Managing expectations when timelines are dictated by COVID-19

This summer has been anything but typical, and the fall is shaping up to be just as unusual, thanks to coronavirus (COVID-19) still sweeping through communities. This new normal is creating new expectations and flipping traditional activities on their heads.

“Kids haven’t been able to go to camp. Families haven’t gone on their traditional summer vacations. Not to mention that many students missed out on end-of-year celebrations last fall. This can, understandably, take a toll on everyone’s mental health – parents and children alike,” explains Cathlyn Fraguela Rios, LICSW, licensed social worker and behavioral health specialist at Swedish.

Cathlyn shares her advice on how parents can help kids (and themselves) navigate a timeline dictated by COVID-19, instead of tradition.

Empathize with your children

One of the best ways parents can connect with children and help them manage their stress and anxiety is to empathize with them.

“COVID is one of those things that has been a tough situation. It’s lasted longer than anyone anticipated,” Cathlyn admits. “Your child, depending on their age, may have some understanding of what’s happening. But, they’ve likely internalized what’s going on. Children know that things are different.”

To help give children (of any age) the words and tools they need to deal with the “big” emotions, Cathlyn encourages parents to share their own struggles – in an age-appropriate manner, of course.

“Let your child know that you understand. Tell them that what’s happening is not what anyone has expected and that we’re all trying to navigate rules and guidelines together. Let them know it’s okay to feel sad or angry.”

Although you may worry that sharing your emotions with your children will make them more upset, it may actually help validate their feelings and make them feel less alone.

“I often tell parents and kids that we’re ‘sitting in the muck together,’ she laughingly admits. “But in all seriousness, it’s important to let your child know that this is a hard time for everyone. We are all trying to make the best out of the situation.” Although you may worry that sharing your emotions with your children will make them more upset, it may actually help validate their feelings and make them feel less alone.

Cathlyn also reminds parents that many fun summer and fall activities are how kids do “self-care.” Camps, clubs and playdates are an important part of letting kids be kids and distract themselves from unpleasant or uncomfortable thoughts. Missing out on those activities can be physically, mentally and emotionally tough.

Stick to a routine

It can be hard to stick to a routine when there’s nothing “normal” about what’s going on right now. But, even small routines, like going to bed at the same time every night or eating meals together can help create a little normalcy.

“Kids need structure and routine,” Cathlyn says. “As we start school again, it’s even more important for parents to create that structure so children know what to expect each day.”

Whether your kids are going to school in-person, learning from home or participating in a hybrid model, see if you can weave in some of your family traditions that are synonymous with the fall back-to-school season.

Whether your kids are going to school in-person, learning from home or participating in a hybrid model, see if you can weave in some of your family traditions that are synonymous with the fall back-to-school season. For example, don’t skip the “first day of school” photos. Do what you’d normally do and caption your photos with a funny saying about 2020. Involve them in shopping for supplies and preparing for what’s next. Make a schedule together and explain to them how things may be different (and the same) this year. Stick to morning routines, regardless of where learning is happening. Pack their lunches in their lunch boxes (or better yet, let them do it). Giving kids input offers ownership – and increases the likelihood they’ll stick to it.

Keep lines of communication open

Check in with your kids on a regular basis.

“Find out how kids are doing emotionally,” encourages Cathlyn. “School, sports and friends are all an important part of a child’s emotional development. Sometimes, kids just want to talk. They want to feel listened to and heard. Just sit and listen. You don’t have to have all the answers.”

Try connecting with your child at natural times and places. That may be around the kitchen table or during a walk around the block.

Try connecting with your child at natural times and places. That may be around the kitchen table or during a walk around the block. “Any opportunity to talk to your child is a good opportunity,” Cathlyn reminds parents.

Set an example when managing your own stress

Parents know that kids look to them for guidance in many situations, and that kids are often listening – even when you don’t think they are.

“How you manage changes and the stress of COVID-19 will impact your children,” Cathlyn says. “When you’re getting overwhelmed by everything, have a moment in a car or closet so you don’t take it out on your family. Instead, set the example of how to manage that stress by taking a break.”

When you’re getting overwhelmed by everything, have a moment in a car or closet so you don’t take it out on your family.

Learning how to manage uncertainty can help children learn to be more flexible and resilient – important skills to cope with many things in life. Cathlyn recommends parents set the tone for families by:

  • Focus on the present. Many parents are “future tripping,” as Cathlyn calls it. We’re too focused on what may come instead of what’s happening right now. When that happens, try grounding or mindful exercises to be present.
  • Take a break. Find that closet or empty room and let yourself have a moment. Lie down, count to 30 or let your mind wander (on positive thoughts).
  • Be self-aware. Learn your body’s own cues for when you’re starting to get overwhelmed. Does your heart start to race or your stomach start to hurt? Do you find yourself snapping at loved ones a little more easily? Be in tune to how you’re feeling so that you can catch emotions before they overwhelm your body.
  • Be positive. Remind yourself that not everything is terrible. Instead, try to think of at least three positive things – however small – for every negative thought you have.

Finally, and most importantly, share these techniques with your child. When you model healthy behaviors and coping skills, your child will learn the same approach and be healthier in body and mind.

Create new traditions and celebrate little moments

It can be hard (if not impossible) to find something that takes the place of your annual beach vacation or birthday parties. Instead of putting pressure on yourself to completely make up the difference, Cathlyn suggests parents find something that just helps take the ‘shape’ of favorite traditions or things your family was looking forward to.

“Some kids love picking out a new backpack or lunch bag for school or are really upset about missing camp,” she says. “There’s no reason that, just because your child may not be going back to an actual school building that they can’t pick out new school supplies. And, you can also come up with fun, new traditions to celebrate the end of summer like backyard Olympics with the family or stargazing on one of the last nights of summer.”

Talking to your kids to find out what they’re really missing can help families create new traditions and celebrations. After all, the new normal is something that can still be celebrated.

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Find a doctor

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult with a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow-up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Talk to your doctor and make sure you’re up-to-date with recommended vaccines. Find out what we’re doing to keep you safe when you visit.

Related resources

Insights and advice for managing uncertainty

The pandemic may increase the risk of PTSD for some

“To do” or “To be” in the time of COVID-19

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

Our philosophy for well being is looking at the holistic human experience. As such, the Swedish Wellness & Lifestyle Team is committed to shining a light on health-related topics that help you live your healthiest life. From nutrition to mindfulness to annual screenings, our team offers clinically-backed advice and tips to help you and your loved ones live life to the fullest.

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