COVID-19 quarantine: Managing pediatric behavioral issues


We are all getting cabin fever at home and snapping at each other constantly. How do we keep the peace without just hiding in our rooms all day?

Cabin fever seems inevitable when a family is suddenly at home together all day every day with no end in sight. But if we establish some simple and realistic routines and preserve some structure without being rigid, it can go a long way to helping each member of a family to find their equilibrium in this new normal. Structure can be about preserving normal sleep and meal times. Ensuring everyone is getting adequate, restful sleep and is not hungry is probably the most powerful way to keep irritability and conflict low. It is also helpful to establish some new routines. These should be simple enough to be memorable and should be realistic. You might identify predictable blocks of time that are dedicated to school (or work), exercise, creative time, and family time. While much of the day may find each family member doing some independent activity, it helps when these “blocks” are the same for everybody. Try to consistently do one or two things together, like a walk after the family dinner or family game time. And also remember that everyone needs some alone time. Respect their need for this, and it will help you to explain when you need it. If someone wants to sit out the family Yahtzee tournament, don’t shame or punish them. Just invite them again the next night!

What are going to be the consequences of all this screen time?

The great majority of kids (and parents) will not suffer any adverse consequences from the increased amount of time spent in front of screens when these activities are varied and serve a useful purpose – including distraction, senseless fun, and social time. Beyond letter or email writing, screen and phone time are the only ways to stay socially connected while physically distant. But parents are the experts on their kids. Youth who are depressed and have in the past wanted to escape into long hours of video games or YouTube videos should not be allowed to do that now. Youth with attentional issues who have a hard time stopping video games will still have that difficulty. If they are getting adequate sleep and regular exercise, and are doing most of their school work and staying socially connected, screens are not dangerous. They are proving to be a wonderful tool to help us visit libraries and museums, take dance classes, learn new languages, follow the news, order groceries, or enjoy a movie together. If we stay connected to those we care about and to the world, then this time – although marked by profound suffering and loss – may prove to be a time when we were able to slow down and remember what truly matters in our lives.

Dr. Swick is physician in chief at Ohana, Center for Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health, Community Hospital of the Monterey (Calif.) Peninsula. Dr. Jellinek is professor emeritus of psychiatry and pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston. They have no relevant financial disclosures. Email them at [email protected].

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