There Is An Upside to Quarantining with Your Toddler, According to ‘Toddler Whisperer’ Dr. Tovah Klein

To the moms who are quarantining at home with a toddler: Bless your heart. On a recent episode of the hit family podcast Mom Brain, co-hosts Hilaria Baldwin and Daphne Oz caught up with Dr. Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development in New York City and author of How Toddlers Thrive: What Parents Can Do Today to share her survival guide for navigating the stay-at-home orders with this particular age group. She also shares the fact that there are silver linings (read: emotional benefits) to all this together time. Here, some highlights from their conversation.

Stress Aside, There Is an Upside to Quarantining with Your Toddler

Daphne Oz: What are the silver linings—or emotional benefits—to this time at home with our toddlers? We’d love to hear because we could all use a lift right now.

Dr. Tovah Klein: “I think there are many silver linings that will come out of this. I want to add a caveat for parents listening, there’s a lot of stress right now, too. Financial stress, stress about your future, stress about your parents or elderly relatives—whatever it is, there’s a lot of stress right now. That said, a number of things can come out of this. As parents are able to institute the ‘new normal,’ the question becomes: What do children need? Well, they need a routine more than anything. By the way, so do adults.

But as new routines come about, children start to adjust to them. Oh! I get up every morning and I still get dressed. It might be fun to be in pajamas that first week that we were all off, but now, we’re realizing that we’re in this for a longer haul than we thought. It’s not forever, but getting up and getting dressed, having breakfast and then having an activity is helpful. For some children, that could be an online school, that could be playing, that could be doing what you might consider chores, but children love. You know, I’m going to help you water the plants and then I’m going to put food in the dog’s dish. Maybe if you’re lucky enough to have an outside yard and can go to the garden, maybe do something in the garden. But some kind of rhythm to the day not only re-establishes stability for children, it teaches them flexibility.

It’s like this: There was a scary thing that happened. All of a sudden, schools closed. I was home. Mommy, Daddy, everybody’s home. And we’re getting through this. Now, we have a new normal.

So, I think flexibility is one silver lining that comes out of this. Resilience is another one. In the end, when we get to that and we re-open and we go back to somewhat of our old lives, the idea that we did adjust and we are OK and it was hard is really the basis of resilience. It’s not tough love. I had parents who cared for me, loved me, nurtured me, and we got through it together.

Some of the other silver linings are that parents are doing things with their children that they wouldn’t have done before. If you’re somebody who had never really cooked meals with your child, I’m hearing from parents who are saying, whoa, it’s actually fun to cook with children. Messy. Takes longer. For the slightly older children, they’re doing some meal planning. I keep hearing about elementary school children asking to pick a recipe—with the parent’s help.

They’re doing chores around the house. Laundry with a three-year-old isn’t easy, but it is learning, by the way, for your children. They’re with you, they’re sorting. So, there’s a lot of that going on. That’s not to say that there aren’t disappointments and negative feelings that need to be handled and talked about, but you can also turn it around. I don’t think it’s Pollyanna-ish to say that the better parents get to know their children and what makes them tick and how they can support them through this, the better for the children long-term.

There’s Also a Script for Explaining COVID-19 to the Preschool Set

Oz: What, if anything, do you think for, say a 5-year-old and up, is an appropriate level of conversation or clarification to give them about what’s going on with COVID-19?

Dr. Klein: “It’s a really important question: So, the 5- and 6-year-olds—the young elementary school children—are able to absorb even more and able to understand a little bit of it, so they need a really clear explanation. I always recommend that the parents first go and say, ‘Honey, what is it that you know about the coronavirus?’ just to get a sense of where they are because there’s a lot of misconceptions, so you kind of clear that up. For example, ‘No, this is not something that can come in through the telephone.’ A lot of children have asked that. ‘Can you get it through the computer?’ One 8-year-old asked his parents: ‘Is it going to come through my window?’ So they really don’t know, especially because we talk about coronavirus as if it’s this real living thing—the same way we talk about the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus practically. And they get scared.

So, I would first ascertain what they know. There may be things that are that truthful, there may be things that are scary or they might not know a lot. But to really say to them: ‘You know, coronavirus is a big, big word. It’s something we haven’t really heard before, but it actually is another word for what we normally call a cold or a flu.’ You might recall a time when they were sick and you went to the doctor and got medicine and they got better. You can say, ‘Well, it’s kind of like that, except it’s a little bit different, which is that some people can get very sick if they get the coronavirus. Not usually children or parents’—again, some reassurance—‘but certain types of people who are older can get this very badly. So, everybody, not just our family, not just our friends, not just our school, is working really hard to make sure this virus doesn’t get to too many people. We do that by washing our hands every day and all of this staying home is because viruses can be spread.’

It demystifies it a little without scaring them. You need both. You need to face the truth, but in a way that isn’t scary. Children can’t wake up every day scared. It also empowers them to explain that we’re all working on this together. I’m washing my hands with a purpose now! Or, we’re staying home, but there’s a purpose to it and a reason we have to do it.

One more important thing to put in there is that most people who are getting the coronavirus are getting better. Many of us know people who have experienced just that. That’s an important thing to say, too. ‘Do you remember when our friend so-and-so got sick and had to stay home? You know what, she’s all better now!’

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. For more from Dr. Tovah Klein, Ph.D., listen to her recent appearance on our podcast, ‘Mom Brain,’ with Hilaria Baldwin and Daphne Oz and subscribe now.

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