Still Parenting in a Pandemic

Damon Korb, M.D.
7 min readApr 21, 2021

--

A Guide to Reopening.

Image by Drazen.

One year ago, as the pandemic was causing the world to shut down, I wrote “Parenting in a Pandemic.” Anticipating a long stay at home, I recommended important parenting themes such as routines, setting limits, providing outlets for pleasure, teaching life skills, and spending time with family. These lessons remain central to parenting. But, few of us predicted that the lockdown would last a year, and now that America is undergoing a gradual reopening, we have to plan for the current realities. Families have struggled. Some have experienced the loss of a relative, friend, or neighbor, and others have lived through economic hardship. Children have been lonely. They have lived without regular get-togethers with friends and extracurricular activities like sports, music, and theatre. They have missed events and milestones such as birthday parties, graduations, and proms. Most have spent far too much time on electronics and some have become so accustomed to their devices that their parents fear the reaction when school resumes and they are forced to put them down. The circumstances are different now, making parenting more complicated. To help, this sequel article can serve as a parental guide to reopening.

Know Your Kids

Being stuck at home has allowed us to spend unprecedented amounts of time with our kids. At times this was exhausting, but there have certainly been some silver linings. For instance, a majority of teens reported being emotionally closer to their parents now than before the lock down. The proximity to our kids has also given parents the opportunity to better understand how they work. We have observed our children and made modifications to support them at home. Some parents have watched their child struggle with distance learning and have adapted by letting them learn while jumping on a trampoline or moving the computer into a central place in the house so that they will be less tempted to open other programs on their computer.

Distance learning has also been an opportunity to learn more about our child’s temperament. Temperament describes our innate or biologically based behavior, such as activity level, adaptability, intensity of emotions, span of attention, threshold for distractibility, sensory sensitivity, and regularity of body functions (e.g. sleep, hunger). Children are all different, so understanding a child’s temperament allows parents to promote skill development specific to their needs. If your child is shy, he may have preferred the camera turned off during a Zoom class and, when America re-opens, he may need more time to warm up to returning to school and to be gently pushed out of his comfort zone. If you watched your child struggle with their ability to pay attention throughout the day, they may need help learning how to get refocused independently when back in a classroom. These lessons learned about your child are great topics to discuss with your pediatrician, who may be able to offer additional related suggestions.

Knowing the ins and outs of your child can have a positive impact on their developmental trajectory. When society reopens, schools will quickly learn that there will be a tremendous difference in school performance among children. Anxious kids will be more fearful about returning to school. Struggling learners will be farther behind. Children with deficits in social skills may feel more awkward. For some students, working independently at a remote site was discovered to be a much better fit than in-person classes. As we move forward, it is critical that teachers and parents collaborate to find creative solutions for these children. In the best scenario, schools will individualize education as much as possible to meet the needs of every student. Parents can help by sharing their experience as home learning supervisors and offer the strategies that worked and did not work in supporting their child.

Computers Are our Friends

During Covid, our computers became our life-line to the outside world. Our kids chatted with their peers, they played games, and they learned through their computers. I will be the first to say that we need limits on electronics for all of us, not just our children, but we did learn that some amazing adventures exist online. We can take tours of museums and national parks, and just about anything can be learned online, with Khan Academy as the leading example. When things open up again, continue to use your computers intentionally to learn and explore, but limit unnecessary passive uses, such as scrolling through pictures and videos that waste time or make our kids feel insecure about themselves. For children who have been able to indulge in excessive amounts of screen time during the pandemic, a plan to wean them back to realistic levels should be in place this summer.

Save Time for Free Time

Before the coronavirus hit, many of us had lives that were too hectic and students were stressed and overscheduled. The pandemic has afforded some of us the opportunity to reset our priorities. Kids need downtime and free time with their friends and family. Young children use playtime and their imaginations to explore the possibilities in life and the choices older children make during free time helps them to learn more about themselves. All children learn to solve problems by playing alone or with their friends, not the least of which is how to solve boredom. Free time isn’t just taking a break, it is an opportunity to learn and grow. As American begins to reopen, your family should think carefully about what activities your child wants to rejoin and how much participation and involvement really makes sense. Avoid the need to match the daily grind of the past.

Continue to Exercise and Explore Nature

For many families isolating, we began to make a regular effort to get outdoors and take walks, exploring local parks and trails. While part of the attraction was that we were just excited to get outside, these healthy adventures rekindled our appreciation for nature and demonstrated the mental-health benefits of exercise. Additionally, some of us bought Pelotons and the Mirror to stay in shape, and those of us on a budget did workouts and yoga on YouTube. As things open up again, it will be great for our kids to exercise with their friends and classmates. Safely rejoining athletic or dance teams, clubs and classes can provide healthy outlets for children. Parents can also strive to continue the good habits we developed at home, such as hiking on weekends and taking family walks after dinner.

Public Health Matters

Parents should know that mask wearing and social distancing not only protected their families from COVID-19, but pediatricians have also seen record low numbers of the flu and the respiratory virus, RSV, this year. When America reopens, instead of diving back into the cesspool of kid disease, parents should use some of the lessons learned during the pandemic. When your child has a cold, keep them home. When you have been exposed to someone with a cold, out of courtesy to your friends, wear a mask when you go out in public. Before and after group gatherings, wash your child’s hands. Hopefully, schools will continue these safe practices as well, by offering more opportunities for hygiene and being more insistent about isolating or sending sick children home.

Consider our Environmental Impact

It is also a sad, but true, fact that our environment is in trouble. After we move past the disaster of COVID we will need to address another: climate change. The rapid rate of climate change is a threat that is already impacting the lives of our children. When the world reopens it will be tempting to drive and travel like we did before the pandemic, but we should hit the reset button on this idea. During the pandemic we learned that there are many adventure options we can explore closer to home, or virtually. Once we reopen, share those ideas with friends. Whenever possible, choose activities for your children in your community. If your job allows, work from home when you can — not only will it save on commute time and expense — it gives you more time with your family. Additionally, think twice about jumping on a plane, because air travel has a tremendous environmental impact. Try to limit flight plans for rare, special occasions. Save time, money, and the environment by staying close to home.

Structure and Limits Will Always be Important

I know I said it last year, but I will say it again, structure, routines, rules and limits are still important. Routines help behavior. Children behave best when they are familiar with situations and know what to expect. When children know what to expect, they are more likely to mentally prepare themselves for change, making the transition from one activity to the next go more smoothly. Rules and limits help with behavior and keep kids safe. Make sure that there are rules around taking care of health (exercise, sleep, nutrition), hygiene, homework, and household chores. Teens need additional boundaries around driving and curfews. Think of these limits as a parent’s way of showing that you care about your child’s future.

Nobody knows for certain when we will be able to move past COVID-19, but the vaccinations have brought us hope that if we all pitch in and get our shots, like so many other diseases, we will be able to greatly reduce the risk. Parents can prepare their children for the reopening. More than a year of a pandemic has taught us many things about ourselves, our family, and our community. Use the lessons you learned about your child’s unique abilities while isolating to be a better parent and advocate for your student. As the weeks ahead gain some normalcy, be sure to maintain structure and limits, while also giving your child the free time and space they need to thrive and grow.

Be safe, be well.

--

--

Damon Korb, M.D.

Damon Korb, M.D., is a Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician and the author of Raising an Organized Child.