Most people can cope, to some degree, with the multiple weeks of social distancing and stressors related to the pandemic. But what if those stressors became a way of life for a year – or longer? What sorts of skills would be essential not only to survive but to have a renewed sense of resilience?
I know of one group that has had experiences that mirror the challenges faced by the parents of children: the parents of special needs children. As I argued previously, those parents have faced many of the challenges presented by COVID-19. Among those challenges are social distancing and difficulty accessing everyday common experiences. These parents know that they have to manage more areas of their children’s rearing than do their counterparts.
In addition to having to plan for how to deal with acute urgent or emergent medical situations involving their special needs children, these parents also must prepare for the long-term effects of managing children who require ongoing daily care, attention, and dedication.
These strategies can help the parents of special needs kids find a sense of mastery and comfort. The hope is that, after practicing them for long periods of time, the strategies become second nature.
Here are several strategies that might help patients with children during this pandemic:
- Take time to reset: Sometimes it is helpful for parents to take a minute away from a difficult impasse with their kids to reset and take their own “time out.” A few seconds of mental time away from the “scene” provides space and a mental reminder that the minute that just happened is finite, and that a whole new one is coming up next. The break provides a sense of hope. This cognitive reframing could be practiced often.
- Re-enter the challenging scene with a warm voice: Parents model for their children, but they also are telling their own brains that they, too, can calm down. This approach also de-escalates the situation and allows children to get used to hearing directions from someone who is in control – without hostility or irritability.
- Keep a sense of humor; it might come in handy: This is especially the case when tension is in the home, or when facing a set of challenging bad news. As an example, consider how some situations are so repetitive that they border on the ridiculous – such as a grown child having a tantrum at a store. Encourage the children to give themselves permission to cry first so they can laugh second, and then move on.
- Establish a routine for children that is self-reinforcing, and allows for together and separate times: They can, as an example: A) Get ready for the day all by themselves, or as much as they can do independently, before they come down and then B) have breakfast. Then, the child can C) do homework, and then D) go play outside. The routine would then continue on its own without outside reinforcers.
- Tell the children that they can get to the reinforcing activity only after completing the previous one. Over time, they learn to take pride in completing the first activity and doing so more independently. Not having to wait to be told what to do all the time fosters a sense of independence.
- Plan for meals and fun tasks together, and separate for individual work. This creates a sense of change and gives the day a certain flow. Establish routines that are predictable for the children that can be easily documented for the whole family on a calendar. Establish a beginning and an end time to the work day. Mark the end of the day with a chalk line establishing when the family can engage in a certain activity, for example, going for a family bike ride. Let the routine honor healthy circadian rhythms for sleep/wakeful times, and be consistent.
- Feed the brain and body the “good stuff”: Limit negative news, and surround the children with people who bring them joy or provide hope. Listen to inspirational messages and uplifting music. Give the children food that nourishes and energizes their bodies. Take in the view outside, the greenery, or the sky if there is no green around. Connect with family/friends who are far away.
- Make time to replenish with something that is meaningful/productive/helpful: Parents have very little time for themselves when they are “on,” so when they can actually take a little time to recharge, the activity should check many boxes. For example, encourage them to go for a walk (exercise) while listening to music (relax), make a phone call to someone who can relate to their situation (socialize), pray with someone (be spiritual), or sit in their rooms to get some alone quiet time (meditate). Reach out to those who are lonely. Network. Mentor. Volunteer.
- Develop an eye for noticing the positive: Instead of hoping for things to go back to the way they were, tell your patients to practice embracing without judgment the new norm. Get them to notice the time they spend with their families. Break all tasks into many smaller tasks, so there is more possibility of observing progress, and it is evident for everyone to see. Learn to notice the small changes that they want to see in their children. Celebrate all that can be celebrated by stating the obvious: “You wiped your face after eating. You are observant; you are noticing when you have something on your face.”
- State when a child is forgiving, helpful, or puts forward some effort. Label the growth witnessed. The child will learn that that is who they are over time (“observant”). Verbalizing these behaviors also will provide patients with a sense of mastery over parenting, because they are driving the emotional and behavioral development of their children in a way that also complements their family values.
- Make everyone in the family a contributor and foster a sense of gratitude: Give everyone a reason to claim that their collaboration and effort are a big part of the plan’s success. Take turns to lessen everyone’s burden and to thank them for their contributions. Older children can take on leadership roles, even in small ways. Younger children can practice being good listeners, following directions, and helping. Reverse the roles when possible.
Special needs families sometimes have to work harder than others to overcome obstacles, grow, and learn to support one another. Since the pandemic, many parents have been just as challenged. Mastering the above skills might provide a sense of fulfillment and agency, as well as an appreciation for the unexpected gifts that special children – and all children – have to offer.
Dr. Sotir is a psychiatrist with a private practice in Wheaton, Ill. As a parent of three children, one with special needs, she has extensive experience helping parents challenged by having special needs children find balance, support, direction, and joy in all dimensions of individual and family life. This area is the focus of her practice and public speaking. She has no disclosures.