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A pandemic winter feels daunting. Here’s how parents can help kids cope.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 12/3/2020 Amy Joyce
a person taking a selfie in the snow: (iStock) (iStock)

“He’s over it,” a friend said of her son recently. “He doesn’t like the cold. He doesn’t want to play outside anymore.” And so, she said, her remote-schooling 10-year-old will get through this mess as best he can, even if that means more time playing video games with friends.

After three seasons of this pandemic during which kids could mostly cure their cabin fever with bike rides and socially distanced outdoor games, we’re staring down the next few months of winter, where one short day pushes into the next short day. The kids are done. D-O-N-E. The parents are out of ideas and patience. And yet, we have no choice but to navigate this time as we continue to work (at home or in person), go to school (at home or in person) and attempt to still like one another when this is all over.

So how are we going to get through these upcoming cold, dark days? I asked experts and parents for their ideas.

Prioritize connection

“When you think about mental health, that naturally involves socializing and connecting with people,” says Lucy McBride, a D.C. doctor, mother of three teens and author of a helpful newsletter about covid-19. “We’re wired for survival, but also for connection. We can’t expect ourselves to survive in our rooms alone in lockdown.” And so it’s imperative we think creatively about how to be with other people — and to help our kids do the same — “to maintain some semblance of mental and emotional health.”

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Younger children, in particular, may need some help to figure out how to still “be” with friends. It may help children if you ask them, “What does your joy look like today?” says Vanessa Joy Walker, author of “Make Room for Joy.” “If it’s ‘I wish I could play with my friends,’ then help them figure out how to create a connection.” Try an online Netflix watch party, where kids each make popcorn and wear pajamas “together,” or a dog fashion show held via Zoom.

“Instead of trying to avoid the difficulty” of this time, Walker says, “spend your energy doing something else, like creating an environment that makes sense for this normal.”

That also means finding ways to connect with your child, no matter their age. Even though many of us are together, all day, every day, we may not realize how little we’re making time for moments to truly be with one another.

But, McBride says, be realistic: Don’t expect a day filled with games and fun with your teenagers, necessarily, and don’t nag them to hang out or get outside or go do something. Kids will connect with you if you “provide a nonjudgmental safe space. You’re not agitating on things that aren’t realistic,” she says. And so, for instance, when her teenage middle child takes a quick walk with her to the Giant for brownie mix, and they chat along the way, she sees that as a good connection.

Get outside, even if it’s cold

We also have to get comfortable with being outside in colder weather, McBride says. Outdoor gatherings with family friends, kid friends, other parents and their kids, even if the gathering is brief and cold, will help us all get through. She suggests we prioritize those gatherings “at a distance, of course.”

How to keep kids active as the weather cools and the pandemic rolls on

The time outside doesn’t have to last forever. This is when your kids can take those pandemic puppies outside to play, or to teach them a trick. Set up a socially distant fire pit for the teens. Find new paths to walk and explore in the neighborhood.

Brainstorm fun outdoor activities together with kids, says Gene Beresin, executive director for the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard. “Making obstacle courses, scavenger hunts … getting outdoors and exercising.”

As the saying goes, “there is no bad weather, just bad clothing.”

Relax about screen time

Who among us hasn’t yelled, begged, pleaded and threatened their kid to stop staring at screens and get outside? Parents, McBride says, have to realize that tweens and teens socialize online, and that this can be a good outlet for them right now. “We have to not beat ourselves up if they’re on screens,” she says. She herself has a child who is “like a moth to flame with screens.” But, she adds, she can hear him “howling with laughter” playing video games with friends he wouldn’t otherwise be able to see right now.

So McBride tells patients and friends to “give themselves a little bit of a break” and relax if children kids are online a lot. “Your kid has been in his room all weekend and you think, ‘I’m the worst parent in the world,’ but they’re connecting with each other, and they’re doing better than we think.”

Acknowledge the hard parts, then be proactive

“We are taught by society to avoid difficulty and crisis from a young age,” Walker says. “There is something really valuable about preparing for a crisis, as opposed to avoiding it.”

Acknowledge that this is a difficult time for our children. “For school-aged kids, but even more, for teens, they’ve lost activities, major events, time with friends,” explains Beresin. He added: “Listen, listen, listen to the concerns and needs of our kids. Validate them with empathy. Don’t feel you need to do something all the time. Just sit and let them talk.”

Teens lacking motivation or a desire to connect with friends? There may be more going on there, such as seasonal affective disorder or depression. You may want to invest in a light box, he suggests. And check into therapy for your tween or teen. They may want to talk through this incredibly difficult time with someone other than a guardian.

This is also the time for children to learn gratitude. If they have something to grieve during this time, Walker says, that also means they have much to be thankful for. So help them see that by asking things like, “If I’m talking about this winter five years from now, what do I want to remember?”

Parts of their days that might normally not be a problem now might suddenly feel heavy and difficult. So do your best to not add to the pressure. Remember that schoolwork needs to “only be good enough; it doesn’t need to be perfect,” Beresin says. And to help them get through these tough days? “Use praise, admiration and validation. Positive reinforcement goes a really long way.” If your child gets an assignment done on time, for instance, offer social-emotional rewards rather than material rewards. Meaning: Read an extra bedtime story. Watch a special video. A “Sesame Street” episode or “Mister Rogers” episode. For older kids, extend bedtime a little.

Kids (and adults) can also get out of their own heads by helping others, Beresin says, “because giving is far better than receiving,” he says. Help kids find ways to help the homeless, write cards to the elderly. Our brains release oxytocin when we help others, he says.

Volunteering can give kids purpose in uncertain times — and there are still ways to do it

And remember: Your kids are watching you. Be a good role model. If you’re overly stressed, depressed, complaining or not taking breaks, they will do the same. For instance, say, “I’m going to take a break and listen to some music.” They will follow.

Ultimately, we all just need to accept that it’s going to be “a rough three months,” McBride says. “Accept that it’s going to be rough, and not going to be a jewel in your parenting crown. … We just need to turn the volume down on what we can expect in our day.”

And even more than that, Beresin says, this time, difficult as it may be, is a wonderful teaching lesson for them and for us: “We always grow more when we come through the hard times.”

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