Helping Families Create Safe and Nurturing Environments at Home

A guest blog by Ali Faruk, Families Forward Virginia

We all wish things were different. Most of us caregivers, especially those of us with young children, are struggling with our dual roles as caregiver and school teacher. However, we can still create safe, nurturing environments at home for our children.  To keep us and our loved ones safe, we don’t have to burn ourselves out doing a ton of new things. Strong relationships with our children are critical in preventing abuse and surviving these changes together. Below I discuss strategies and tips for success.

Man wearing purple and red shirt catching a boy wearing a red shirt and blue jeans. Photo by Conner Baker on Unsplash.

The first thing we can do is to spend quality time with children. Even short periods of time playing, reading, going outdoors, and talking can bolster children’s sense of safety and security during uncertain or scary times. Stay connected even when physical separation is necessary for safety reasons. Set up times for children to talk to important and trusted adults in their life using online video chats, telephone calls, emails, texts, or letters. Help other adults who are not living with the child (e.g., biological parents, grandparents, child care providers, teachers) and professionals who work with families (e.g., home visitors, parenting programs) maintain connections with the child. Again, this quality time can be facilitated through any number of strategies listed above. Communicate with these adults about the status of the family and child and share any updates, changes, questions and warning signs. These connections are important in helping children feel secure and supported during the pandemic.

Make time for emotional “check-ins” with your kids

Offer opportunities for children to ask questions, talk about their feelings, and receive age-appropriate information and support. When listening to, and talking with, children, build their resilience by stressing what they CAN do. Children can take care of themselves, their family, and their friends. Share stories of hope and resilience such as people helping each other or animals. This narrative provides an important counterbalance to negativity and fear about the pandemic. Make it a point to share something positive every day with your child.  

Validate feelings

Woman in black t-shirt and jeans holding and consoling a child in red plaid shirt and jeans. Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash.

The pandemic has disrupted important parts of our children’s lives. Important milestones and traditions such as graduations, sports activities, social functions, and much more, have been cancelled or drastically limited. Acknowledge your children’s disappointments and validate their feelings. Problem-solve if there are ways to honor the missed opportunity later or in a different way. Find creative ways to honor milestones such as having family members make physical cards or notes commemorating a graduation or share videos of friends dancing to the same song.

Parents, especially those with young children, are under a lot of stress. Our children are also under stress. Model and teach stress management and relaxation skills to help your children cope with this pandemic. Support your children’s regulation skills by helping them manage difficult feelings. Build routines and rituals that help children relieve and manage stress such as some form of exercise/movement, quiet time, or deep breathing/meditation. 

To adapt to the pandemic, many children and youth are spending more time online. Children are turning to gaming and social media to maintain social connections with friends and family. Schools are heavily leaning into virtual learning. Spending so much time online means cyberbullying is an increased threat. Checking in often with your child is also an important way to protect them from participating in, or being the victim of, cyberbullying. Children often don’t tell their parents or family members that they’re experiencing cyberbullying because they’re afraid of having their access to the internet limited. Sometimes they are using social media accounts that parents have expressly limited or forbidden, thereby making it even harder to open up about the negative things they’re experiencing online.  

Why does cyberbullying happen? How can parents protect their children?

We’re all trying to teach children and youth how to make good decisions, however good judgment is something that children won’t fully develop until age 25 or so. The excerpt below is from the University of Rochester Medical Center health encyclopedia:

“…research has found that adult and teen brains work differently. Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part. This is the part of the brain that responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences. Teens process information with the amygdala. This is the emotional part.

In teen’s brains, the connections between the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making center are still developing—and not always at the same rate. That’s why when teens have overwhelming emotional input, they can’t explain later what they were thinking. They weren’t thinking as much as they were feeling.”

  • It’s normal and appropriate to place limits on screen time and access to social media for your child.
  • It’s appropriate for parents, who have decided to allow their children to use social media, to set up the accounts with their children, know their passwords, and check in on them occasionally.
  • Be transparent and honest with your children about why you are doing this and what the limits are.
  • Your children, especially adolescents, may not like these limits and that is ok.

For parents of children who have lots of friends and make friends easily, encourage your child to stand up for children who are bullied. They should also tell teachers or other trusted adults about cyberbullying. If your child is outgoing, then you can ask them about checking in with their friends who may seem sad and withdrawn. During one of your regular check-ins, ask your child, “You’ve mentioned that one of your friends is being really quiet lately. I wonder what would happen if you asked her what’s going on?”

Two girls sitting in a white two-panel window of a house looking out.

If your child happens to be a victim of bullying, identify a safe adult who the child can talk to when they’re being bullied. To make it easier for the child to ask for help or feel safe, you can work out a system where, without drawing attention to themselves, they can be excused to leave and talk to a trusted adult.

  • Talk to your child’s teacher about specific recommendations.
  • Model for your children exactly what you want them to learn about being in a conflict situation.
  • Work as a team with your child’s teacher and school.
  • Get your child involved in cooperative, team-based activities.

Having just one friendship can protect children from the long-term negative impacts of bullying. As I mentioned at the very beginning of this post, supportive relationships are absolutely critical to protecting children. Spending time with our kids, helping them connect regularly with other trusted adults and peers is more important now than ever. Ask for help if these things are not resolving the bullying or other issues you’re experiencing as the caregiver. Mental health professionals can provide parents and youth with additional tools. With a little creativity, trial and error, and love, your family can support healthy and nurturing relationships at home.

Photo of a man in a tan suit with light blue dress shirt and coral tie.

Ali Faruk is the Policy Director at Families Forward Virginia, Virginia’s leading organization dedicated to disrupting the cycles of child abuse, neglect and poverty. Working with parents and their children, Families Forward Virginia provides home visiting programs, family support and education, professional development, child sexual abuse prevention programs, advocacy, and public awareness/public education.

Ali has served on many non-profit boards including Mental Health America of Virginia, the Virginia Autism Council, and the Community Building Committee of the United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg. Ali is currently a member of the Board of Long-Term Care Administrators. You can follow Ali on Twitter @FamiliesFwdVA.

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