Isolation with Kids Like a Pro

It’s been a rough week. As state and federal governments continue to restrict our movement and impose social distancing, I am reminded of the three years I spent with my family in Siberia. Scavenging for food in my own kitchen, stuck with my kids 24/7 with nowhere to go, connecting with friends and family virtually….

Yeah. It’s bad. 

But all is not lost! I would love to share with you what I learned in those three years. These lessons have helped prepare me for this very moment. 

A note for working parents: I am now a working parent too and understand that a job adds another layer. If you need to work from home, try thinking of each of your work assignments the same way you would a job around the house. Laundry becomes dedicated time to catch up on e-mails. A teleconference meeting? Use strategies below for how to use screen time for when you can’t be interrupted.

Another note if your spouse is home with you. Have your spouse read this too. Talk over how you can share the load and take turns engaging the children and being in charge of holding down the fort when one of you needs to give undivided attention to your work. Talk often until you’re working together as a team. This is not just the mom’s job, it’s a parent’s job.

Do More Things Together — Invite children to join you or join in with your children.

If you change nothing else, this is the one thing you should definitely do. If you creatively do things together, not just fun things but work things too, you will start to see some important shifts in the mood almost immediately.

How do you do it?

To do things together (not just fun things), consider the following:

  1. Look for an opportunity to invite children to do things with you.
  2. Look for opportunities to join in with your children.
  3. If children join in with you, explain what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and invite them to join you at a level that matches their age and interest. 
  4. If joining in with your children, make sure your presence models creativity and playing well together. Redirect behavior by speaking positively about the child who needs help. 

Benefits to this method: The connections you make with your children will establish the needed trust and relationship you’ll need later. This will help you diffuse power struggles too. It will also help you manage your own anger and frustration because you have positive interaction to support you. 

Why this works: Normally the source of your frustration comes from not being able to get your own things done or feeling like the kids are making endless demands on your time. Kids get frustrated if they don’t feel involved or don’t feel like anyone cares about them. Including them in what you’re doing allows you to get your own work done. Joining in what they’re doing gives them the attention and care they need. Both of you stay occupied and no one is bored and ignored. Bored and ignored = disaster.  

What does it look like? I’ll give you some examples since this can play out in a variety of ways.

Folding clothes

“Mom, I’m bored.”

“Yeah? Do you want to help me fold clothes?”

“Ugh! No way. That looks boring.”

“You’d be surprised. Here, would you like to help me fold this little pile?”

“No way. I want you to turn on my video game right now!”

“Well, I have to get this done first. You’ll have to wait. It’ll go much faster if you help with that little pile.”

“Okay, fine.”

(This helps your child recognize you have things to do too, and gives them an opportunity to join in without forcing or fighting. The pile you set aside should be articles that match the child’s ability.)

For work-related time together, I have also explained to my children that I can’t do it all by myself. I need help. That has made a huge difference in inviting my children to help me, rather than just leaving me to do everything.

Playing outside

My kids invite me to play outside with them. I look at the time and realize I have about 40 minutes before I need to make dinner. Perfect. We all head outside and start by playing soccer. My oldest dominates the ball and soon my second oldest is complaining that soccer is boring. We transition to kick-ball. My youngest doesn’t understand the point of the game. After a few rounds of trying to explain there are a lot of tears and it’s time to transition to something else again. We start an obstacles course where each person creates a part of the course. Once the course is complete and most of us have done it once we need another activity. Parent number two joins us. We decide to play freeze and thaw a game we make up on the spot. One person touches people and they have to freeze. Another person runs around and thaws people who are frozen. That turns out to be the favorite. We play that for several rounds and then it’s time to come in and get ready for dinner. 

Notice that not every game worked and together we transition to other games until we hit on something everyone likes. I model for my children a willingness to adjust and try something new. 

One more quick example while writing this….

