my birth mother, and it didn’t bother me. I was about 9 or 10, changing out of my leotard in the stuffy dance studio dressing room. A white girl asked if I was adopted, if the woman who had dropped me off was my mom. She was genuinely curious, a feeling I was used to having directed my way. I distinctly recall shrugging and saying, “Maybe. Or maybe I’m a princess or a changeling. I could be anyone.”

An old photograph of the author as a child with her brother and parents

Alicia Cox Thomson (bottom left) with her mom, dad and brother. Photo: Supplied by author

My instinct was to embrace the difference between my mom and I, to turn it into a story, to make it enviable, even. I don’t recall what the girl’s response was, just that I felt totally OK and unsurprised in that moment. So why did a similar question almost 30 years later throw me so off kilter? I decided to talk to someone who had surely experienced the same thing, asked herself similar questions: my mom, Wanda.

Surely an interracial couple raising kids in the ‘70s and ‘80s encountered some polite or not-so-polite inquiries, sidelong glances, turned-up noses?

“You know, I really can’t remember anything like that ever happening,” she says to my surprise. “I’ve tried to think back if anyone ever questioned me, but no.” She looks thoughtful. “It was a different time. The music was all Motown, soul and disco; it was all about funky feelings and loving each other.” She smiles.

I try a different tactic: “Did you and dad ever actively talk about what you would say to your kids about race?

Again, she’s calm. “No, we never did, you know. Even after the graduation [her 1971 nursing graduation, where my grandparents physically tried to take her home with them after she told them she was going to marry my dad], when they were carrying on, saying, ‘What’s going to happen to your kids?’ and that kind of stuff.” (Here, she looks irritated.) “We never said we weren’t going to have kids, but we never really talked about it—if kids come along, OK, we’ll just deal with it and we didn’t really think about it.”

It’s a fascinating response—one I didn’t expect. While I’ve talked about race politics with my dad ever since he started telling us we had to “work twice as hard” to get the opportunities white kids had, my mom and I have never really dwelled on it. We share a love of old movie musicals, books and British TV, but her whiteness and my Blackness just never came up. It wasn’t until I became a mother that it occurred to me that we had this in common—having children who look racially distinct from you. And it wasn’t until that day in the grocery store that it really gave me pause, and it hasn’t left me since.

I have never felt more Black than I do in this current climate. It’s a state of mind I’ve grown with since becoming a mother in 2013 and realizing how much representation matters and how important it is to me that our kids be exposed to all cultures, yes, but to my Blackness in particular. Perhaps this is why it jarred me so to hear someone question my connection to Simone. She is of me, as is her brother. Someone questioning our connection felt like a dismissal of her Blackness.

My paternal Bajan side, my maternal Polish side, my family’s immigrant experience, the minority experience—all of these things make up who I am and I have a desire to make sure our kids comprehend it all. But it’s my Blackness that I have come to see as crucial. Theo and Simone will grow up with white privilege due to their appearance, just as I have privilege as a light-skinned woman of colour. So I want them to feel connected to their Black roots, through music, food, stories and traditions.

I’m glad my mom lived in a world that made her choices feel safe, welcome and accepted. That’s all I hope for Theo and Simone: for my husband and I to be their safe haven, without shielding them from the world’s harsh truths. To encourage them to stand up and speak up for people whose voices aren’t typically heard, because even if their Blackness can’t be seen on the surface, it can never be denied.

*I use mixed race in this story to describe myself as a person with a Black parent and a white parent, with the full understanding that there are many ways to be “mixed.”

This article was originally published online in February 2018.

Parenting

My son idolizes football players—and so we had a tough talk

With the Superbowl around the corner, one mom looks at the messages we are sending kids about violence and power when we revere these sports heroes.

My eight-year-old son loves football. While he doesn’t play on an official team, he plays at recess and on playdates with his friends. They tackle each other at top speed and roll around in a tangle of limbs. They memorize professional players’ names and statistics, and pretend to be them, emulating their swift moves on the field.

Not long ago, he and I were talking about how one of his favorite professional football players had been suspended from the NFL because of a domestic violence accusation. “I don’t get why he’s suspended,” my son said. “That doesn’t have anything to do with football.”

Taking a deep breath, I explained to him that football players are people, just like us. They mess up; they make mistakes. He knows my history as a survivor of domestic abuse (in terms an eight-year-old child can understand), and I asked him how it would feel if he found out that a football player he admired had hurt one of his cousins or friends. I asked him to consider if that person should still have the privilege of being paid millions of dollars to play the game even though he has committed a crime.

