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Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive - Jen Lumanlan
108: How to cope with the Coronavirus pandemic
00:00:00 00:44:15

108: How to cope with the Coronavirus pandemic

In this episode we discuss how to cope with parents’ and children’s fear and anxiety related to the Coronavirus pandemic, how to keep the children busy so you can get some work done (without resorting to hours of screen time), and how to use the time that you are focused on them to develop your family relationships as well as their learning, rather than you driving each other nuts.

To download a FREE sample routine to help you organize your days, and also join a FREE one-week workshop to give you the tools you need to cope with this situation, please go to yourparentingmojo.com/coronavirus

 

Other episodes mentioned in this show

Talk Sex Today

Understanding the AAP’s new screen time guidelines

Raising your child in a digital world

 

Resources

List of video conferencing companies offering free services

Geocaching website

Nature journaling videos with John Muir Laws

 

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Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast!  I know that listeners who have been with me for a while know that an episode is going to be different when I dispense with the music at the beginning – I think the last time I did this was six months ago when I announced that I was taking a break from the show.  But have no fear; I’m not going anywhere – I just did it today to indicate that this is not a normal show because these are not normal times.  I’m recording this on March 15 2020, four days after the World Health Organization declared that the coronavirus outbreak is a pandemic, which means it is dispersed across a very wide geographic area and affects many individuals at the same time.  Many, many things have been canceled in the last few days – most schools are canceled for at least the next few weeks; big events are canceled or postponed, and we’re being advised to practice ‘social distancing’ by remaining six feet apart from other people.

This all seems really big and super stressful and I’m not going to go into the details of much of the epidemiological information because frankly that isn’t my specialty.  But I also know that a lot of you are struggling with issues that very much do fall into my wheelhouse – things like “what on earth am I going to do with my kids for the next six weeks when we usually start to get on each other’s nerves on day six of a vacation,” and “will my child get behind on school work,” and “how am I going to still get my own WORK work done so I can get paid and keep us afloat while we’re all cooped up in this tiny space?”

So in this episode I’m going to cover two main things – firstly, resources for you, because you may well be feeling quite anxious and approaching the end of your rope already and unsure how you’re going to make it through the coming weeks.

Then we’ll talk about issues that affect your children while we’re going through this and how to answer your children’s questions about the virus and how to be thoughtful about screen time when it seems like there’s nothing else to do and also how to support their learning while they’re out of school.

And because I know some of you are REALLY stressed out about this, I also want to let you know about a FREE one-week workshop that I’m running starting on March 23rd. It draws together elements of many of the paid workshops and memberships that I’ve built over the last few years into resources that you can use RIGHT NOW.  So for example, I’m in the middle of hosting a workshop on Taming Your Triggers, where we spend weeks digging into the many sources of your triggers because we often find that if we understand those better it creates space for us to choose a different reaction.  But right now we KNOW the source of our triggers – for many of us it’s our anxiety about the virus and about being cooped up with our kids – whom we love and cherish and enjoy, but just not ALL DAY EVERY DAY.  So we go right to the strategies that you can put in place immediately to feel less triggered by the situation, which will allow you to respond more effectively to your child when they’re acting out.

We’ll also cover similar, immediately implementable strategies to cope with sibling fighting in a way that gives your children tools to solve their own problems, ways to keep children busy so you can get things done, and how to use their own interests as a jumping off point for real learning that isn’t based on worksheets or spelling drills or math problems for when you do have focused time with them.

So if all that sounds like something you could use, just head on over to yourparentingmojo.com/coronavirus and sign up; you just have to enter your name and email address and you’re in.  There’s no charge whatsoever, so if you know of other parents among your friends, family, colleagues, and online networks and groups that could benefit from this then please do feel free to forward the yourparentingmojo.com/coronavirus page. The workshop gets started on March 24th, and as a bonus, as soon as you sign up I’ll email you a sample daily routine that you can use to bring a sense of order to the few days that we have until we get started.  I don’t think you necessarily need a formal schedule, and you may do just fine even without the parameters of a loose routine, but since many of our children will be coming from the highly routinized worlds of daycare and school, they may find the structure gives them a sense of security when so much around them might feel uncertain.  So that routine should carry you through the days when this is all still new and being out of daycare or school is still somewhat exciting, and then when you’re starting to get on each other’s nerves and you’re wondering how you’re going to do this for the foreseeable future, I’ll be standing right alongside you with tools to help.  If you’d like to download that sample schedule and sign up for the workshop, just go to yourparentingmojo.com/coronavirus, and as a reminder it is completely FREE, so please do share it with anyone you think might benefit.

OK, so on to our topic for today – and in the spirit of putting your own oxygen mask on before helping others with theirs, let’s start with you.