Working on this article, the kids took turns coming up and interrupting. To engage each one appropriately, I had my 8-year-old type out a few words for me. As he wrote out the words, he got curious what I was writing about so I started reading it to him. After a few minutes he started bouncing around and I asked if he was bored. He said yes and so I told him I could stop reading. He bounced away. Then my 4-year-old jumped on my lap and wanted to type just like her brother. I let her type nonsense for a little bit and then she jumped off and went on her way. If she had not been ready to jump off, but I needed to limit her time, I would have asked her what she typed and then tell her thank you. I would have then explained that it was my turn again. I would give her another turn later if needed.

Think about what you want to do and plan accordingly.

I’m not one of those parents who can regiment my time into a perfectly organized schedule. But, I still have things I want to get done. So, I think about what I want to get done on a given day and work things out in such a way that I increase the probability of success.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Identify something you want to get done.
  2. Think about obstacles that may prevent you from accomplishing it.
  3. Figure out what you need to do to make it work.
  4. Adjust for things you couldn’t predict or control, and move on.

You don’t have to plan everything this way (that can get overwhelming). Just focus on those things that are higher on your priority list.

Example 1:

  1. I decide I want my kids to have less screen time.
  2. If the screens are too accessible and I’m too distracted my kids will end up on them all day.
  3. I need to be detached from screens myself and have activities in mind that my children can do. The activities I come up with include some exercise time outside, coloring pages, and a game. I don’t have to do all of these, but I’m ready to pull those out when it’s time to detach from screens.
  4. I realize most of the kids’ school work involve screens, so for most of the day they end up on a screen anyway. Rather than feel like a failure, I just find times throughout the day I can get the kids to detach and do something else. I use some of the things I thought of, or I also ask the kids to think of something.

Example 2:

  1. I want to get 4 loads of laundry done.
  2. I’m likely to get distracted and maybe get one load done.
  3. I use a system of alarms on my phone to keep me on task so I don’t get too distracted. (I’ll have to make sure I keep resetting the alarms or timers each time a load goes in.)
  4. I may realize I only have time to do 2 loads because of an unexpected activity I started with the kids that I couldn’t interrupt. Totally fine.

Power cleaning sessions

Being together in a small space can make for cluttered space. Power cleaning together helps keep the mess to a manageable level. This also will help reduce your own stress level. Take a break during the day to work together to power clean as a family. Here are some ideas to keep it short, simple, and fun.

  • Set a timer and see how much you can do before the time runs out.
  • Assign specific smaller tasks — one person picks up all of the crayons, one person picks up all of the books, one person picks up all of the dirty clothes, etc. This can be assigned by game too: pick a number to find out what item you have to clean.
  • Turn on some music and everyone has to straighten up while the music is playing.
  • Focus on one room at a time. Rather than trying to clean the whole house at once, just limit your short power-clean to one room where everyone works to clean up.

The more you can make cleaning fun, the faster the job will get done and everyone can go back to other things they enjoy. The more you struggle to get your kids to clean the more time that gets wasted. As you make the effort to make cleaning fun and simple, it’ll be a win for everyone. 

How to deal with anger and power struggles.

I spent a year single-parenting while my husband was working in Afghanistan. Because it was all me, all the time — 24/7 — I had to find ways to reduce power struggles and manage my anger. That’s right, my anger. Your children will follow your lead on how you deal with your moods.

Power Struggles

Let’s talk about power struggles first. The first thing to do when faced with a power struggle is to remove the struggle part. Tug-of-war, for example, only works if both sides are tugging on the rope. Drop the rope. Don’t engage in the struggle. If you engage in a power struggle you will do one of two things. You will either hurt your child by escalating it too much and hurting them (emotionally and otherwise), or you will give in and your child will learn how far they need to go to get what they want.

How to let go of the struggle — how to change a power struggle into something else?

