A joy (and profound challenge) of the COVID-19 pandemic is that many working parents are spending more time with their kids. Parents report that they’re closer to their children and that they have been doing things together they rarely had time for before: board games, puzzles, gardening and so on.
But that paints a sunny picture of this newfound together time that doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s also happening: stressed-out parents frantically trying to juggle multiple tasks that require their full attention, and children desperately looking to fill time that was once full of school and socializing with their caregivers. So many kids are hungry for attention right now.
Here’s what to look out for and how to make a few quick, easy changes that don’t make life more difficult than it already is.
Look out for clinginess and regression.
Kids of all ages — from toddlers to teenagers — have been clingier than usual since the pandemic began, which can manifest in many different ways. Preschoolers might be hanging on you constantly; older kids might suddenly be looking to cuddle more. Regressions have also been an issue as kids fall back into habits and behaviors you haven’t seen in a while, like having tantrums, thumb-sucking or playing with toys they haven’t played with in some time.
Experts say a lot of those shifts and behaviors are clues that kids are seeking reassurance that they are safe and that you will continue to navigate this messy “new normal” together.
“Kids show us what they need through their behaviors,” psychologist Claire Nicogossian, a clinical assistant professor at Brown University and author of “Mama, You Are Enough: How to Create Calm, Joy and Confidence Within the Chaos of Motherhood,” told HuffPost.
Acting out can be another red flag.
Children are hard-wired to want their parents’ attention, so much so that they’re willing to misbehave to get it. They will absolutely settle for negative attention if that is what’s being offered. As the website of the Child Mind Institute (CMI) explains: “Parental attention is so powerful that whatever behavior we pay attention to will increase, even if we’re telling them to stop.”
Of course, there are plenty of other possible explanations for new (or newish) misbehavior. Kids have experienced major losses in their life: They may not be able to go to school, they can’t freely play with friends, they have had to adapt to ever-changing routines.
But it’s worth considering the effect that showering them with a bit more positive attention might have.
“Rather than chiding them for what they’re doing wrong, we want to catch kids doing right,” the CMI says. “It’s a simple shift, but one that goes against centuries of parenting norms and takes some practice before it becomes second nature.” That may be particularly true during the pandemic, when we’re all running on empty.
Do an “attention audit.”
Nicogossian often encourages parents to log when they spent “quality time” with their kids over the past day or days. She noted that she is a working mom of three who understands how impossible the current juggle is for parents. But she also believes this relatively simple exercise can be eye-opening for caregivers.
“When did you spend time with your child when you weren’t multitasking or that you weren’t doing a chore? When was the last time you were together when you weren’t keeping them on-task with distance learning or driving them somewhere or preparing food?” she offered by way of example. “Get some data.”
The good news? If you realize you haven’t actually given your kid much focused attention, the fix can be pretty quick and simple. Could you give them five minutes a day of totally focused playtime? Take a 10-minute walk together? Have a quick dance party? Those short periods of time can make a huge difference, Nicogossian said.
Give them some sort of schedule.
“Kids do best when routines are in place and expectations are clear,” Dylann Gold, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at New York University’s Langone Health, recently said in an article on managing difficult behaviors during COVID-19 on the NYU Langone website. “Predictability, especially given the current circumstances, can help your child feel a sense of comfort and safety.”
Maybe you explain to your kiddo that you’ll have some one-on-one time in the morning around breakfast, that you could take a break to do a brief activity midday, and that in the evening you’ll be able to spend more time as a family — or whatever that schedule looks like for you. Setting expectations can keep kids from looking for your attention at times when you simply cannot give it to them.
If you’ve done your time audit, set expectations and your child is still being really clingy, it’s absolutely appropriate to set boundaries, Nicogossian said. (Also again, consider whether there might be bigger underlying issues at play and seek help for them as needed. Talking to your child’s health care provider or teacher can be a good place to start.)
But don’t let yourself get bogged down in guilt.
“This is the trap parents can get into, this feeling that they have to be available at all times,” Nicogossian said, adding that she feels very “protective of parents” right now and believes we all owe ourselves a lot of care and grace.
Not only is that kind of boundary-setting important for your own mental health and wellbeing as the pandemic wears on, it also teaches your child that they are not totally reliant on you to navigate this strange, hard time. Yes, you are all together at home much more now than before. But, no, you are not there to solve everything for them.
“We have to teach kids coping skills for how they’re going to soothe themselves and take care of boredom,” Nicogossian said. “We can’t always jump in.”