I know a lot of you are really anxious about what’s happening in the world at the moment, so I want to be really specific about our language here and define our terms.  I’m going to walk through the difference between fear, worry, anxiety, and panic.

When we’re thinking about fear, then that’s a response to a known or definite threat.  If we’re hiking in the woods and we see a bear, fear is a normal response.  Our bodies use fear to trigger us to do something productive, which is usually fight or flight, or sometimes the freeze response which can mean playing physically – or emotionally – dead.  For many of us, we are very fortunate that in the situation we’re in with the virus, objectively speaking there really isn’t a lot to fear.  If we are healthy and our children are healthy and the elderly people we know are staying home and staying away from people who might have been infected, then there really isn’t a lot to have actual fear about.  Yes, there is still a possibility that we might catch the virus and we’ll probably feel crappy for a couple of weeks, but the transmission rate in children seems to be very low, and the fatality rate in healthy adults and children is very very low, so we probably won’t be too severely impacted.

But if we think out beyond our immediately fortunate circumstances, then there actually is quite a lot of reason to be afraid.  If our elderly relatives can’t be completely isolated, or if we or our family members are immunocompromised, or if we care about people who are forced to live in close quarters like prison, or who are homeless and lack access to the basic sanitation practices that we are able to take for granted, or if we are working on the front lines in hospitals then that fear suddenly seems very rational because there IS a threat.  The threat is HERE, and it’s happening now.

When we feel fear for an extended period of time – longer than it takes to run away from a bear - we often worry.  Worrying is defined by being exact; we’re not generally worried about things in general; we’re worried about something specific.  We’re worried that we are going to catch the virus and pass it on to others.  We’re worried that our vulnerable friends and relatives are going to be seriously ill or die. In many cases, in regular life, worry is actually adaptive, which means it’s useful.  It tells us that there’s something we need to focus on and maybe shift our approach.  The problem here, of course, is that many of us are already doing the things we’ve been told to do to reduce the transmission of the virus, but if there are things we simply can’t do – like not going to work if we’re a nurse and we’re not sick, or completely protecting our parents who are in ill health – and then it’s much more difficult to reduce the worry by changing our approach.

When we can’t reduce our worries, they may become generalized into anxiety, which is a diffuse, unpleasant, vague sense of apprehension.  It’s possible that you might not even say what’s making you anxious – yes, you’re anxious about the virus, but even after you’ve rationally told yourself about the relatively low risks to most people, you might still feel anxious and not really be able to fully explain why.  We don’t often feel worry in our bodies, but we feel anxiety.  The official diagnosis requires three or more of the following six symptoms to be present – restlessness or feeling on edge; being easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, and sleep disturbance.  These reactions aren’t going to help you to cope with any specific threat, so they are maladaptive.  A good test is to tell a friend about your thoughts – if they can understand, you’re worrying.  If they say “that makes no sense,” or if you already know yourself that it makes no sense, that’s probably anxiety.  Worry might make us nervous, but anxiety makes us afraid; it feels beyond our control, and it changes our ability to function in life for a substantial period of time – the diagnosis criteria say six months on this, although I’m guessing that in acute situations like this that the six month criteria may not be as relevant.

A panic attack is like an acute onset of anxiety.  Instead of having ongoing, low to moderate intensity physical symptoms and a generalized sense of apprehension, the official diagnosis of a panic attack is defined as periods of intense fear or discomfort in which at least four of the following 13 symptoms develop quickly, reaching a peak within 10 minutes.  The 13 symptoms are pounding heartbeat, sweating, trembling or shaking, shortness of breath, feeling of choking, chest pain, nausea, feeling dizzy or faint, derealization (which means you have altered perceptions about your self and/or your environment), fear of losing control or going crazy, numbness or tingling, and chills or hot flushes.  If you are already anxious then it’s possible that you might experience the symptoms of a panic attack if you’re in a public place where people are coughing and sneezing, especially if that place is your work so you can’t escape from it.

And when we’re experiencing these things one of the things we’re probably also worrying about the impact that our experience is having on our children.  Some children aren’t terribly perceptive and might not notice that something is wrong, while others will be sensitive to every shift in your mood. Either way, many of them will notice if your symptoms cause you to snap at them or lash out at them, and of course it’s hard enough to be patient with your children when you’re cooped up with them in a small space, even if you WEREN’T experiencing fear, worrying, anxiety, or maybe even panic attacks yourself, along with all the uncertainty that comes with the constant change in status of what’s open and whether we’re still going to have a job in six weeks and if our city is going to be put on lockdown.

