Mental Health Check-In for Parents of Elementary School Kids

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Last week we had a Mental Health Check-In for Parents of Elementary School Kids with psychologist Mandi White-Ajmani, PhD, from Small Brooklyn Psychology. Here are some of the key takeaways that came out of that check-in. Feel free to reach out to for any questions.

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#1 Kids are Clingy

This can be partly an anxiety response, so it’s important to maintain normal routines. It’s okay to push during this time, but do it gently. There is also some learned helplessness so try to step back and let kids make their own way. They may surprise you about what they are capable of when given their own agency.

 

#2 Kids are Regressing

You may be having a “two steps forward, one step back” experience rather than linear progression through milestones. (Guess what-- this happens when there isn’t a pandemic!). You’re also seeing your kids more often, so you may have an over-inflated sense of their behavior. Many of them were out of your sight for long stretches of time before the lock-down. Regressing is a coping mechanism as well. Since they don’t have normal cues and routines, they may be falling back on ways to get more attention. You can be gentle with them at this time when they may need a few more snuggles and reassurances. Also, labeling things “Covid Naptime” or “Covid Sleep-Over” can anchor them that this is not a long term situation.


Continue to give them lots of praise for big-kid behavior. Sometimes we forget that being good is a choice as well as being bad, so try extra hard to catch them when they are being good.

 

#3 Kids aren’t Socializing

Not socializing with other kids won’t ruin them. Their brains are very adaptable; it’s going to be okay. They are still socializing with parents, siblings, grandparents (remotely). Zoom calls for socialization are purposeful and will not make them mental mushes. However, kids can get zoom fatigue just like parents. Try ways of interacting online that are less intense like parallel play with another kid (e.g., legos); but don’t force it. Modeling is important here! They see you on a family playdate and watch how you interact, so they will pick up from your cues.


Remember, too, that there are differences in how much kids may want to socialize. Assuming that your child wants or needs more interaction may be misguided. Susan Cain’s Power of Introverts (and her book, Quiet) is a great reminder that, for some kids, curling up with a good book is better than an awkward zoom call they don’t want to be on. This may be a time kids can learn some of their own ways of interacting and look inward - so let that happen as well.

 

#4 Kids are Sassy, Defiant, and Explosive

Kids may have lower tolerances for frustration right now. Guess what? Since they see you as safe, they express those feelings toward you and you are the brunt of their negative behavior. (Maybe take it as a compliment?) Parents are often the target of a child’s behavior and it’s a coping technique. Also, kids are emotion sponges and they can pick up on your angst and anxiety and mirror it. If you can keep your cool in responding to your kids being less than their best, you give them permission to feel their feelings too. Maintain a matter of fact tone and try to rise above the angst you may be feeling in response to their negativity. “We will be able to do X once we do Y (e.g., empty dishwasher).”


Find regular ways to find joy in a routine thing (e.g., family game night from 7:00pm - 7:30pm). That way even if there are things happening that feel hard and crummy, they still know that there is going to be something fun despite them having these big feelings.

 

#5 Kids are on Technology All. The. Time.

Technology and screens are part of life right now. Let yourself off the hook for letting your kids use screens more than you would like. They are not being “broken” by the use of technology. Remember that some screen time (e.g., Tik Tok) can actually be creative, fun, and active. We will all need to do the work after this is over to break technology habits. Encourage non-tech time when you can. One idea: Use two bowls with different ideas in them; one with screen time activities, the other with non-screen time activities.


To break the cycle of one more hour on the screen, doing something together (cooking, walking, puzzles) is a much more effective way to get them away from their screens.


REMEMBER to make sure you are modeling good behavior; be intentional about your ways of not being on technology. Disconnect from media, computers, phones. When school is out and remote learning can be turned off, you can slowly and gradually start weaning kids off the hours of screens (e.g., 4 hours to 3 ½; 3 ½ to 3). Replace screens with something just as fun or better. Disrupting the routine to say, “NO MORE SCREENS” makes it seem like screens are all bad – which is not the case – and will likely result in defiance. You can come up with other goals outside screen time.

