Upon launching Union Square Play Online back in March, I said to our community of families: “We’ll remember this time forever, and our children may very well remember it too. But let them remember building a fort with Dad, making dough with Mom, or watching a Ramblin’ Dan music class as a family.” I meant every word. But even then–only a few weeks ago–I didn’t yet realize just how hard that would be.
See, I have two daughters, Tess, 2, and Nell, 5 months. In my regular life, I own Union Square Play, a children’s play space in the heart of NYC. But now that we’ve pivoted to an online platform, I wake up every day and “going to work” means jumping on a Zoom call for a virtual moms’ group or taking photos of an activity set-up to share with the USP Online community. And as much as I feel disoriented in this new normal, I know my kids are feeling it too.
Take today, when Tess begged me to go to the grocery store, the only place she knows Mommy and Daddy have been in recent weeks. When the tantrum came, I sat next to her, hugging her, and just patiently waiting for her to calm down. Then I talked to her. “I know this is really, really hard right now. We have to stay home because so many people are getting sick.”
Pause… "The playroom is closed?”
“Yes, you’re right. You remember the playroom is also closed. Isn’t that really hard when our favorite places are closed and we can’t go to them? It’s really hard for me. I miss going everywhere.”
In the afternoon, Tess had a Zoom call with her nursery school. The art teacher was talking about how she saw flowers outside the park the other week. Tess gasped and said loudly, “MAYBE THE PARK ISN’T CLOSED!”
“It is Tess, Ms. Kristin is talking about a few weeks ago.”
“Because everyone’s sick?” she asked.
“Yes, Love. A lot of people are sick.” I saw her stare off and could almost see the workings inside her head. I wanted to sneak in there and make it all OK, except I couldn’t.
So what can we do as parents? I’ve been taking my cues from the incredibly empowering clinical psychologist Dr. Rebecca Kennedy, aka “Dr. Becky at Home,” who recently told me that a child who feels uncertainty or discomfort needs a story to put with it. Any story we tell is far less harmful than telling none at all, she explained, and this made me want to go back in time and unprotect Tess from all the things I never told her, to help her wrap her head around this new, scary feeling.
Here are three more techniques I learned from Dr. Becky. I hope they bring you the peace and understanding they’ve brought to my family.
1. The Fill Up Game.
Now, more than ever, our kids need our presence and need us to "fill them up" with love. This game works miracles, by making this concept refreshingly concrete. Here’s how you play:
"I don't think you are filled up with Mommy right now. I think Mommy is only up to your ankles! Let's fill you up!"
Give your child a long tight squeeze.
"How about now? Whaaaat? Only to your knees? OK, round two..."
Squeeze your child again, maybe make a grimace as you act like you're using all your might.
"What? Only to your belly? I thought I got higher with that squeeze! More Mommy coming, round three…"
Once your child is filled up, do one more squeeze, saying, "OK, let me give you some extra, just in case. So many changes these days, probably good to have some extra Mommy stored up in there."
Start doing Fill Ups proactively, before the tank gets so low that your child has to let you know with his rude tone or dysregulated behavior. Ask your child, "Can I fill everyone up with Mommy before we have breakfast?" And also insist, “I want to fill you up for the day!”
2. The Feelings Bench
Feelings are only scary if we are alone in them. When kids are upset, imagine that they are plopped down on the bench of that feeling. Imagine your child sitting on a Feelings Bench, in a park with lots of other Feelings Benches. Maybe today, she's on the Sadness Bench or the Angry Bench.
Your job as a parent? Find her bench. Sit and stay. That's all. Don't try to change her bench into a Happy Bench. Don't argue for a move to the Look-at-the-Brightside Bench. Kids look to us and plea, "I'm already here. I know that this is my bench right now. Please keep me company. When you don't, I am alone. And that feels worse than the feeling itself." Sit with your child where she is. Be your child’s “bench warmer” to make her feelings feel more manageable. It will give her the strength and safety to move on when she's ready.
3. Tell a Story
We worry that information will scare children. But nothing is scarier to a child than wondering why her world has changed and not having an adult help make sense of it. That aloneness is crazy-making.
If your young child has had an escalation of tantrums and clinginess, consider the idea that your child is telling you that she needs more information to understand why her world has flipped upside down. Kids of all ages need a story to understand their experience. Without one, they feel (and act) out of control.
Here’s the story Dr. Becky recommends parents share with their younger children: “You’ve probably noticed lots of changes. Here’s why: there’s a germ like a cold and it’s very jumpy when people are close. So, everyone is staying home because the germ can’t jump from house to house! This is why we are home, not going to swim, not seeing Grandpa. What do you think about that?" Expect silence in response. Silence is a sign of processing, not “not getting it.”