So what can we do?  If we think about what helps us to feel less afraid, worried, and anxious, it’s usually not that someone tells us “Don’t worry; that thing you’re thinking about is never going to happen.” These aren’t rational responses in us, so they often don’t respond well to rational logic. It’s far more powerful to reach out to a friend (via phone!) and say “hey, I’m really worried.  Can I talk with you about it?”  Hopefully if your friend is a good listener they’ll empathize with your feelings and your experience first, and connect with you as a human being to show you they care about you before letting you know whether or not you’re being irrational.  And if they’re worried too, hopefully you can do the same thing for them.

When we are ready for some rational information, we can try to understand what is the real risk to ourselves and our family.  It can be hard to see countries on lockdown and not think that this virus is coming to get us personally, and while the risk to the community is very large, the personal risk to you as an individual is actually quite small.  We just can’t extrapolate the community risk to the personal risk and assume that because the community risk is large, the personal risk is also large.  Finding trusted sources of information on issues like this is really important – so look to places like the World Health Organization, or your healthcare provider. You can look at what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is doing as an advisory, but I will say that in general the American government has not been good at detecting, understanding, and reducing risks associated with all kinds of public health threats over the years, and that they it tends to be more reactionary than proactive so I personally don’t necessarily trust that I’m getting all the information I need in a timely manner from them.

You can do a simple mental risk analysis and ask yourself if you know of anyone who has been infected with the virus, and if you’ve been in contact with them.  If you have, then there’s definitely more of a reason to worry than if you haven’t.

And thirdly, what are the steps you can reasonably take to prevent the spread of the virus?  These are fairly simple – regular, effective handwashing for 20 seconds, not touching your face, and staying away from someone who might be infected.  That’s where the advice to maintain social distance comes into play, and most of what I’m reading says to stay around six feet or two meters from other people when you’re out.  There’s probably not a lot of point in wearing a face mask unless it’s a very high quality one and you’re trained in how to use it and you are disciplined in using it – I was at the hospital the other day picking up some medicine for poison oak and I can’t tell you how many people I saw with masks pushed down around their chins.  Masks are actually mostly designed to keep nasty stuff in rather than out, so they’re designed for sick people to wear so they don’t get other people sick, not for healthy people to wear to keep other people’s germs out.  There are mask shortages as well at the moment so it’s best to save those for people who are on the front lines dealing with real exposure risk.

For those of you who are in these situations where you genuinely do have an elevated risk of exposure, my heart goes out to you.  One of the things that seems to happen when we experience symptoms related to anxiety is we feel alone, and like no one else can possibly understand.  But since there are thousands of people experiencing this right now, it’s highly likely that there are very many people who do understand how you’re feeling not only about the exposure, but the fact that this is happening in a situation that you can’t get out of.  One thing you might try is to create a virtual social community for people who are at increased exposure risk using a phone or video conferencing tool so you don’t actually have to be together in the same room.  I’ll put a link in the references to an article about video conferencing providers who are offering free services right now. It could be as simple as you and a colleague sending out an email saying you’ll be on the line at a certain time; if nobody else shows up then you’ll have one other person to talk with, but you might find that many others have been feeling a need for connection like this but didn’t know how to make it happen.

When we’re anxious it’s possible that understanding rationally that our actual risk of exposure is fairly low if we have access to adequate protective equipment, but you also need to address the emotional aspect as well which seeks reassurance and solidarity and empathy, so by going at this from both sides you’ll stand the best chance of making it through this with your sanity intact.  In the free workshop we’ll go more deeply into some other tools you can use to create space for yourself when you feel triggered so you can choose a different response, as well as resources to help you have conversations about your fears with your colleagues and your partner that invite them to help you and allow you to offer your support to them.  We’ll also talk about a concept from Buddhism called grasping, which is the idea that we tend to get attached to certain outcomes (like keeping our families safe) that in reality we really can’t control.  Taking steps to stop grasping – even as we continue to take all necessary precautions like handwashing and social distance – can go an enormously long way toward releasing the grip that anxiety has over us. This is really powerful work, and I’m excited to share it with you in the workshop.

OK, so that was a lot on anxiety specifically related to the virus.  For those of us who aren’t feeling especially anxious about our risk of exposure, there’s still the anxiety of knowing that while we love our children, we really do better when we spend a significant chunk of the day apart from them.  Even for those of you who have chosen to be stay-at-home-parents, getting out of the house and socializing both with other children and other parents has probably provided a big part of the resources that you use to feel connected and have a purpose beyond that of raising your children, and with that rug pulled out from under you, you too may also feel very isolated.  One thing I really want to underscore here is that I don’t think you need a minute-by-minute schedule that tries to replicate the kind of schedule your child has at school, and when we talk about children more in a minute I’ll also make the case that keeping up on school work is a pretty low priority. But I do think that if your children have been in a very structured environment and will probably be going back to a very structured environment in a few weeks, that there’s a strong case for maintaining some semblance of a daily routine.