 

Q & A

Sibling Fighting

What can we do about siblings who are not getting along? Give siblings space and a space of their own. You can make special spaces for everyone (e.g., a nest in the bathtub with blankets and pillows). Give them time to be by themselves without each other. It can also help for them to have a shared goal to unify. “Hey kids, X really needs to be done and I can’t get to it. This would be really helpful for us.” or “Father’s Day coming up – can you come up with some ideas for making it special?”


Also, start teaching kids ways to recognize when they are getting to a point where they are out of control. Ask them to do a body scan (e.g., where does your body feel the tension?) and help them understand their feelings. When you start to see the interactions becoming tense, help them process their feelings (e.g., frustration, anger), ask them to take a breath, and get calm.

 

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What do you do when kids consistently fail to respond to your calm presence and instead becomes out of control to the point of hurting people and breaking things.

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How do YOU respond in ways that will de-escalate behavior that has gotten out of hand? The first step is to be calm and keep everyone safe. NOT taking it personally (despite that being difficult sometimes) is also important. Remember that kids haven’t learned the tools to respond to the myriad of emotions that they may be feeling, especially right now when there’s so much going on in the world. This isn’t something that kids have coping mechanisms and problem solving skills to handle things.They react with a fight or flight response.


One way to think about how feelings overwhelm kids is to think about that scene in Back to the Future where Michael J Fox plays the guitar in front of a big speaker and gets blown backward. That overwhelming flood of emotions without the language to explain what they are feeling.

 

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Only Children

What about only children? Should we be trying to get them socialization opportunities?

It depends on the child. As said above, some children need more or less interaction with children. There is not a one size fits all.

 

How can I actually get something done with my 8 year old who doesn’t seem to understand that I need to work (I have no childcare)?


Come up with a schedule together. Let’s work from 9-10:30, then take a 15 minute break together for a snack. Then work some more and then have lunch at 1pm. Giving kids agency in the schedule can help with their buy-in and they can come up with things that parents may not think about. You can come up with a “contract” that you each sign…


Also-- use cues to help set the expectation and also the tone for transition. Have a FLIP “Working/Not working.” Have rules such as “if I have my headphones on then I can’t be disturbed.”

 

Special time

With families stuck together in the house, what do you recommend for giving a child some "special time" with one parent to give them a break from siblings and some extra attention?


You can make signs designating special time(e.g., “mommy/son private time”), you can go for a walk together, build a fort together. If there is more than one child, make sure that siblings are also doing something special so they don’t resent not being part of special time.

 

Flexibility vs. Spoiling

Any tips for how to walk the line between being gentle/flexible about responsibilities (finish your worksheet, empty the dishwasher), and not letting them get away with being spoiled kids?

First, decide if it’s really important. Then ask with a calm voice and don’t let whiney replies get through. “I’d like you to empty the dishwasher and then you can do X.” Also, don’t ask but tell. “We are going to go out to the store and then come home and have a snack.”

 

Self-Care

Remember to take care of yourself. If you need to, give yourself a time out when you find yourself in a position where you are not remaining calm, that models good behavior as well.

 

Seeking Help

If things are too much for everyone, get help for the family. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Parent Child Interaction Therapy are two possible therapies that can help your family have more calm and less conflict. Therapy may not be a long term investment either. You could end up meeting once or twice so that you know that what you’re doing is on the right path or you could need more time as a family to work on the skills together. Many of the best therapists don’t take insurance but may work with you on a sliding scale so ask.


Check out the reviews of family therapists and also child and teen therapists on the Park Slope Parents website.


Therapy isn’t about weakness, it’s about building the strength and tools you need to be the best parent you can be. Therapy is an oil change for your brain and heart. The best gift you can give your kids is a mentally healthy parent.