Parents who are working from home or furloughed are no doubt in the throes of cabin fever, but kids need their alone time, too, where they can just sit with their feelings. Preschoolers are especially susceptible to being overwhelmed; they are growing more independent, yet often cannot advocate or articulate their own feelings without help. In this age of quarantine, without school, daycare, playdates, or even time in the car, it is up to parents to make sure their kids have the opportunity – and the space – to process their experiences in a healthy way.
“During the best of times, children need a safe, quiet place for self-soothing and rest,” explains Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of Joy from Fear. “During this pandemic — with prevalent anxiety, uncertainty, and change in routine — children need a ‘quiet space.’ When children are overstimulated and overwhelmed, they can easily become upset, angry, frustrated or sad.”
Sometimes called a ‘calm-down spot’ or ‘coping place’, a quiet space is a spot where children can retreat to reflect on their feelings, says Dr. Manly. “Ideally, we want a child to be able to seek out the quiet space before he or she is feeling overwhelmed or highly frustrated.”
So what does a quiet space look like? Well, it can look like anything, but research has found it is most effective when it is enclosed (even a blanket fort is sufficient), away from noise or activity, and filled with comforting items specific to the child.
“This may include blankies, wubbies, a safe night light, bottle, books, stuffed animals, etc.,” Dr. Manly explains. “All items should be geared toward helping the child self-soothe.”
For families living in tight quarters, don’t despair: this doesn’t have to be a big space, or a permanent one. “When my first son was young, his quiet space was a large cardboard moving box that could be opened up, moved, and folded up with ease. He liked adding a blankie as a door,” Dr. Manly says. “What was most important was that he knew this space was always accessible.”
Accessibility is crucial: parent and child should establish some rules for using the quiet place, and they need to stick with them scrupulously. These rules need to reinforce the idea that the quiet space is for the child’s personal rest and reflection. This should include rules that allow the child to control the space (parents and siblings need to ask permission before entering); when they can use it (when they need it, and as long as they need it); and who can remove soothing items and if they need permission.
The rules are a large part of why it works, and it is important that the whole family respects them. This can be difficult with siblings who don’t have the same needs and don’t understand how the quiet place works. Parents can reinforce this idea by respecting the rules of the quiet place- and even establishing quiet spaces of their own.
“Parents can get siblings acclimated to the idea of a quiet space by modeling—even for brief periods—their need to be alone,” explain Manly. “This can come in the form of a parent making a quiet space on the couch to read for five minutes or to meditate in quiet on a pillow on the floor. By modeling appropriate quiet space use for children, siblings will learn that each person’s quiet space is sacred.”
And if the quiet space is going to be treated as sacred, it doesn’t really have a role in discipline. It isn’t a time-out spot, where parents can place kids for acting out or misbehaving; it is a place where the child chooses to go to manage their feelings. Because of that, it really isn’t something that should be taken away as punishment.
“If it is used or denied as a disciplinary tool, it loses the quality of being a safe, comforting space,” Manly says. “That said, if a child retreats to the quiet space to avoid discipline, the parent can decide how to most effectively deal with that issue and then use that method consistently. For example, if a child trying to avoid finishing dinner, the parent can decide what strategy to use. It might be something like, ‘It seems you want to be in your quiet place right now, but you must come finish dinner. After you finish dinner, you can certainly return to your quiet space.’ Consistency is key.”
A kid may use the quiet space a lot at first, but as they grow more independent – and their soothing skills improve – they may use it less and less. More important than a child’s specific age is the parent’s awareness of the child’s individual personality and needs. Parents who model consistent behaviors and see to their own needs for introspection and solitude are helping their whole family cope with the age of Covid-19.