My wishes turned into reality last week when the countdown to school finally hit zero and my daughters got out of my hair…I mean house. And while I couldn’t wait for a schedule and routine, summer seems like a breeze in comparison to this new learning environment for the kids – and way of life for us.
It’s a whole lot more stressful and overwhelming than I expected to adjust to two daily schedules – in school and virtual learning. Even though I now finally have some downtime to start plugging away at crossing things off my long to do list that’s been piling up these past few months, I can’t think straight.
And while there are many things during the pandemic that are not within our control, there are two things we can and should control – things that have huge impacts on how everyone in the family feels and acts – and who our children become.
- The home environment. Is your home a place of chaos? Of yelling? Or is it a place of comfort and calm?
- The structure of your child’s home learning days, and your weekdays. Are you doing everything you can to maximize well-being: eating healthy, exercising, sleeping enough, socializing and communicating your feelings?
With support and guidance (provided below), you can:
- Establish a stress-free, nurturing home environment
- Provide structure and tools to foster well-being
Below are some suggestions on how to think about and create a home environment and routine that’s best for you and your family.
Assess your current home environment. We would all likely agree that in order to thrive we need to feel safe, secure and loved, which equates to living in a peaceful, supportive environment. The sights, sounds, smells, textures and emotions in a home create that atmosphere. While they all collectively have an impact on growth, development, thoughts, feelings and behaviors, each thing affects everyone differently.
The best place to start is to think about your childhood. How did your home make you feel? What was it that made you feel that way? Is it something you want to emulate or change? For many of us, there’s likely a mix of things we want to keep and alter. The challenge is finding the right balance for you and your family. One person may tolerate something (or even require it) – like bright light shining through the windows – while another person might be sensitive to it. What makes it even more difficult is that children are often not able to identify their needs or stressors, let alone find the words to communicate them. Instead, when an environment is not meeting their needs or is causing stress, they communicate through their behavior.
It is our responsibility as parents to watch and listen to what our child’s behavior is telling us. Maybe they are acting-out because they are over-stimulated or they need physical activity. By assessing our current home environment and examining its unique effects on each family member, we can then determine how to create the most nurturing physical and emotional environment possible.
The reality is that structure – knowing what is going to happen – makes us feel safe and secure.
It comes as no surprise to hear that the best way to achieve this is by creating a daily schedule (which also teaches time management). This doesn’t mean there can’t be flexibility. In fact, being adaptable is one of the best things children (and adults) have learned from the pandemic.
Speaking from experience, I can say undoubtedly, that enforcing a schedule, especially with older kids, is easier said than done (plus getting through a day right now can just be a struggle). I have created a handful of schedules and had countless conversations with my daughters about what I want them to do each day – get outside, physical activity, reading, screen free time, something creative, etc. While we all agree to it and have the best of intentions, we fall flat, OFTEN!
I decided to boil it down to making a commitment to accomplish just one thing each day. Then, I spent several days pondering what that one thing would be. And it comes to this…
Eat a meal together.
I know it sounds cliche. You’ve no doubt heard and read about the importance of having dinner together as family. And I’m guessing that like me, you also see it as something nice to do – even something ideal to do. Frankly though, I never considered it a must-have. I suppose that’s because I never truly took the time to think about all of the positives that come out of this.
Eating a meal together as a family and engaging in conversation provides an opportunity to:
- teach good nutrition and healthy eating habits
- foster a safe home environment
- demonstrate your values
- emphasize the life skills you deem most important
- strengthen social skills through communicating and listening
- build emotional skills by modeling feeling, naming and expressing emotions
- enhance mental well-being by teaching coping strategies and self-regulation
As you can see, this one simple practice combines routine with good health (and I’m not just talking about nutrition). Eating together as a family is the perfect time to check-in on mental and emotional health.
Start by sharing trivial things, what your days will be / were like, your experiences, your interactions. If your child doesn’t say much, you can ask questions to get them to engage in the conversation “Do you want to know what I’m going to do after I drop you at school?”
Then slowly shift the dialogue to speak about your emotions. Maybe you’re feeling stressed about trying to find time to walk the dog while the children are home learning. Or maybe you’re feeling grateful that you will have a few hours to yourself while the children are in school, which will allow you to workout without interruption. When your child hears how you are feeling, and how you also experience challenging emotions, it helps them realize negative feelings are normal and okay.
Being honest and real has so many benefits. It shows your child what’s important to you and teaches valuable life skills. The above examples demonstrate that you have responsibilities, and that you prioritize exercise. (And if you’re a regular reader of my blogs, you know that I think the number one rule in parenting is to lead by example).
Taking the opportunity to explore and express your feelings is not only healthy for you, it teaches your child to do the same. At first, your child may just reflect on their feelings. It takes time to feel comfortable communicating such personal things. And for many children, it takes time, maturity and practice to actually feel their emotions. If your child doesn’t open up, you can gently prod them and ask questions. For example, after saying you’re overwhelmed by how much work you have to get done, you can ask them if their work is overwhelming or if they ever feel that way. It might be hard to find the word(s) to describe how they are feeling. So it’s a good idea to use the opportunity to also share the effect specific emotions have on you. If you’re overwhelmed, you might say it makes it hard for you to think straight or you find it difficult to focus on one thing. From there, you can even talk about the strategies you use to alleviate negative feelings.
I recognize that sharing your own emotions may not be easy. But like anything, with practice, it gets easier. Expressing yourself is a gift you can give both you and your child. By modeling self-awareness and creating an environment where your child feels supported and loved – unconditionally – you will foster growth and the ability for you and your children to lead enjoyable, healthy and productive lives. And hopefully, when your child is asked to look back on their home environment, they’ll look back fondly and say they remember feeling good.