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Psychology professor, mom gives advice for parents on managing the day during the coronavirus

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Stephanie Sitnick, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, School of Psychology and Counseling

The coronavirus has turned the tables upside down in terms of how parents are organizing their families’ daily lives.  Caldwell University School of Counseling and Psychology Professor Stephanie Sitnick, a developmentalist with a focus on children and parenting.  A mother of two boys, ages 3 and 8, Dr. Sitnick provides valuable advice to parents for navigating through the day during this health crisis.

What is there to think about from the child’s perspective?  

Dr. Sitnick: Consider the age of the child.  – Depending on the age of the child the degree of understanding about what is going on will vary. Older children might be anxious or scared.  Sometimes anxiety (and even depression) comes out in children as irritability (so your kiddos are not purposefully being difficult but struggling to figure out what is happening). Let your children know that they can ask questions and do not discourage them from doing so. School age children will likely want to know, “Will I get sick? What will happen if I do? What will happen if mommy and daddy get sick? How long will this last?” Answer them as best as you can.  This is difficult because as adults we do not have a lot of the answers, but do your best to be honest but reassuring with them.

Routines – All children do best with routine and this is a major disruption to their typical routine, so trying to set up a loose schedule can be helpful. It gives children a sense of control and structure if they know what to expect.

If your child is doing school work from home, try to break up the day with time for movement and snacks. Remember even if it if just walking through the halls of school, children get movement and social interaction while at school and they need something to supplement that now.

The little ones – For younger children it is difficult to understand the importance of why we are all stuck inside and why all the grownups keep yelling about hand washing more than normal.  This is helpful to frame in the context of telling them that there are germs out there that are making some people sick, that there are some people in particular we really don’t want to get sick (i.e. grandma, you can insert examples here of people in your life), so our job is to be the protectors of others right now. And you can be a protector by washing your hands a lot and staying inside for a little bit.

Get everyone moving – Physical movement is really important for everyone but especially for children.  We might not be able to use playground equipment right now but you can still play in the backyard, walk around, go to an athletic field, go to the woods and look for bugs, or kick a ball. This will help with mental and physical health, concentration and general boredom.

What’s your advice for parents?

Dr. Sitnick: Admit it is difficult. – Let’s just all take a minute to acknowledge that this is really, really difficult.  For parents working full time, it is overwhelming to try to take care of children, and oversee their schooling and still do your job.  You might keep seeing things on social media that make it look like your friends have got this all under control. They do not. No one is supposed to be good at pandemic-ing.  Do the best that you can.

Be flexible. – Try to come up with a flexible schedule that allows you time to work if possible, but do not be rigid about the schedule.  We all see these colorful social media schedules going around, and they feel unattainable.  Do what works for your family and be willing to change it around a bit if need be.

You might have to relax the screen time “rules”.–  It is time to change our thoughts on screen time for a bit.  If you are a working parent, your children are probably about to be getting a bit more screen time than they typically do.  Whether this is television or video games it is OK.  Yes, there are physician recommendations on screen time limits. No, the doctors planning this were not thinking of a pandemic when they made those recommendations. Do not feel guilty about this. Just make sure that your children are doing SOMETHING else that doesn’t involve screens during the day and try to break it up if possible.  If you notice that your child is becoming more irritable or grumpy, it might be worth it to pull back the screen time a bit and see if that helps since some children do respond with irritability if they spend too much time with screens. These children might need more breaks throughout the day.

Be kind to yourself.  It is ok to take a break.  It is OK if your work is not up to its normal quality.  It is OK if your parenting is not up to its normal quality.  Just get through this.

You – No really, take a break and take care of yourself. This break might mean a break from reading or watching the news. It might just mean a quiet 10 minutes for your cup of coffee in the morning or going for a walk (you need exercise too).

Cherish the time with your children.

Take some time to just enjoy being with your children if you can. Even if it is just a few minutes where you can stop thinking about all that work that you still have to do or the deadline you have coming up.  Give them a block of time of your undivided attention.

Enough already. You don’t need to find the “perfect” resource for your kids. If you are anything like me you are being constantly told to check out some great (free) resource that is perfect for kids (and somehow always involves more screen time).  Just combing through all these resources feels like a full-time job in itself much less figuring out which one is right for your child and how is the best way to use it.  It can make you feel like you are not doing enough because you are not exposing your child to all of the amazing things that are out there.  Stop thinking this way.  Your children will feel just as overwhelmed with all of those choices.  It is great that those opportunities are there.  If you want, pick one of them to check out or even one every few days, but do not feel like you have to check them all out or use them all.

It is OK for children to be bored.  Research shows that boredom is good for creativity.

You are doing a great job.  Yes, you. The one whose house has yelling and tears and whining (sometimes from both the adults and children).  Do not compare yourself to other families. Ignore all of my advice if you want. You know what your family needs better than anyone. You are doing a great job.

Faculty members weigh in on making “double duty” work at home

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Ellina Chernobilsky, Ph.D., Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs

Ellina Chernobilsky, Ph.D., associate vice president for academic affairs, has been on the front lines in preparing Caldwell University faculty members to teach their classes remotely. A wife and mother of three teenagers she knows that even though kids in that age group can generally take care of themselves there is a natural inclination to be tempted to focus on “fun,” like YouTube videos and not their studies. Chernobilsky decided that the best way to help everyone in the home stay focused was to have them create schedules of what their day will look like. “I modeled that by creating my own schedule and shared it with the kids. Then, everyone, including my husband, created their lists.” To make it work she knew she would have to adhere to her own list to “shepherd” everyone to stay on task with theirs. Until it all settles into the routine, Chernobilsky says she will have to remind everyone to switch from task to task as their schedules indicate, even setting alarms. It was tough at the beginning “because I had meetings back to back from 10 a.m. until 5pm and I had to skip lunch,” said Chernobilsky. Is there a silver lining? Oh yes. They have one common time that everyone shares with their daily walk. “I have not done it with the kids in a really long time and the other day we had a blast walking together from 5 to 6 p.m. If nothing else, we can have some really nice quality time together.”

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Aneesha Jean, DNP, Assistant Professor, School of Nursing and Public Health

Nursing Professor Aneesha Jean, DNP has two boys—a 4th grader and a 6th grader—“First I want to commend the teachers,” says Jean of the quick transition to going online.   Once they found out the kids were going to be learning remotely, she sat down with her boys and they created a schedule for the day, together.  Both of her sons contributed to how the school day was going to unfold, “even scheduling lunch and recreation time based on what they do in school,” said Jean. The routine is important and the boys have “been doing it” and mom has able to participate and see the school work. “It has been rough but I have found the more involved they are, the more they are likely to be accountable for their assignments,” said Jean.