“Every kid is different,” said Ms. Hurley. “Take a deep breath and say, ‘What is my kid like without a pandemic?’” Watch for concerning changes in sleep; eating significantly less or more; new anxious behaviors such constant reassurance-seeking or clinginess; a significant loss of focus; and less interest in connecting with friends, even in favorite ways like social media or video games, she said. “Trust that when you feel that in your gut that something isn’t right, then it’s probably a good idea to get help.”
Apart from monitoring health concerns, the impulse to “help” our kids by doing more for them is sometimes more about us than it is about our kids, said Ned Johnson, co-author of “The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives.”
Research has shown that when parents jump in to help kids with a frustrating problem, that intervention can lower parent anxiety while leaving the child’s anxiety elevated, Mr. Johnson said. That’s because the anxious parent gains a sense of control from taking action rather than remaining helpless on the sidelines, but the child is still left feeling ineffectual and stressed.
It can be hard for parents to let children do more, and perhaps mess up, when a parent could do a task more quickly and effectively. But the pandemic has lowered the stakes in some common family situations. For example, when kids are doing remote learning and don’t have to catch the bus, they can take on responsibility for waking themselves up. If the child oversleeps, the parents aren’t stuck playing chauffeur; only the child will experience the natural consequences of lateness, Mr. Johnson said, making it easier for parents to let go of some control.
With everyone spending more time at home, families can share tasks more readily, too, even if they’re not done perfectly. A preschooler with a broom may not necessarily be cleaning the floor well, but the child feels that efficacy-building sense of accomplishment and helpfulness when they are encouraged to try it for themselves, Mr. Johnson said, and “the experience of coping increases.”
If this all sounds like too much work in a pandemic, remember that parents who encourage their children’s strengths and self-efficacy not only help their kids, but also themselves. “Parents are really depleted,” Dr. Waters acknowledged, but a positive, proactive approach is “kind of a win-win. It’s good for your kids,” and seeing children thrive is “good for us as parents as well,” she said. And her research has found that using a strengths-building approach — finding areas where your kids can take on more responsibility — is also correlated with an increase in parental self-efficacy, a sense that “you are doing the right thing as a parent.”
Courtney E. Ackerman, author of several positive psychology books, also counsels parents not to wait until the present crisis is over to instill more self-efficacy in children. Yes, working on developing resilience in these unpredictable times may feel like shoveling while the snow is still falling, she said, but that’s OK. “I think it’s always snowing,” she said. “It’s a specifically difficult time now with the pandemic, but life is full of ups and downs.”