I could almost see the wheels turning in my son’s head, and I felt my body tense, concerned about how to reckon with all this, and with thorny issues of violence on and off the field. After all, we cheer football players on for slamming into each other with rough, tough aggression on the field, but in life, we teach that it’s not OK to slam into people in anger.

But, when I spoke with two former high school classmates who played football in their teenage years, they said they believe that, when it comes to teaching kids about resilience, toughness and teamwork, football is in fact quite a good vehicle for those values, and that most kids are able differentiate between the game and real life.

“There’s a difference between being an angry person and getting fired up for a game,” contends Jason Reed, a former high school football player and now a father to a young football player. “My son isn’t angry when he plays; he’s aggressive.” But, he admits, “That’s where some athletes may have a problem—not having that coping mechanism to leave the gladiator mentality behind.”

My other former classmate, Rodney Dale, a fire investigator and father of two, says on-the-field toughness is a must; tenderness will literally get a player hurt. But later on, “in the locker room after tough losses, mistakes and victories, that’s when tears are often shed and comfort is given to each other,” Rodney says. “It’s also, at times, very emotional.”

Like it or not, kids often look up to athletes as heroes. And it’s not just athletes—they also venerate actors, reality-show stars and other people in positions of fame and power. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean these people behave like role models. And other than keeping kids completely sheltered, there’s no way to prevent them from consuming messages that don’t jibe with the manner of a respectful, kind, thoughtful and caring person you want them to grow up to be.

Being a strong role model yourself is perhaps the best way to help kids, according to Austin-based family counselor, Marina Litinsky. “If we want kids to learn to handle their emotions in appropriate ways, we need to make sure we practise handling ours. Parents who expect their children to be respectful, kind and non-violent, yet often resort to yelling, shaming, name-calling or spanking, are destined for disappointment. Those who are there to listen, lend a helping hand, show respect and set appropriate examples are likely to get the same in return,” she says. And since boys and girls often receive mixed messages from adults about what it means to “be a man” it’s important to have conversations with kids about the concept of masculinity in our culture, and all of its complexities, says Litinsky.

And so my husband and I try to model how a good person acts, and point out what’s not appropriate, in order to counter the machismo approach to life portrayed in both football and the commercials that air during games. We continually talk about what it means to be a good person, and while sometimes my son rolls his eyes at me, I know he’s listening. I want my son to understand that being tough doesn’t mean hurting others. We talk with him about kindness, respect, and the word STOP. We tell him to walk away from trouble and negativity as often as possible. And we hope that it’s enough.

This article was originally published online in January 2019.

Parenting

6 ways to help your kids use art to express their feelings about the pandemic

Kids often express big feelings through art, which can offer parents insight into their experience of the pandemic. Here are some tips for nurturing their creative expression.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected children’s worlds in many ways. Due to closures and restrictions, they have experienced the loss of social engagement and the support of friends, school communities or extended family. Children have likely had conversations about the virus and what they can do to stay safer, and they may been exposed to news stories about COVID-19.

Children are impacted by the pervasive mood of their family around them. Change is inevitable throughout life, and children experience change differently depending on a number of developmental, biological and relational variables.

Childhood is often fraught with varying levels of adversity. Infant and child mental health is dependent on adults, typically loving caregivers, to scaffold understanding and experiences to facilitate reasonable emotional, social, cognitive and behavioural responses, such as resilience and empathy.

Hearing children’s experiences of the pandemic

Children express their thoughts and feelings through art and play. They engage in creative outlets to share their experiences, relieve stress and work through what occurs in their lives. Children lack the developmental ability and life experience to understand, verbally express and process difficult, adverse or traumatic experiences.

Art can be a way to promote and support mental health in children. It’s especially important right now to create a nurturing space for children to make art.

As adults envision the futures of today’s children, it’s important that we hear and capture children’s experiences of the pandemic. This is the focus of a study I am undertaking in the early childhood studies program at University of Guelph-Humber. Through the study of children’s art produced during this time, we will be listening to children’s voices and perspectives. We invite you to learn more and consider sharing your children’s art in the study.

Critical role of relationships

Children who are provided loving, secure, trusting environments typically develop safe, secure and loving relationships with others throughout their lifetimes.

They often provide people and situations the benefit of the doubt, offering understanding and forgiveness when required. They have learned that their world and the people in it are relatively safe and trustworthy. They bring this working model of the world into situations and interactions with others.