A routine is different from a schedule in that a schedule says exactly what you’ll be doing and when, while a routine is more of a loose structure that you use to guide you.  If neither you nor your child thrives on routine and you’re both welcoming these unstructured days with wide open arms then I’d say to go for it and run with that and enjoy it while you can!  But if your children are bouncing off the walls, then you may find that rather than constraining you, a routine actually gives you space to feel as though you know what’s coming and removes the stress of what can seem to be constant decision-making about what to do next.

The free workshop I’m running doesn’t start until March 23rd, so when you sign up for it I’ll immediately send you a free downloadable sample routine that you can use or modify to guide your activities in the intervening days.  It does have times on it like a schedule, but these are just a suggestion. It’s designed on the assumption that there are two parents at home who both need to put in at least half a day of remote work, so it allows for one parent monitoring the children in some activities in the morning, and switching off after a family lunch.  If you’re parenting solo then you might want to work with neighbors or friends on some kind of switching off arrangement – yes, we are trying to limit social contact here so I wouldn’t advise rotating a different set of people in and out of the house each day, but if you’re working with just one or two other families who are also trying to limit their outside contact then you’re probably not greatly increasing your exposure risk.  So do go ahead and download that sample routine by entering your name and email address at yourparentingmojo.com/coronavirus.

OK; we’ve talked quite a bit about how the coronavirus may be affecting you; now let’s shift gears a bit and talk about how it may be affecting your children.

You may well find that younger children don’t seem to be particularly worried about the virus at all, possibly partly because they don’t really have a full understanding about what it is or how it could affect them.  But there are some children who may be quite worried or even anxious, particularly if they are a bit older and have been talking about it with their friends (and maybe their information sources aren’t the most rigorous either), or if they’re younger and they are kind of child who thrives on routine and certainty and having that rug pulled out makes them feel very unstable, and in addition if you are feeling worried or anxious then they may be picking up on this as well.

If your child does seem worried, try asking them what they’re worried about.  They may not be able to put it into words but if they can, as with adults, the key thing to do is to EMPATHIZE.  We can be quick to rush in with our rationalizations and explanations of how we’re probably not going to get sick and even if we do we’re probably going to be fine, but as you know yourself, this doesn’t necessarily help. So the first step is to empathize. We can do this through physical touch like hugs and kisses, which can be just as powerful as the things we say. We can say “I hear that you’re really worried about that.  You must feel very scared.”  (And as a side note, I would use this language about “feeling” scared rather than “being” scared, as this helps our children to understand that feelings come and go, rather than being something that’s inherent to us and therefore won’t change.)  Then after you’ve sat with them for a while and empathized you can talk about some of the information to help them cognitively understand that the risk is low and they will probably be fine.  But do always lead with the empathy.  If I think about the times when I’ve been scared or worried about something and I think about what helps me, I firstly want to know that the person I’m telling hears me, and sees me, and accepts me for who I am.  Once I’m sure that piece is in place, then I can start to receive information about cognitively reevaluating the risk, but not before.

So this leads us nicely into what we should tell children about the virus, and I think parents who are asking me about this already see that this information needs to be differentiated by the child’s age and maturity, but aren’t sure where to go with it from there.  I think one tool that can be really helpful is something I learned in the episode Talk Sex Today where we talked with Sex Educator Saleema Noon, and her advice to parents is that whenever their child comes to them with a question about sex, the parent’s first response should be “Oh, why did you want to know?”  Not only does this buy you a few seconds to think, but it also helps you to understand what’s really going on behind the question and whether your child is interested or confused or worried or something else, which allows you to tailor your response.  If you still feel as though you just can’t answer the question in that moment, it’s totally fine to say “I’m so glad you asked that question.  I need a bit of time to think about the right way to give you the best answer.  Can we talk about it [and then name a specific point in the day when you’ll come back to it, like after dinner]?”  And then you do need to actually come back and talk about it later; don’t just use it as a tactic to get out of the conversation.

Whenever you do end up talking about it, try to just answer the child’s question fairly narrowly.  We parents often think that we would want to have more information rather than less so our children must prefer this too, but our children are often the opposite.  So if they want to know why daycare is closed, you could say something like “there’s an illness called Coronavirus that you can catch by being to close to people who already have it, so even though we don’t know anyone who has it, school is closing to make sure children stay safe.”  Then if they ask you what Coronavirus is you can give them some more information.  You’re always using their questions as the departure point for giving them information, rather than telling them things they haven’t asked about, which should help to assuage their worries without giving them new things to worry about.  You may also need to emphasize the importance of handwashing, and teach them to count to 20 while they’re doing it, and explain that we can’t see our friends as much as we’d like to to try to keep everyone healthy.

