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Jessica Sailer Van Lith and her two daughters in a Hampton's field

Dr. Bronwyn

Ask Dr. Bronwyn: Parenting In The Age Of Covid-19

Recently, on IG Live, Maisonette Creative Director Jessica Sailer Van Lith caught up with resident child development expert Dr. Bronwyn Charlton of SeedlingsGroup to talk all things parenting during COVID-19. From managing increased screen time to keeping siblings simpatico, here is a recap of Dr. Bronwyn’s answers to your most pressing questions. You can follow @seedlingsgroup for daily tips and answers to parents' FAQ's and challenges from parenting in a pandemic.

Written By Dr. Bronwyn Charlton

How do I get kids to stay in the Zoom meeting? My five-year-old keeps walking away!

Unfortunately, much of what remote learning requires isn’t exactly developmentally appropriate for the eight and under crowd, whose attention spans are still weak. It’s difficult for young children to manage sustained attention for very long and to be able to take in information without an engagement process. Learning really is social in many ways. Being able to ask their teacher to elaborate or clarify confusion, as well as benefit from points raised by peers helps them to stay on task and soak in the new information. On average, three-year-old’s are typically able to focus on a task for 5-10 minutes, five and six-year-olds for 15 minutes, and seven and eight-year-olds for about 30 minutes. Keeping these limited capacities for sustained attention in mind, it’s best to lower your expectations and to give your child as many choices as you can, when it comes to zoom participation (e.g., Where she wants to sit? Whether she’d like the video on or off? and What she can do if it begins to feel boring (e.g., doodle on a piece of paper next to her). A clear visual schedule should help as well, since young children struggle with gray areas. When your child can see what happens before the meeting, and directly afterward as well, it makes it easier for her to comply, especially if the zoom meeting is followed by something she enjoys (e.g., a snack, time to play). Let her know that when she’s finished with her school meeting (can even set a visual timer to make the time commitment even more concrete), she’ll get to do an activity of her choosing (preferably one that doesn’t require a screen).

But about that screen…it’s obviously more necessary than it’s ever been. Will I turn my child’s brain to mush?

I have good news and the truth is that most of the evidence is clear that the negative consequences that most people fear don’t come into play unless you’re relying on these things to be their only teachers. We actually know that older kids, three plus, can benefit. So what I can say is that we’re not living in normal times and everyone, even the most staunch parents are loosening up on screen time, and it is important for everyone to relax their expectations. The best thing we can do now when it comes to screen time is accept it…especially for middle-schoolers and older children who really need that connection with the outside world. For the little ones, it allows them to connect to their teachers and things they would have been learning. We all have to get things done. So it’s not necessarily the quantity, it’s the quality. There’s so many wonderful apps and television shows and a wonderful website, Common Sense Media, that you can consult to find the most valuable content. The best thing you can do for little ones is to make sure they’re interactive. And then build in breaks. There’s a big difference between four hours cumulative and four hours straight. When you do have to get dinner done or something that it might be okay for them to interrupt, try not to always fall back on screens because they will come to expect that everyday and then it might deny them the opportunity to go outside or play imaginary games…beyond that, I would say not to worry!

Any tips for conflicts that result from taking the device away?

First, try to look for a natural time to stop it. Even as an adult, if someone just came in and turned off your show, you’d immediately go to a very angry part of your brain. So I often say that when you’re speaking to your child, pretend like your child is your house guest. How might you try to transition a house guest from watching television to having dinner? You’d be polite and respectful about it. But if you do get in a power struggle where your child is ripping it out of your hand and even running away, make it much more clear what the limits are for each day. You want to really define the limits and then no matter what the best thing you can do is follow through. If your child is running off or grabbing a device away from you, then give them a natural consequence, which would be that if you are unable to transition from screen time, you will not be able to have it again. You also want to acknowledge how hard it might be for them by saying, I totally get it it’s the worst, but if you show me that you’re able to do this, you’ll be able to have some more later.

How do I handle siblings and fighting?

First of all, it’s inevitable. Anywhere between 5-7 times in an hour is really normal. The important thing for parents is to consider the role you’re playing. A lot of time, we’re representing that we’re the referee and they should always come to us. But when you act as a judge and you give an opinion, you’ve declared a winner and a loser. And the problem with that is that in most households, there’s often one child who is more of an instigator or a little more impulsive and they tend to be the loser. Or if you err on the side of defending the younger child, what the older kids perceive is she’s your favorite, you never get angry with her, so those interactions with siblings fighting can completely fan the flames. It’s never a good idea to be the judge. Especially during quarantine, there’s a lot of competition. We have a lot of together-time, but a lot less one-on-one time with each of our children. Now, it’s really beneficial to make a priority of having one on one time and that will cut down on conflict and competition. You can also do some collaborative board-games where you all have to work together or put the siblings together on a team. In the moment, if you can just calm yourself down and not get involved unless people are unsafe, try to tell yourself that this is their opportunity to learn problem solving and conflict resolution. You want to help them, but you don’t want to take over. Also, how you interact with your partner is very important. How you resolve conflict is very important. So even if you have to fake it, you want to listen to each other and find a solution and model good conflict resolution for your children.

I feel like I’ve become the parent who says “Because I said so!” How do I avoid that?

Any little thing can make you frustrated, but of all the things that matter during this period it’s that we maintain our connection and our relationship with our kids. And if you feel angry or frustrated by school work or a certain behavior, then the most important thing is to take a minute yourself and realize that reacting in anger is just going to escalate things and not produce any positives, so take a deep breath, Maybe practice some mindful breathing. When you're angry or frustrated, you're more likely to come in on the attack, which is going to cause your child's brain to perceive a threat and go either into fight or flight mode. When this happens, any chance of his being able to think rationally or logically is shut down, making chances that he'll make a better choice on his own next time or comply with a request zero to none. No one’s enjoying this this time in quarantine, necessarily, but there are so many opportunities to give our kids skills that they might not have had otherwise. One is resilience. That is how well you cope, when faced with adversity (from minor daily hassles to really big stressors, like Covid-19). If a child's parents are anxious and falling apart, it's a missed opportunity to model managing major upset calmly and cohesively, as a family. It’s a huge task that we’ve been asked to do and it’s almost impossible to manage all of the roles, so as parents we need to prioritize. Obviously there’s your job and your work life, and a lot of what’s making it so tense is homeschooling and all of these other things. But stop and think, what, in the last five weeks of school, was really going to make or break how your child would do in second grade? There are so many opportunities in the real world, so when you prioritize maintaining your relationship with your child and take advantage of all the daily, unexpected opportunities for learning, you don’t even have to give something up to have a little more peace in your house.

I am worried about how my kids will go back into the world and how they may be afraid of getting sick and how do I talk to them about everything?

Obviously you don’t want to introduce talk of the virus to younger kids who have no concept, but for three and older, it’s actually really important to be honest with them. We know from past traumatic events, like 9/11, that the kids who had poorer outcomes over time are the ones who did not have very good support systems in place, or those who never had the information and were wondering what was happening and that was much more anxiety provoking. It’s not that far fetched to ponder that kids might be afraid to return to regular life. So you want to give them the information and stress that what distinguishes Covid-19 is that it’s brand new, no one has ever heard of it, and because it’s brand new, there are no medicines. And it’s such a great time to bring home the importance of the vaccines that they do get, and let them know that right now, people all over the world, very smart men and women are looking to find cures and medicines and vaccines that will make it just like everything else and once they do, we’ll all be able to go to school and sneeze on each other and all of those regular things.