Children who encounter increased stress, anxiety, fear or lack of emotional attunement or understanding through experiences with their caregiver(s) often develop ideas of the world that are based in fear and the need to form protection. This is the case even while parents provide children with the best experiences and environment possible.

This is due, in part, to the inter-generational transmission of attachment behaviours. People generally parent as they have been parented. Early experiences are part of the genetic makeup of the child: social epigeneticists have stated these experiences “live under the skin.” Children are affected by early childhood experiences throughout their lives.

Creating art helps children express their feelings and thoughts. It provides them the opportunity to imagine possibilities, see and create alternative scenarios that can open new ways to engage in their relationships and environments and to demonstrate resiliency.

Tips for parents on supporting self-expression through art

  1. Create a child-friendly space that can get messy and allow for unabashed creativity. Provide your child with tools such as paper, crayons, plasticine, paint, glitter and allow them to freely explore and create. Some kids will enjoy sitting at a table and others will enjoy the floor. How they choose to create doesn’t matter, if the space supports their comfort, size and creative style.
  2. Stay close and follow your child’s lead. Doodle yourself and you might be surprised how much your child shares while creating. Older children and teens may like to work independently but remain available; they may want to share ideas.
  3. The art they create may look like something identifiable or it may not. Don’t worry about what it looks like, or whether it looks like anything at all! Self-expression is valid for its own sake.
  4. Try not to pressure your child to create, or to perform. Self-expression should feel good. Provide the tools and the space and let them express.
  5. Provide positive feedback when they show you their work. Remember, this is the expression of their feelings and how they see themselves and the world. Don’t try to change or “improve” it. You might ask questions, beginning with something open-ended like: “This is beautiful, can you tell me about it?” You might wonder about a colour used, or share the feeling it creates in you. Encourage sharing and talking about it. Allow them to experience pride, vulnerability, trust and acceptance.
  6. Be open. Art is a great way to express and share feelings and love with each other. Creating together can be a fun experience that builds trust and acceptance.
The Squiggle Game.

You might also find pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winncott’s Squiggle Game fun, which has the side benefit of seeing each other’s unique perspectives, and likely prompting some chuckles.The Conversation

Nikki Martyn, Program Head of Early Childhood Studies, University of Guelph-Humber. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Parenting

How are teachers with kids at home managing this?!

A middle school teacher with four kids at home shares her hectic daily routine—and how parents can help their children's teachers in even the smallest ways.

On a typical day, Nadia Goode wakes up at 6 a.m. to get herself and her kids ready for school. Goode works for a middle school in Brampton, Ontario, teaching French to grade 7 and 8 students. Now, with schools in Ontario COVID hotspots closed to in-person learning until at least February, she’s teaching from home, at the same time as her four kids—aged 6, 8, 14 and 16—are doing virtual school. Goode’s partner works out of the province, so she’s currently by herself teaching full-time and taking care of her kids.

Ontario’s education minister recently expanded the list of essential workers who can receive free childcare during the lockdown. This expansion does not apply to people like Goode, who are working full-time from home. Here, Goode shares what it’s been like teaching from home with four kids to look after.

How do you balance teaching and your kids’ at-home learning?

My school day starts ahead of everybody else. Once I get [my kids] up and going, I’m online first. I usually sign on at about eight o’clock, because we start at 8:10. [My] little ones have nutrition breaks during the day, but our breaks are at different times. I break for one hour for lunch at 10:40, but the little ones have already started their break, and they go back at 10:50. So there is an overlap of 10 minutes where I’m able to come down and check on them, make sure that they’re set up, and double check that they’ve eaten. They kind of understand that they’re not supposed to interrupt me, particularly while I’m teaching and if I’m doing a class discussion. At the end of the school day, [I] log everything off, get the kids outside for a bit to make sure that they have some fresh air, and then recalibrate, so we can be fresh for the next day. It doesn’t happen all the time, but putting those routines in place is what helps me to get through.

What has been the most challenging part of this for you?

[It’s hard] having my kids at home and not being able to assist them when they need help, particularly my youngest who’s in grade one. If something doesn’t work, it’s not formatting properly, or he switched out of the screen… [I’m not there] to give him simple instructions like that. He’s not doing anything bad, but he’s not supervised. And how can he be if I’m expected to be working? I’m accountable for the students that I’m online with, but I’m also accountable for my children. I want to provide them with the best care, and having my six-year-old unattended in front of a computer all day is not appropriate.