To let go of the rope, I change the nature of what we’re arguing about so that there’s really only one logical choice. Giving examples might be difficult because this varies greatly from child to child. It also depends a great deal on what everyone is already used to. Here an example:

Example: A child constantly runs around during dinner and won’t just sit down and eat. My primary goal is to get the child to eat all of the food. My secondary goal is to have us all eat together. There are a variety of ways I can accomplish my goal and minimize power struggles. Let’s say the child has left the table to play with a toy. I explain the toy isn’t available until after everything has been eaten off of the plate. As soon as the plate is empty, the toy will become available. Let’s say the child doesn’t want to give up the toy and creates a power struggle. How do you get the child to stop playing and come over to the table? In that case, my object is to get the kid to come back to the table. So, I ask a question about the toy — “what are you making,” “what toy are you playing with?” As the child starts to answer I may say, “Oh, I’d love to hear more, but I can’t understand you unless you’re sitting here at the table. Come over here and tell me more while you eat.” This invites the child back with a specific reason to come back. You can keep it light and friendly if the child is suspicious. Stick to that and don’t engage in more conversation until the child is back at the table. Once the child is sitting, get up and remove the toy to a place not as accessible. You can explain that the toy will come back as soon as the plate is empty.

Notice in this scenario, I work things around so that I’m never actually making it a fight. I state what I’m expecting the child to do, but I’m working around the disagreement. I make sure it’s clear what I want, but I’m not threatening or fighting about whether the child does it or not. I’m not giving a punishment. Once I have gained ground, I make sure I maintain that ground by removing the distraction or obstacle.

Managing Anger

Anger management starts with you as a parent. If you are not angry, but your child is, counterbalance the outburst with love and kindness. Speak softer so the child has to yell quieter to hear what you’re saying. Give the child space if there is a lot of kicking. No need to get hurt. Anger management goes along with power struggles because outbursts and tantrums are often a child’s way to win the tug-of-war, wearing you out and making you upset too. Don’t engage if it’s out of control. If it’s a simple outburst of anger, explain the limits (sorry, I can’t hear you when you’re screaming like that) and either walk away or try meeting it with calm and love. You can say something like “I can understand you’re mad, but we can’t talk this through if you’re yelling at me. Let me know when you’re ready to talk.”

If you’re mad, take yourself out of it until you calm down. Your children will not be able to help you calm down before you do something you’ll regret. I have honestly put myself in the corner to force myself to calm down. (Believe me, it works like a charm on everyone.) Your own anger can also stay manageable as you do all of these other things written in the article because your mood is closely tied to your expectations. Are you getting things done? Are the children bored and making messes? Is no one helping you? These are all tied together.

A note on physical punishments: I used to spank my children until a day I spanked in anger. It can be so easy to rationalize your anger with your children that you push yourself past the appropriate limits. I have since made a promise to myself to never use physical punishments on my children. That includes any kind of physical contact when I’m angry. That promise has forced me to look to other strategies because I still want my children to learn discipline and obedience. That is where I’ve learned some of these other strategies, which work a lot better than spanking.

Pause to eat

I can go long stretches without eating, especially when there’s a pressing deadline or a long list of things to do. Forgetting to feed your kids at regular intervals, however, leads to a variety of problems. Focusing on making sure that everyone eats at regular intervals will ensure everyone is getting a balanced diet while avoiding the hangry tantrums (you know, hungry-angry-tantrums). It’s also good to keep ahead of the habit of grazing. Unless you have especially attractive and wholesome snacks, it’s much better to have children eating balanced meals. 

For children who simply need to eat more frequently, or who put up a fight about sitting down and eating, consider setting out snacks that are balanced. Consider proteins, fruits and veggies, and whole grains. Ideas include cheese and crackers, sliced apples and nut butter, cut veggies and dip, a handful of raisins, yogurt, veggies and sliced meat, cut fruit, etc.  

Use screen time wisely.