For older children who do prefer to have more information and who are curious, this could be an ideal topic for what I call a learning exploration, which is where you take the child’s question as a jumping off point for a real exploration of the topic, going as deeply into it as they would like to using resources like online books, which are still available even when libraries are closed, and YouTube videos. If we weren’t so constrained we’d use all kinds of other community-based resources as well, but right now we’re making the best of what we have, and there’s still an enormous amount of information available to children to help them learn about what truly interests them, which is learning that is far more likely to stick with them than doing rote tasks on a worksheet.

So this is leading us to some of the issues that are going to come up related to your children actually being out of school.

One of the first things you might be worried about is whether they are going to fall behind academically.  My slightly facetious answer to that is that I don’t think your child is going to fall behind academically because everyone else’s child is out of school too.  Even on the tables you may have seen comparing children’s academic performance across countries, no one country is probably going to fall behind because of this time off school because all the other countries are dealing with the virus too.

Listeners who have been with me for a while know that while I am in awe of the many dedicated teachers who are out there supporting our children, I am beyond frustrated at the system that they are forced to work within, in which curriculum is set by bureaucrats in distant conference rooms, and where standardized testing is seen as an adequate assessment of what a person knows, and where learning also has to be standardized to make sure performance on the standardized tests is adequate, so the learning can have very little relevance to the child’s real life and interests and concerns.

So I hope I can encourage you to not worry about academics for right now!  If your school has provided an academic packet to work through and that’s a part of your routine that you and your child find helpful, then it certainly won’t hurt them to do it.  But what I’m hearing from teachers is that the only reason they’re putting these packets together is because parents are terrified of having no structure to their days and so academic assignments are one way to provide that structure. Instead, I want to see this time from a different perspective.  There are always so many projects we wish we could do if we had the time.  Things like gardening and washing the car and baking and sewing new curtains for the living room (or clothes for our children’s toys). There never seems to be enough time in the day to read all the books our children want us to read to them, or snuggle with them as much as they want to be snuggled. We feel so much pressure to stay on schedule and go places and do things, and in a way we’re now being called on to drop all of that.  We’re being shown what’s close to us at home, and what’s important to us, and being encouraged to spend time with that.  I was talking with Dr. Laura Froyen yesterday morning, who has been a guest on the show a couple of times and who co-teaches a unit of my parenting membership with me, and she was saying how she thinks the Coronavirus is going to define the memories of this generation of children.  And I think we both agree that yes, it can define their perceptions of risk and health and staying safe.  But I’m also reminded of a story I read somewhere a long time ago about a woman whose father had been laid off from work when she was young.  She said she somehow knew that money wasn’t as plentiful as it had been previously, but what she really remembered was that her Dad was AROUND, and they would work together to cook dinner, and because he was there he was embedded in her life in a way that he couldn’t have been if he was working a traditional job, and from that perspective she really saw that time as a gift. So to reiterate on that front, if you and your child enjoy traditional academic work and you find the routine of it helpful, please go ahead and do it.  But do you really want to spend the next six weeks or feeling like you’re pulling teeth every single day to get your child to spell 10 words that they don’t care about?  Or do you want them to look back on this period with such a sense of warmth at all the things you were able to do together and how it enabled you to be more connected?

At this point I can hear you saying “Alright Jen; I’m on board with the no academics but this is real life here.  I still have to work.  What the heck am I supposed to do?”  And I acknowledge that yes, this is not the easiest time.  So here are some things that might help.  Firstly, the routine that we’ve discussed.  If we have been functioning in a routine for a long time, the endless process of making decisions about what to do next can feel very overwhelming, and at that point the easiest thing to do can be to reach for the iPad.  That’s why having SOME sense of what’s coming next can keep you moving through the day, which means you don’t slide into screen time without intentionally doing it. Secondly, it can be hard to explain to children why Mama or Daddy gets to spend half the day on THEIR screens while the children are barely allowed to have any time on it at all.  If this is an issue in your family then I’d suggest that the working parent goes to another room and closes the door, rather than being somewhere where children can see you on your screen for hours at a time. And the final thing on screens is that I really believe it’s OK to relax a bit around screen time right now if that fits with your philosophy on raising children, because I know some of you are not using screens at all and of course that’s totally fine too if that’s how you prefer to do it.