Have you had tech challenges with students?

With this most recent lockdown, it was like that mad dash to make sure that we could get appropriate tech to the kids that needed it. Wanting to use different interfaces and different applications is a learning curve for everyone, so sometimes it’s challenging. I think the hardest part at this particular moment is doing assessments in the online learning environment. It’s not like I’m proctoring every assessment that they’re doing; I have to insist that they have their cameras on, so I can see that they’re not looking in their notes. Coming up with different ways to assess students in an online setting [is challenging].

How can people support teachers right now?

We all need to operate with a little bit of grace, because we’re all doing the best that we can. Parents at home with their kids are facing all kinds of challenges. Some students need to be going to school, and the fact that they’re home is really hard. Parents throughout this pandemic have been doing a lot. But continuing to be patient, checking in with [their kids] to see how they’re doing—even just by keeping up with their work—that kind of stuff really helps everything to go much smoother.

On a day-to-day basis, how do you feel?

I am super exhausted and overspent. I don’t think that it’s anybody’s fault, it’s just the reality of the pandemic: teaching online, having my children online, seeing more restrictions, and also being charged with responsibility to respond to what’s happening in the world, and wanting to engage my students and my children in these deep conversations about race. It’s all [so] much, so morale is low at the end of the day. But I’m trying to be intentional about really checking in with myself, which helps me to be able to start fresh the next day.

I can’t lie and say that everything is great—it’s not. I can’t wait for things to go back to some level of normalcy. Our mental health is serious, our emotional health is serious, especially because we’re being isolated from what we normally would do. Taking the time to be honest with yourself is important. Be kind to yourself, in spite of it all. Remember that you’re doing your best—and that’s enough.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Trending

18 memes about virtual school that parents need right now

Because if we don't laugh, we'll cry—in front of our kids' teachers, and all their classmates. Consider this your daily dose of pandemic self-preservation.

We all hoped to leave the hot mess that was 2020 behind us and hang up our teacher hats in 2021—because, let’s be honest, teachers are saints and we’re. not. worthy. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case for everyone. If your kids have been subjected to another round of distance learning and you think you might actually lose your mind, you’re not alone. Same goes if you’ve been coping by escaping to the bathroom to scroll through Instagram memes. Because if we don’t laugh, we’ll cry—in front of our kids’ teachers, and all their classmates. Consider these virtual school memes your daily dose of pandemic self-preservation.

1. At least the little ones are entertaining?

2. Soooooo, you like stuff?

 

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A post shared by TeacherGoals (@teachergoals)

3. It’s not going to happen!

 

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A post shared by Lady Tankington (@theyankedtank)

4. I just presented a work deck to my kid’s 2nd grade class. What day is it?

a meme about home schooling that has Mary Poppins looking chipper as Day 1 and Miss Hannigan holding a cocktail as Day 5 for a roundup of the best virtual learning memes

Meme: digitalmomblog.com

5. SOS!

6. A riddle: How many devices can one network sustain before mom smashes the router?

 

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A post shared by Simon Holland (@simoncholland)

7. Remember when our only job was feeling guilty about their excessive screen time?

 

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A post shared by mommy.meds (@mommy.meds)

8. Relatable.

9. Off to a great start.

10. Top of the morning to you!

 

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A post shared by Weird Dad (@weird.dad)

11. Bananas!

 

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A post shared by Hedger Humor (@adriennehedger)

12. The square-root of 9 is red wine. 

13. We’re thriving over here.

 

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A post shared by Let Me Momsplain (@letmemomsplain)

14. Accurate.

15. Wait, what’s a fraction again?

 

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16. I’m so good, thanks for asking.

17. Meep

18. Maybe they’ll be nicer if I make them call me Mrs. Mom…

 

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Parenting

Parenting reboot: How to rein in some of the bad habits caused by COVID

You're not alone—all parents have been way more lenient about treats, screentime and exercise lately. Here's how to get back to a good place (whenever you're ready).

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.

SCREEN TIME

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.

PHYSICAL ACTIVITY

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.

SNACKING

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.

DISCIPLINE

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.”

Parenting

11 gender terms to know when talking to your kids

Learning these terms now will help in your discussions about gender with your kids later. Here's a breakdown of some key concepts.

Whether you’ve been discussing gender with your children since they were in diapers, or you’re just starting now that they’re in school (it’s never too late!), understanding these terms will help your talks go more smoothly. For more guidance, check out our age-by-age-guide.