We often feel guilty letting our kids engage with screens all day, but screens can be a big help if used wisely. Think ahead when you know you’ll need to attend to a specific task and use that time as screen time. If you know you have an important call at 2pm, make sure you have chunks of the day when you and your kids are off screens so that when 2pm rolls around you can direct the children to the screen and you can attend to your meeting. Make sure that after your dedicated time is done and you can take a break, you have the kids take a break with you.

It is still healthy for everyone to regularly disengage from screens.

Have a highlight of the day.

It helps to have something everyone can look forward to together. Maybe it’s playing a game together (video or board or whatever). Everyone might rather take a walk outside or do something nice for a neighbor. For a last minute “highlight”, you might challenge other members of the family during lunch to speak in a pirate accent. It could be something more elaborate like a craft or baking activity. Having a fun highlight of the day gives a sense that each day is a little special and brings smiles. 

If the idea of having a daily highlight is overwhelming, consider limiting it to certain days. But remember, it doesn’t have to be anything too fancy. Simple spontaneous smiles count too!

Establish early bedtimes.

As if keeping to a bedtime wasn’t hard enough, with a messy schedule it can be even harder to get kids to sleep. Consider creating a more deliberate bedtime routine to signal to everyone it’s time to wind down and get ready to sleep. Routines can still vary (certain nights are bath nights for example) but children  — and adults — should be given enough time to wind down and prepare to sleep before we expect them to actually go to sleep. Getting the right rhythm might take time, but it’s worth experimenting a little to get it right. 

Some “get ready to sleep” ideas include reading together, taking a bath or shower, listening to or singing calming music, stretching, meditation, and “come together” time. “Come together” time might be an opportunity for members to share something they liked about the day, or to give a word to the day (relaxing, satisfying, chaotic, etc). I like the “word summary” because it helps me get a pulse on how everyone is feeling. 

If I don’t have a “come together” time, I may still spend a few extra moments with my kids as they are all ready and in bed. This helps them mentally wind down with me as a parent. I can calm any fears they might have or just help them feel connected to me before drifting off to sleep. I don’t always stay until jaws have gone slack, but I make sure I’m there long enough that everyone has properly settled down. 

And don’t forget yourself! Think about how you can signal your body it’s time to sleep. Keep in mind that screens can make it harder for us to feel sleepy and might actually keep us up later than we plan to. Disconnect from the screen and consider mediation, stretching, or other things that can help you get ready to go to bed.

Get creative!

This is different for everyone, but that’s okay! There is room for lots of creativity. Your kids may come up with ideas. Your spouse may have ideas. But the more you laugh and engage with your children and your spouse, the more you will look back at this time as a true gift. 

Here are a few examples of things you can do together….

Play “restaurant” — this can be doubled up during lunch time where you can both play AND eat.

Play “doctor” — this is a great way to put your feet up if you’re particularly tired. You can use this as a time to explain disease or just have fun and tickle!

Races — when you need to get blood pumping and your bum is numb from working, consider doing a series of sprints with the kids, inside or outside. Do races, funny walks, hop on one leg, etc.

Speed dating — when you have kids that can benefit from individual attention, consider setting a timer and giving one-on-one attention to your kids. Make sure the other kids are close by and that you’re accessible, but consider doing a small project with your children one at a time. (My kids love this!!)


  1. You know what I like about this particular post ?? All of the real life examples !!

    The strategies that Emily has shared can be used any time but now, with home isolation, these ideas are a real blessing !!

    Thank you, Emily, for being specific and sharing what you’ve learned from other ‘isolation’ times in your life. There’s an old saying that ‘Necessity is the Mother of Invention’. I can see that this doesn’t just apply to an easier way to pick cotton ! It also applies to social and emotional situations where the necessities of getting along and being content with each other can spur inventions of creative ways to do that ! Don’t forget that work can be as much fun as play is !!

    Doing it ‘together’ !!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, just wow. That a lot to learn, and even more, to be so meta-cognitive and able to verbalize in such a way as to share what you’ve learned! Well, that’s just plain awesome!

    Liked by 1 person

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