I’ve done a couple of podcast episodes on screen time, and the broad-brush conclusions I can draw from the studies I looked at from those is that yes, endless hours on screens isn’t great for children’s brains or bodies.  While the American Academy of Pediatrics does recommend no screen time for children under 18 months and 1 hour a day of high quality programming for children ages 2-5, there’s really no actual evidence that says one hour a day is some kind of magic number and that if you exceed that number, damage will result to your child.  The guideline is more like the scientists saying “based on the available evidence, which is inconclusive, here’s the best attempt we can make at saying what we think most likely won’t harm most children.”  And in addition to making sure they’re watching high quality programming parents are supposed to sit with their child while they’re watching their show and discuss it with them.  Of course, these guidelines were developed for a world where we aren’t being asked to not be close to other people, which for many people means spending A LOT of time at home.  Nobody can say for sure what will or won’t harm an individual child, but I’m fairly confident that a couple of hours of screen time on most days over the coming weeks is not going to result in lasting damage to your child, as long as your child hasn’t been diagnosed with some kind of speech delay for which you have specifically been advised by a professional to minimize their screen usage. But again, the key thing about having a routine is that it keeps you moving through your day without having to make constant decisions that can lead you to using screen time as a default, which may reduce your child’s feeling like they want or need to nag you for more screen time, which benefits your sanity as well.

When I posted a call for questions on this topic in the free Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group, quite a lot of people responded with questions around socialization – they’re worried about loneliness, particularly among extroverted children, and that the loss of interaction with their peers is going to cause their child some kind of harm.  They’re wondering what to do instead of the playdates that might be a traditional fallback in more normal situations when school is closed.  So let’s take a look at those concerns.  We are an inherently social species, and it’s definitely possible that we’re ALL going to feel a bit lonely at some point in the next few weeks, with the possible exception of highly introverted me, and perhaps my daughter Carys as well who would be quite happy spending here to eternity in the house wearing pajamas sorting out her LEGOs by type into plastic containers.  But I wouldn’t necessarily be particularly worried about the impacts on a child of spending a few weeks apart from their peers. Yes, this is a sensitive time in a child’s development, and if it was a single child being absent from a tightly integrated group for a long period then they might find it hard to reintegrate with the group once they returned.  But all of the child’s peers are in the same boat too, so nobody is getting left behind.  Yes, we know that prolonged social isolation over a period of time is very damaging to the brain, but your child is safe in a loving environment with you, not totally isolated.  As far as I’m aware there’s no specific research on the effects of a short-term period of isolation from peers in young children, but everything I can gather from the thousands of academic papers I’ve read on child development tells me that while they might struggle for a few days to get back into the routine of daycare or school, in the long-term this is not going to be something that causes harm as long as they are in a loving environment at home.

We also don’t need to see this as a period of total isolation from peers, if we get creative in terms of how we think about interaction, and we’re fortunate that modern technology is going to be a huge help to us in a way that it couldn’t have been even a decade ago.  The teachers at Carys’ preschool are going to be at the school cleaning over the next week, and at a set time each morning they’re going to start a video call so all the children who want to can call in and see the teachers and read a story and have their normal ‘circle time’ together.  After that first week when the teachers won’t be available any more, this could still be a great part of the daily routine to keep up, maybe with a different parent hosting it each day so all the other parents get to have half an hour of down-time while that’s going on.  And even the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t count screen time where the child is interacting with other people through the screen, so you aren’t counting against your allowance on that either.

Screen time can be an important source of social relationships for YOU too, as long as you don’t look up two hours after you idly pick up your phone and wonder why you’re still scrolling Facebook, with no memory of what you’ve been looking at. If you’re in supportive parenting groups sharing ideas and empathizing and gathering strength for the next day, then I’d absolutely consider that to be self-care work.  Also take time to check in with friends via phone or video chat, and keep up those connections as well.  You could even set their kids and your kids up with a computer in your living rooms to video chat with each other while you retreat to a bedroom and have your own conversation at the same time.

