How to Help Your Kids Cope During the Pandemic, According to Dr. Harvey Karp
This is undoubtedly a unique time for everyone, especially our children. While they may not be able to fully comprehend or wrap their heads around what exactly is happening in the world, their lives have been completely turned upside down. No school or daycare. No playdates or playgrounds. No summer camps or family vacations. No hugs for grandma or grandpa. It's easy to think that our kids might be unaffected by safer-at-home practices — after all, they don't have to worry about losing a job or accidentally leaving the house without a face mask or hand sanitizer. But the lack of routine or understanding of the situation — on top of the stress they may sense from their parents — is enough to cause them to experience restless sleep or anxiety and depression.
SwearBy tapped Dr. Harvey Karp, FAAD, founder and CEO of Happiest Baby Inc. and child development expert to shed some light on what our littles are going through. In this Q&A, Dr. Karp offers advice for how we can better talk to our children about the pandemic, signs they're experiencing stress, and some simple ways we can help ease their worries.
What are the most common questions/concerns you're hearing from parents about their children during this pandemic?
The pandemic has really cranked up the pressure on parents! Modern moms and dads already have so little help compared to previous generations, and now they’re juggling the demands of work and home without childcare, playdates, or the opportunity to escape to the library, playground, etc.
New parents, in particular, are stressed about bringing home their tiny baby with such a scary virus lurking just outside the door. And, they’re having to adjust to parenthood with a sliver of the help they would have enjoyed before the pandemic. Gone are the days when the grandparents or neighbors could come over to help hold and rock the baby so Mom can take a nap, shower, or actually be able to sit down for a meal.
Toddler parents are struggling now, too. Being cooped-up is enough to make anyone a little cranky, especially our less civilized members of the family. Toddlers are quicker to tantrum and parents of toddlers often find they too are quicker to have their anger button pushed. And, unlike big kids, toddlers are not so great at entertaining themselves. That means their parents have to add “teacher” and “playmate” to their very long list of daily duties.
What advice do you have for parents when it comes to explaining the state of the country/world to their kids?
Start by listening. Figure out where your little one’s mind is before you jump in to fill in the blanks. Use gentle “door-openers” to encourage your child to, well, open up. A door-opener is a small gesture or comment you offer in response to whatever your child tells you that seems concerning to them. A simple, “I see,” or sitting hip to hip and just listening invites your tot (or anyone you love) to share the worries simmering beneath the surface.
Take your time to really listen. Once you have a sense of your child’s concern, you might just say, “Hmm…that sounds pretty yucky.” Don’t feel like you have to rush to give a solution. And, don’t feel like you have to have all the answers. You might even say, “Hmmm…your brain is thinking pretty hard about this. Let’s think a little more about it and see if we can figure it out together in the morning.”
Offer reassurance where you can. For example, if your child is stressed about getting sick, don’t be too fast to dismiss her worries. Acknowledge them, but you might then say, “You know what? I think you are pretty strong! And, I know you ate some super healthy veggies last night and you even know how to wash your hands really, really well. Should we also get some masks to wear when we go outside?” Casually notice a few good things out loud, such as how everybody in the neighborhood is wearing masks to keep each other safe. It’s especially helpful for little tykes to say these things in a loud “whisper” to a nearby birdie. (This is surprisingly effective little tip called gossiping.)
What are some signs that your child is dealing with stress or anxiety?
Even if your child can’t find the words to express how she’s feeling, she’s probably signaling her distress in other ways. Generally, big behavioral changes should tip you off that something’s not right. A few signs your child is dealing with stress and anxiety are:
- Head and stomachaches, especially ones that are they are sudden, frequent, or occur when your child is otherwise healthy.
- Behavior changes, like lashing out, more frequent or more fiery tantrums, irritability, extreme sleepiness or lethargic behavior, and withdrawing from socializing, with more clinginess, fear, and thumb-sucking.
- A change in sleeping patterns — your child may be waking up in the middle of the night or is suddenly struggling to nod off at bedtime.
- Potty problems. Stressed-out tots may regress and begin to have more accidents than usual.
What are some tips for how you can help your child deal with their anxiety?
