In a Zoom meeting in late November, a group of women gathered to listen to Dinah Torres-Castro, a parent educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Family Health and Wellness Program. Over the course of an hour, Torres-Castro shared her knowledge and expertise related to the evening’s particular topic — setting rules and limits for young children. After a brief PowerPoint presentation, she spent most of the time taking questions from mothers: One needed strategies for how to get her 3-year-old to sit at the table for dinner; another wanted to encourage her children to share; one mother, who has been working from home during the pandemic, wanted to see her children find something productive to do independently other than watching screens or tablets, so she could get her own work done.
Torres-Castro often took a deep breath and smiled warmly before answering, portraying a kind, calming influence that came through despite the glow of a computer screen. Her own children are in their 20s and early 30s now, and she has the kind of experience that comes not just from teaching parenting classes for years but from going through it all herself.
“How can I get my kids to listen the first time I ask them something, rather than having to ask three or four times?” one mother typed into the chat.
Torres-Castro smiled. She gave practical advice, before adding: “It’s pretty normal at that age to have to ask them three or four times to do something. So you just take those deep breaths, and start again.
“I always had this little mantra: ‘I can do this! I love my kids!’ ” she continued, with a laugh. “We have to be firm, but do it with kindness and love.”
That advice resonated with the entire group. Because while much of the information Torres-Castro dispensed that night was intuitive, it bears repeating these days. The stress of living through a global pandemic has depleted our reserves of patience, and can make it all too easy to forget what we’ve read in the parenting books collecting dust on our night tables.
Torres-Castro and others within Cornell’s Family Health and Wellness Program recognized early on the extraordinary challenges for parents created by the coronavirus pandemic, and as a result, made an effort to pivot programming, adapting some of the regular offerings and even creating new programs centered around mental health, managing anxiety and other issues connected to raising children in the middle of an ongoing global health crisis. The educators say that 2020 was their busiest year.
But just as their services were more vital than ever, they were facing a threat to their existence at the end of the year, after learning that they were slated to receive a 100% budget cut to address shortfalls caused by the pandemic. Kerri Reda, who has been a human development specialist with Cornell for more than 20 years, said it was upsetting news, particularly because other programs within Cornell Cooperative Extension were slated to receive just a 25% cut to their budgets.
Despite facing this uncertainty, Reda and other parent educators in the program were soldiering on, continuing with the work they’d been doing while hoping that the federal government would come through with disaster relief funds, which would enable them to continue their work. They were simultaneously applying for grants and ramping up fundraising efforts.
After a roller coaster few months, Reda received word in early February that the Suffolk County legislature had voted the program back into the budget — albeit still with the 25% cut in funding.
While the future of the program was in flux, Reda and her fellow parent educator, recently retired program director Nancy Olsen-Harbich, took time to talk about the specific ways parents can help their children (and themselves) through this time. With more than 50 years of combined experience, they had plenty of valuable advice for parents worried about the well-being of their family this winter.
First, take care of yourself
For Reda, it was clear early on that making sure the needs of parents were met was the most important first step in helping them during the COVID-19 crisis.
“The very first thing we developed was a program called ‘Caring for Yourself in Stressful Times,’ ” Reda said. “It’s that idea of being on an airplane and putting on your own oxygen mask before you do that for your child. We’ve weaved that idea of self-care into all our programming, but this was a full program devoted to that, talking about how parents can minimize the stress they’re in by differentiating what are the things I have control over, and focusing their energy there, and finding a way to let go of things that they don’t have control over.”
Classes about raising resilient children became more relevant than ever. And the process of raising more resilient children begins with teaching resiliency to adults. “When an adult is resilient and has good coping mechanisms, that transfers to the children,” Reda said. “And anxiety is contagious. If a child is in a home that is filled with anxiety, it will play out in their behaviors.”
Reda said she and other parent educators were hearing from parents that young children, who had typically gone to bed without any difficulty before the pandemic struck, had started having trouble at bedtime and waking in the night. I thought of my own son, who turned 4 in December: I’d been frustrated by his monthslong habit of waking up in the middle of the night and crawling into bed with me and my husband, tossing and turning so much that he often forced my husband to seek a restful night’s sleep in another room. My older children had gone through phases of troubled sleep, but none that had lasted this long. Suddenly, the cause was clear.
“Children are sponges for the emotions in their environments,” Olsen-Harbich said. “And when they feel stressed, the sponge is squeezed, and all that emotion comes flying out. And they don’t even understand it. We encourage parents to read children’s behavior as communication, particularly when they’re young and they don’t have a lot of language.”
Establish family meetings
Young children need the security and predictability that routines provide, especially in a time when so many other aspects of their life have been disrupted. And while the pandemic has meant that families are spending more time in each other’s presence than ever before, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are communicating.
“It’s not new but it’s increasingly important when we’re in crisis situations,” Reda said. “Having a family meal or family meeting is key, to connect and check in with each other, and give all family members not only the opportunity to share what’s going on but to offer solutions. It’s very empowering for children to be part of the solution.”
Expectations should be a crucial part of any family meetings, Olsen-Harbich added. “We’re always talking to parents about being clear with children,” she said. “It’s not fair to be angry or punish children when they had no clue what you wanted. I think in this time of COVID, it becomes particularly important. We might say something like, ‘In our family we value education, so it’s our expectation that you will try your hardest to do well with virtual learning. We know it’s hard, so what are ways as a family we can support you?’
“It’s good to brainstorm with your kids,” Olsen- Harbich continued. “You need to be their advocates and their allies. We know parents are in charge, but it’s also their job to support their kids.”
Spend time playing outdoors
For younger children, Reda stressed the important role of imaginative play. “Children use pretend play as a way of working through different emotions, and things that are difficult for them to understand,” she said. “It helps them gain control of what they’re feeling, because they can create the ending in a way that makes them feel secure. We recommend giving young children the opportunity to play in creative ways so they can express themselves.”
Try to do it outside, even during the coldest months. Without many of the traditional outlets for play and other forms of stress relief, even families that may not consider themselves outdoorsy types might want to consider the benefits, even if it’s something as simple as putting Play-Doh on a tray and taking it outside.
“There’s something to going with that Scandinavian approach that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing,” Olsen-Harbich said. “You can reduce stress in children by getting something for them to climb on or jump on, things that make their bodies move and helps them burn up their anxiety.”
Making a bigger commitment to being outdoors also helps address another issue parents are feeling even more acutely these days — an overabundance of screen time. “We talk about children with this, but it applies to all of us,” Reda said. “Thank God we have Zoom, but we still have to shut it off at times and do other things. Screens are like food; some of them are great, some aren’t. When it can be interactive, it will have more of a benefit.”
Find the upside
The pandemic has made life harder almost across the board, but the Cornell experts both identified some silver linings to the situation, which they said parents could try to focus on in conversations with their children. Reda spoke about seeing so many people and families out and about in the early days of the pandemic, going for bike rides or walks through their neighborhoods.
“I thought, if there’s one positive thing that has come out of this, it felt to me like we went back 30 years in time, and people were getting back to basics a bit,” she said. “I think that’s very healing. I hope people put that mindset back on as the winter comes. We have to find a way to connect with each other. These are the things that nurture our souls.”
Olsen-Harbich said the precise nature of how challenging the pandemic has made every aspect of life represents a chance for growth as well.
“What a beautiful opportunity for adults to talk to their children about doing hard things,” she said. “We will be asked in parts of our life to do hard things, and bring our best efforts to try to take care of people we love. I don’t think adults talk to kids enough about the process of doing hard stuff. And you can talk to them about how it’s hard for you too.”