And I don’t think we have to completely rule out in-person interactions either, or going outside for that matter. The key is to try to keep some distance between people, so riding bikes would be a fantastic activity that allow you to get outside, move around, and see people without getting close enough to pose a risk.  Some parents are asking me about playgrounds, and I think this is a bit more of a grey zone. Here’s what I know about it.  Flu viruses can remain active on hard surfaces for 2-3 days if they are undisturbed.  We also know that the sun is actually a potent virucide, which means it kills viruses.  I found a really helpful paper that looks at the amount of time it takes at different latitudes for the sun to kill the flu virus on surfaces outside.  Based on this data, if you’re living in San Francisco or at any latitude south of San Francisco right now as we approach the Spring equinox, the sun will probably kill around 90% of any flu virus present on hard surfaces in one day, assuming it’s a fully sunny day, and the surface has to be exposed to the sun and not underneath a play structure or something. The paper only provides data for the virucidal potential at the solstices and equinoxes, but my extrapolation is that you’d have to wait until sometime in late April before you hit that 90% threshold in Seattle, and later than that at latitudes in Canada and northern Europe.  Those of you in the Southern Hemisphere can check the latitudes of those cities against your own latitude the other direction and figure it out from there. So what I’m taking from this is that if the playground hasn’t been used very much, and it’s sunny outside, and if you’re feeling extra cautious you could take some disinfectant with you and give some things a wipe down, and yours is the only family there, then playgrounds are not totally off-limits.  This might be especially useful for parents of children younger than about two, who tend not to play directly together anyway and may be quite content to be six feet apart from each other while the parents get some much needed connection time.  But of course if you see a playground with lots of children running around then you’re not going to be able to keep an adequate space between people so that’s probably a no-go situation.

There was also a piece in the Atlantic recently which interviewed several experts on social distancing, and the situations the experts were asked about like dating and going to bars were more applicable to adults than children, but the one that came closest to being relevant to playdate situations was whether it’s OK to have a small group of friends over at your house for a dinner party or board game night. Dr. Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said she thought that small gatherings are probably OK as long as nobody has respiratory symptoms.  Dr. Albert Ko, chair of the epidemiology department at the Yale School of Public Health didn’t come outright and say a game night was a bad idea, as long as you can sit somewhat far apart, but there is risk of transmission through game pieces or doorknobs or bathroom faucets that lots of people touch. And Dr. Carolyn Cannuscio, the Director of Research at the Center for Public Health Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania was the most conservative of the three, saying that all social engagements should be limited, with the exception that if two households are in strict agreement that they are going to reduce all outside contact and only socialize together to support one another, then the social and mental health advantages could outweigh the small increase in virus transmission risk.  So if you absolutely need – or your child needs – to have contact with someone outside of your immediate family but you still want to be conservative, I would try to pick someone that your child could potentially spend a lot of time with in the coming weeks and not get bored, and agree with that family that you are each other’s support system, and you will each minimize outside engagement beyond your families.  And the more successful you are at reducing that outside engagement I think the more lax you can be about maintaining social distance between the members of those families, in just the same way that we aren’t maintaining distance between people living in the same household as long as none of them are sick.

And before we leave outdoor time totally behind, I would also like to say that for many of us this is a great time to be outside!  If you’re somewhere snowy, put on some warm clothes and go out and play.  If it’s raining like it is here in the California Bay Area, put on some waders and explore a creek, or turn over some logs and look for salamanders.  If it’s sunny, go for a hike.  Try geocaching, which is like treasure hunting using an app on your phone – Carys absolutely LOVES to see what treasures the next cache will hold.  Just watch out for poison oak, because I’m pretty sure that’s where I got mine.  I’ll put a link to the geocaching website in the references.  Animal tracking is also a lot of fun – there are books and apps that provide a lot of information, and then you head out somewhere where there aren’t a lot of people around (which should be easier, now everyone is indoors!) and look for tracks in mud or sand or snow.  You can tell a lot about what kind of animal it was and what it was doing just by studying its tracks.  Start a nature journal – keep track of the weather and the changes in plants that are coming as Spring sets in; I’ll put a link in the references to some great videos on basic drawing techniques that could actually have you doing drawings of flowers and things you find in nature that you might have thought were completely beyond your capability, and you can bring art supplies for the kids too and let them draw or paint whatever they want.

You can also just have unstructured time – lie on the grass and look at the leaves on the trees moving overhead, or the clouds.  Roll in the grass.  Make snow or sand angels.  If we can keep the maximum number of people healthy by doing these things in our small family units, and also create the kinds of memories that our children will look back on as defining moments in their lives, then I think we’ll have weathered this challenge about as well as we can ourselves.

And before we leave this episode behind, I also want to encourage you if you relatively unimpacted by the effects of the virus right now, that you offer help to others who might be in a less fortunate situation.  You might have elderly neighbors who are feeling extremely isolated because they don’t know how to use videoconferencing software.  If they have underlying medical conditions they might not have been able to leave the house to get food.  The homeless people sitting outside the grocery store probably don’t have access to water, so if you have a spare bottle of hand sanitizer you might consider giving it away and washing your own hands with soap and water instead. Call your local food pantry and see what they need.