Gender identity

A person’s internal and individual experience of gender. It is their sense of being a woman, a man, both, neither or anywhere along the gender spectrum.

Gender expression

The way a person publicly presents their gender. This can include behaviour and outward appearance, such as dress, hair, makeup, body language and voice. A person’s chosen name and pronouns are also common ways of expressing gender.

Assigned sex at birth

A child’s sex as designated by a doctor or midwife based on a brief examination of that child’s external genitals immediately after their birth.

Non-binary

A gender identity that is neither man nor woman—but sometimes between and sometimes beyond those categories.

Trans/transgender

An umbrella term for many people whose gender identity is not the typical pairing with their assigned sex at birth.

Cis/cisgender

A person whose gender identity is a typical pairing with their assigned sex; a person assigned female who identifies as a girl or a person assigned male who identifies as a boy.

Trans woman

A woman who was assigned male at birth but identifies and expresses herself as a woman.

Trans man

A man who was assigned female at birth but who identifies and expresses himself as a man.

Sexism

The belief that men and “masculine” things are more important and more valuable (or sometimes more natural) than women and “feminine” things. It is also used to describe the cultural systems that devalue women and femininity.

Gender policing

The process by which media, culture and society tell us that certain things are “feminine” and other things are “masculine.” This term is also used for the act of punishing people who do not conform to these cultural norms.

Deadnaming

The act of calling a trans person by their birth name (dead name) when they have changed their name as part of their transition.

Parenting

Parenting my way through an anxiety disorder

I’ve always been anxious. But when I had kids I was determined to keep it under wraps. Easier said than done.

I got my G1 learner’s licence for the third time when I was 48 and figured I had five years to overcome my fear of the road. But somehow it never felt like the right time to get behind the wheel—never mind take a test. The years ticked by. When I received notice that my five-year G1 had expired, I felt the way I always do when I run from the things that scare me: relief in the short term, sadness and shame overall.

I’ve been anxious my whole life. I was afraid to start kindergarten because I didn’t know how to read and write. When my parents went out at night I’d lie awake, sick with worry, until they returned. Presenting in front of the class made me physically ill. Nobody talked about anxiety back then—instead, I was deemed “sensitive.” When I finally got a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder in my 30’s, I promptly rejected the label. Having a clinical diagnosis made me feel out of control —which only made me more anxious.

Instead, I avoided my triggers, a growing list that included elevators, subways and water that was over my head. After a late night bout with panic that ended with a call to 911 I was prescribed Ativan, an anti-anxiety medication, and started carrying it everywhere for reassurance. Meanwhile, I made excuses for why I couldn’t swim to the raft with my six-year-old niece: How could I explain my fear of having a panic attack midway and drowning—especially when the raft was only 20 metres from the dock?

But when I had kids of my own, things got tricky. I wanted them to feel safe with me at all times and I knew they were looking to me for cues. I was determined that my irrational fears not become their irrational fears.

So I faked it.

When they’d insist I look out the airplane window during take off I’d comply—even though the spinning landscape made me want to activate the emergency chute. When they’d drag me into the covered tube slide at the park and then trap me halfway down, I’d focus on the tiny sliver of visible light at the bottom. I forced myself to swim to the raft. Sometimes I’d put an Ativan in a plastic baggie and tuck it into my bathing suit in case I had a panic attack on the way.

Parenting through anxiety was profoundly hard. I wanted to get swept up in their excitement, but it was exhausting—especially when they were constantly pointing out the very thing that frightened me: “Mommy look, the plane is so high! Ooh Mommy! Look how dark the subway tunnel is! Look Mommy—look how far away the cottage is from the raft!” I’d smile gamely until the pounding of my heart drowned out their voices.

But as they grew, their own anxiety started to rear its head in small ways and it got harder to separate where mine ended and theirs began: “What if we get stuck?” my five-year-old would sometimes ask as we rode up the elevator. I’d force a laugh: “Of course we won’t get stuck silly! These elevators go up and down a million times a day!” ‘A million times a day,’ I’d think to myself, panic rising. ‘Think of all the wear and tear…’

According to Toronto psychotherapist Dr. Bradley Murray, the risk of inheriting anxiety is 4 to 6 times higher for first-degree relatives of people with the disorder, and both environmental factors and genetics play a role. I continued watching for signs that my kids might be heading for a full blown disorder and practicing my “fake it till you make it” parenting style. But increasingly, my anxiety won out.

