“I know this is different from the way things are at school, but lots of things will be different because of the coronavirus,” I started to explain, but then I was interrupted by my 4-year-old son.
“Don’t say that word! It’s bad.” So then we talked at length about what the illness is and how it’s affecting people around the world and changing how we have to live.
The next morning, my 4-year-old and I sat on the slightly wet ground on the sidewalk in front of our house with chalk. He chose pink to draw what he said was a triceratops, and I drew a blue bird. He wanted to go to the museum to see the dinosaur fossils, as I’d promised weeks earlier. We couldn’t, of course. This spring break was different.
That was the same day that our state ordered residents to stay at home to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, but I assured both of my sons that this time wouldn’t be any less special. I had no plan, and it felt strange to promise that we would somehow have fun in the midst of a crisis. But as we talked about the birds and how they are related to the dinosaurs, and observed starlings nearby, I realized that there were going to be moments of joy in the middle of this pandemic — and it would be up to me to help my children find them.
“They’re going to take their cues from us,” says Donna Schuurman, children’s grief expert and senior director of advocacy and training at the Dougy Center. “As adults, we have to also recognize that we can have joy and fear and gratitude and anxiety. Those are not polar-opposite kinds of things, especially with children.”
That’s the experience of parents, many of us working at home through the coronavirus crisis, thankful to still have a job but worried about how to do it under these circumstances. Pulling out our hair trying to maintain some semblance of education for our children but glad to have them home healthy and safe. People are dying and falling ill seemingly all around us, and it’s hard not to ingest every bit of news about the statistics.
And yet other pressures are off. Without the sense of urgency to accommodate three different school and work times, we sit down at the table and eat breakfast together. Instead of bouncing from one after-school activity drop-off and pickup to the next, we are together at home. Although we have lost the routines, activities and interactions we have come to know as normal, we have an opportunity to help children discover the joy in new experiences.
Mona Delahooke, a pediatric psychologist and author of “Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges,” says joy can help suppress the fear of the unknown, and play is a natural way to help our children find it.
“Anything that brings laughter and giggles between you and your child helps the brain calm down and provides a respite from stress. Play helps bring our brains back online,” she says. “Engaging in play may not seem important, but it actually helps bring us back into a brain state compatible with thinking, organizing and planning. That’s true for children as well as adults.”
A good dance break with the music turned way up and the kids acting as DJs gets parents and children playing together. Delahooke also recommends activities that are out of the ordinary, such as building castles out of couch pillows or having breakfast for dinner.
“We can use the unexpected to lift kids’ spirits during this time,” she says. “We can show kids our own resilience by taking a stressful situation and being flexible with it.”
We cannot force joy, but we can help our children “try to focus on things that can help them not sink into the mire,” Schuurman says. When things get hard and it seems to children like everything they were looking forward to is never going to happen, listen to their concerns, reassure them that you understand and then make something new to look forward to.
With that in mind, I said to my 4-year-old: “Remember when we sat outside together and that bird landed right in front of us on the fence, and you pretended it was a velociraptor? Let’s go do more things like that.”
Kelly Glass is a freelance writer whose interests focus on the intersections of parenting, mental health, race and diversity. A city girl at heart, she lives in a smaller Illinois college town with her brilliant autistic teenage son and an ambitious preschooler. Follow her on Twitter.