Listener Brian Stout, who cointerviewed Dr. Carol Gilligan with me on the topic of patriarchy and whose follow-up interview was supposed to be published today instead of this episode, wrote a blog post recently gathering some thinking on how community is going to be key to surviving through the virus’ rampage and thriving after it.  Brian quotes British journalist Dr. Nafeez Ahmed’s recent article on Medium, in which he said “The coronavirus will strain social, economic and political systems to the brink... Getting through coronavirus will be an exercise not just in building societal resilience, but relearning the values of cooperation, compassion, generosity and kindness, and building systems which institutionalize these values.”  Brian goes on to quote Dr Frank Snowdon, professor emeritus of history and the history of medicine at Yale in an interview in the New Yorker, who has written:Epidemic diseases are not random events that afflict societies capriciously and without warning.  On the contrary, every society produces its own specific vulnerabilities. To study them is to understand that society’s structure, its standard of living, and its political priorities.”  And in the New Yorker interview, he said:Epidemics are a category of disease that seem to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are… They show the moral relationships that we have toward each other as people.  There has to be an absolutely fundamental change in our mind-set. We have to think that we have to work together as a human species to be organized to care for one another, to realize that the health of the most vulnerable people among us is a determining factor for the health of all of us, and, if we aren’t prepared to do that, we’ll never, ever be prepared to confront these devastating challenges to our humanity.  Brian concludes: “We face a moment of reckoning: this is who we are.  Is this who we want to be?”  Deciding this as a society requires that we decide this for ourselves.  Who do youwant to be in this society?  And what will you do as a result of that decision? 

Another thing you could do with your kids at home is to learn how to cook some new vegetarian dishes, because long after the craziness of Coronavirus is just a distant memory, climate change will still be here and with us.  In some ways our reaction to Coronavirus makes me sad, because we are taking all these precautionary measures to make sure WE don’t get sick. The virus doesn’t discriminate who it affects, so we enact drastic measures to stop it.  But the effects of climate change ARE discriminatory – we in the West haven’t been willing to do much about it because it doesn’t affect us personally in the same way the virus does.  When it gets hot we can just turn on the air conditioning.  When sea levels rise we can just pay to have the water pumped out of our streets during king tides, and call our insurance company when our house is burned down by wildfire.  We don’t feel the pain of the effects of climate change in the same way that we do the effects of Coronavirus.  But there are billions of people around the world who ARE feeling those effects right now; whose houses and entire towns are already permanently flooded but they keep living there because they have nowhere else to go. Because we see those people as different from us, we just think “well, why should I do anything differently?” So my ultimate hope is that each and every one of us will take this opportunity to see how we personally fit into this huge global system, and what we want our role to be in that, and what needs to change for each of us to make a positive contribution to that and to take personal steps and enact policies to make that vision happen.

I do hope this episode has left you with a sense of calm as well as optimism.  We can get through this.  We WILL get through this.  But if you need a little extra help getting through this, go over to yourparentingmojo.com/coronavirus, enter your name and email address and I’ll send that sample daily routine right over to you, and together we’ll walk through the FREE one-week workshop starting on March 23rdto bring down your stress level, keep the kids busy, and support them in learning things they’re really interested in to make the most of this time.  You’ll get daily emails and live videos where you can interact with me (or you can watch them later if you can’t make a set time), and so much support and encouragement from all the other parents in the same boat.  I’m sending warm, remote hugs to each and every one of you from a distance of much greater than six feet, and I hope I get to meet you in the workshop as well.

 

References

Ahmed, N. (2020, March 2). Coronavirus, synchronous failure and the global phase-shift. Medium. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/insurge-intelligence/coronavirus-synchronous-failure-and-the-global-phase-shift-3f00d4552940

American Academy of Pediatrics (2016, October 21). American Academy of Pediatrics announces new recommendations for children’s media use. Author. Retrieved from: https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/American-Academy-of-Pediatrics-Announces-New-Recommendations-for-Childrens-Media-Use.aspx

Chotiner, I. (2020, March 3). How pandemics change history. New Yorker. Retrieved from: https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/how-pandemics-change-history

National Center for Biotechnology Information (n.d.). Table 3.15: DSM-IV to DSM5 Generalized Anxiety Disorder Comparison. Author. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519704/table/ch3.t15/

National Center for Biotechnology Information (n.d.) Table 3.10: Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia Criteria Changes from DSM-IV to DSM-5. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519704/table/ch3.t10/

Sagripanti, J-L., & Lytle, C.D. (2007). Inactivation of influenza virus by solar radiation. Photochemistry and Photobiology 83, 1278-1282.

Stout, B. (2020, March 11). Coronavirus…and the choice we now face. Author. Retrieved from: https://citizenstout.substack.com/

Tiffany, K. (2020, March 12). The dos and don’ts of ‘Social Distancing.’ The Atlantic. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/03/coronavirus-what-does-social-distancing-mean/607927/

 

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