Like the time I tried to teach them to ride their bikes on the road when they were six and nine, seeing only danger at every turn. “Watch the door!” I’d yell, practically hyperventilating, “You’re weaving! Slow down! Speed up! WHAT ARE YOU DOING??” They got so fed up they eventually got back up on the sidewalk in disgust while I continued along on the road sheepishly (secretly relieved).

Or when we rode up to the 44th floor of the Marriott hotel in NYC in a packed elevator made entirely of glass. I wasn’t okay. I squeezed my eyes shut and meditated hard while my 12 and 15 year-olds begged me to look down at the rapidly shrinking sea of ants in the atrium. I could not comply. When we got to our room I refused to look out the floor-to ceiling-window overlooking Times Square. “You don’t get it—we are SO FAR up,” they insisted. There was no getting around this one: we were on the 44th freaking floor and they were determined to share it with me. I was flooded with anxiety and I had to own it.

“Here’s the thing,” I said, attempting to face them while covering my left eye to block out the wall of windows, “I am actually not crazy about heights…” “—Just LOOK,” they said impatiently. “No, really,” I continued, growing agitated, “It makes me kind of well, panicky, and uh, claustrophobic, and—” My younger daughter wasn’t having it, “Oh my god mommy, you just have to face your fears,” she said, attempting to lead me over. I realized they had no idea how hard this was for me. I pulled free of her, fight or flight now in full effect, “NO!” I said, toddler-like—“I don’t want to! I hate heights!” Exposing my frailties to my kids felt both surreal and liberating. They finally backed off, a little bewildered.

Just knowing I was off the hook for the night regulated my heart rate enough for me to promise to look in the morning. Naturally, they held me to it. I walked slowly towards the window feeling my usual height-induced combination of dizziness and an inexplicable urge to jump, and took a quick, terrifying peek. My head swam. “We are very high up,” I concurred, before retreating to the middle of the room to lie down on the floor.

After that, outing myself got easier: Yes, canoeing in even slightly rough water made me panicky —and no, I would not be going on the “WindSeeker” with them at Canada’s Wonderland—ever. Sorry. Coming clean about my struggle with panic allowed me to show my kids that while anxiety has to be managed, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

But, it’s also made them more comfortable pointing a finger. “Well! You gave me your anxiety!—Thanks!” said my defeated-sounding 18-year-old not long ago. My first reaction was guilt: This was awful! This was the very thing I’d be trying to avoid their entire lives! But then I realized I had nothing to feel guilty about.

After all, I didn’t ask to be anxious anymore than she did.

“Parents obviously want their children to be happy,” says Murray, “but it’s eventually important to allow anxious children to discover their own solutions to their anxiety, and to trust that their kids will figure out how their own lives will unfold.”

So I handed it back to her. “Yes, I did give you my anxiety,” I said, “And I’m sorry you have to deal with it. Anxiety has been so debilitating for me. But I’m always working on it. And that’s what you have to do too.” She just blinked. My honesty disarmed her. There was no one to blame—I gave her my anxiety the way I gave her my sense of humour and my fine hair.

I’m still anxious—each time an elevator door opens and I step out feels like a small miracle—but it’s been years since I’ve had a full-blown panic attack or carried Ativan in my shoe when I go running. So was I right to protect my kids from my anxious self when they were little? Turns out, by facing my fears, I was inadvertently working on my anxiety all along. “In your desire for your kids not to see you anxious, you were basically doing exposure therapy on yourself,” says Murray, “This kind of exposure over the course of your life, even if you weren’t consciously doing it, might have helped your anxiety get better.” In so doing, he says, I was making sure that my kids didn’t develop their own patterns of avoidance—or trying to, anyway.

Last summer, my 18-year-old told me her dad wanted to teach her how to drive. “I just can’t picture myself driving,”—she said. My heart sank. Though if I’m honest, I can’t either—when I picture her driving, I picture her crashing. But I want her to drive. I want her to sail along a highway, windows open, music cranked. I want her to be able to get herself to a goddamn Ikea if she has a sudden hankering for a swivel chair. So I looked her in the eye and told her that I wished more than anything I had learned how to drive. I told her that I came so close, but I let fear win out. I told her that it just requires practice and confidence. I told her that even though we have the same sense of humour and the same fine hair, she is not me.

Which is how I came to be sitting next to her on a recent camping trip while she drove us slowly from our site to the main road. I was anxious, I’ll admit. But turns out it’s never too late to practice a little exposure therapy.