“It’s rough.” That’s the phrase that parenting coach Meghan Leahy keeps returning to as she describes parenting during COVID-19 — clingy kids, uncertain plans and upended routines.
“We’re all just sad and frustrated that we aren’t able to do what we want to do,” she said.
Leahy’s book, “Parenting Outside the Lines: Forget the Rules, Tap Into Your Wisdom, and Connect With Your Child,” comes out later this summer. We talked to Leahy, who regularly dispenses advice in a Washington Post column, about how to help kids “navigate the changed landscapes of friendships” as they emerge from quarantine, why having weekly “state of the family union” meetings can help, and how to make a desk nest for your child.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How has life during the pandemic been affecting kids?
A: Some kids are living their best lives. For kids for whom school is already fraught, and hard and long, they are like, “Yeah, great, this is my dream!” I would say for a lot more kids, it’s been really, really tough. The younger you get, the harder it gets to sit on Zoom. Teachers have done an amazing job, God bless each one, but I found that about six weeks in, kids hit the wall.
We’ve seen a lot of depression. Anxiety certainly spiked, because we’re all afraid of something we can’t see. Misbehavior has been up. I’ve seen a lot of regression, kids who were toilet-trained reverted to pullups, kids who were sleeping alone are back in Mom’s bed. Nobody’s like, “I’m reverting because I’m afraid of COVID.” It’s just kind of naturally happening.
Q: What can parents do?
A: I would just encourage parents to have a weekly or biweekly meeting about what’s coming up. Because literally, three weeks ago we didn’t know what would be happening now. Next week, we don’t know what’s happening. So we don’t want to be like chickens with our heads cut off. We want to do a “state of the family union.”
[For example], “Here’s what we know right now: Mommy’s still not going into the office, Daddy isn’t, either, and we still don’t know what’s going on with your school. And here’s what we’re doing this week.”
It sets a routine so that the kids aren’t going, “Wait, what?”
And it also makes room for all the hard feelings of sadness and frustration. We’re all just sad and frustrated that we can’t do what we want to do. … That’s life right now.
Q: How should the meetings be structured?
A: I would encourage all parents to have little mini meetings. You can make them as age-appropriate as you need to. Tiny kids that go to day care, they can sit in a circle and have little clapping meetings. It can be done.
[For older kids, you can say that] “this is what our state allows, and this is what our family’s comfortable with.” Your state may not reflect your family values, in which case then you’re going to be like, “This is going to suck, because everyone’s going to be at the pool, which has no [distancing] rules, and we’re not doing it.” It’s rough.
Q: How can we prepare kids to go back out in the world as restrictions are lifted?
A: Parents should be on the lookout for the changed landscapes of friendships. Your kids may have gone into COVID with some really solid friendships that may be different on the other side.
I know some kids who had a crew of friends that they both liked and disliked, which is normal for middle school, and they haven’t called them once in 3½ months. These will have to be navigated with parents.
All you have to do is say something like, “Gosh, I haven’t seen my friends in so long, I don’t even know if I have friends anymore,” and then ask them, “Do you feel like your friendships are different?” They may just shrug, but what you’re doing is opening the door to a conversation. Kids never really process feelings at the same time we do. Things are rumbling and turning, but it’s great to just keep that line of communication open.
Q: How can parents who are continuing to work from home help their children be less clingy?
A: Clinginess has been really bad, and that’s a form of anxiety. It’s annoying. But it’s not a dysfunction. With a clingy child, you’re trying to structure when you’re going to connect with them and giving yourself lots of leeway for when they cry.
Parenting experts have been talking about “special time” for forever. Spend time on the floor with the kid — you give it 15, good, solid, hard-core minutes. And then you use technology. And you allow the crying. People can’t have the kid screaming bloody murder when they are on Zoom, so you’ve got to give yourself a little bit of time. And some days are better than others.
Q: Are there other options besides technology or tears?
A: I’ve also told parents, if the kid can handle it, to make a little nest next to their desk. And in the nest is maybe the iPad, snacks, blankets and pillows, stuffed animals, Crocs — whatever they love. If they can be quiet, if they can play, we’re increasing closeness.
I’ve suggested to some parents that while they’re on Zoom to be touching the child. Which is crazy-making. But it’s less crazy-making than fighting. Because the more we push them away, the stronger they often come back.
Q: You’ve distilled your advice into a new book. What message do you hope parents take away from it?
A: I hope they don’t feel like crap. I hope they feel like they’re doing a better job than they thought. I hope that they realize that to be in uncertainty and in a certain amount of struggle is parenting.
I don’t ever want to say, “Don’t read a parenting book” (that would be ironic), or “Don’t hire a coach” (I would be poor). But do those things to aid and to support and to facilitate your own wisdom. I’m not an expert on your kid. You are. I’m just here with ideas.