A cherished lovey (think: a cozy blankie or a soft teddy bear) can give little kids much-needed comfort. These cuddly friends help build confidence and security, and they’re available day or night (even when Mom or Dad might not be nearby).
Really listen to what your child has to say and use those door-openers to encourage your child to share concerns, so you can help allay worries brewing beneath the surface. You may never be able to solve all of her problems, but you can always try to make her feel heard, understood, safe, and loved.
Use routines. With so many unknowns, life feels really unpredictable right now for all of us! Routines can help little kids feel safe and secure, so build predictable little rituals into your day. One routine I love is bedtime sweet talk. As part of your bedtime routine, fill your tot’s sleepy mind with gratitude for all the fun things you did today and look ahead to all the wonderful adventures you’ll have tomorrow!
Teach your little one magic breathing. You know how taking a deep breath can help you feel relaxed? Well, it works for children, too! Kids as young as 2 can learn “magic breathing” to help get a grip on their big feelings. Start by demonstrating how to take big, slooow breaths, making a whoosh-y sound on the exhale. Then have your child breathe with you for two counts in and two counts out. Eventually, you can build to longer breaths.
“Play the boob.” Playing the boob means acting silly or helpless so toddlers get to feel like they win. For example, you could have a race and stumble before you get to the finish line, letting your tot win. Or pretend to be frightened when your kiddo growls like a monster. Playing the boob makes kids feel stronger and like they have some mastery in an uncertain world.
Model healthy stress management. Parents are the strongest, smartest people in their children’s eyes and they want to be just like you! If you fly off the handle when tension is high, don’t be surprised when they do too. That’s why it’s important to do our own magic breathing when we’re overwhelmed, so kids can see what a powerful tool it can be!
Here are some other tools Dr. Karp recommends to help both children (and parents) during these stressful times.
The Happiest Toddler Book (Paperback): 8 mos - 5 yrs
“These tips will help parents who are confined with kiddos under 5 stop and prevent tantrums, boost cooperation, and build their tot’s confidence. Available as a book or as a streaming video (great for time-pressed parents!).”
White Noise Machines
“White noise signals to kids that it’s time to sleep, helps them sleep longer, and keep scaries away by covering up little creaking noises in the night.”
“Loveys help make kids feel confident secure and are especially helpful during times of stress!”
SNOO Smart Sleeper
“SNOO has become especially popular to rent or buy during the COVID pandemic because parents have realized it really is your own, personal 24/7 baby-care helper. It’s that wonderful extra pair of hands that can reduce your need to bring in outside help…and the germs they might accidentally bring into your home. Under normal circumstances, new parents may welcome guests who come over ready to snuggle the baby and give Mom or Dad a much-needed break. But, until coronavirus subsides, families can rely on SNOO to be a virtual babysitter; expertly rocking and soothing their little one so they can take care of themselves…without worrying that their baby is being exposed to illness.”
“SNOObear comforts kids and babies in two big ways. First, it’s a huggable lovey. And it plays soothing white noise that’s designed to help little ones doze off…and stay asleep. Plus, SNOObear ‘pays attention’ for three hours after its sound turns off, so if fussing starts up again, SNOObear will respond with another dose of calming white noise!”
Sleepea® 5-Second Baby Swaddle
Swaddling soothes babies by recreating the snug sensation of the womb…and it can also help parents relax by reducing a baby’s fussing (persistent crying can lead to postpartum depression or anxiety). And with our simple-to-use 5-second swaddle, getting that snug swaddling juuust right is a cinch (so, it won’t add to parental stress).
“[boober] offers mental health support for parents…virtually!”
Sara Tan (@saratan) is SwearBy's Content Director, spending much of her time curating her favorite products and recommendations across beauty, fashion, fitness, and home. She is also the co-host of Gloss Angeles, a beauty podcast offering a west coast perspective on all things beauty. She was previously the Senior Fashion and Beauty Editor at Bustle. She has over 10 years of editorial experience and her bylines can be found on Allure, InStyle, BRIDES, and Coveteur. She is passionate about beauty, fitness, and wellness and can be found running around Los Angeles in pursuit of the latest skincare innovation and cool new workout with her Frenchie by her side.