The winter can be a tough time with littles. You’re stuck inside unless you dress in a million layers and exhausted by the lack of sunlight and vitamin D—it’s less than fun. Who among us hasn’t checked the clock thinking it’s close to bedtime only to see that it’s actually 6:15 pm? If you can’t get enough time to yourself (which is always highly recommended to help increase parenting bandwidth), it can help to think ahead of ways to engage your kids when you’re low on energy and/or patience. 

  • Have reasonable expectations and model self-regulation. If things are feeling rough, it may help to both expect and do a little less. Taking the pressure off yourself and your kids gives everyone breathing space. Also, remember you can only model self-regulation skills if you’re getting dysregulated! So, next time this happens take the opportunity to externalize your process. Whatever you need to do to calm yourself, say it out loud: “I’m getting frustrated so I’m going to take three deep breaths,” or, “I feel overstimulated by all this noise so I’m going to turn off the music and lie on the floor for a minute.” This helps your child learn these very skills. 

  • Be intentional with playthings. Too many toys can overwhelm kids, so consider a rotation. Rotating can delight younger children in particular, especially if you swap things out when they are asleep or at childcare or school. Waking up or coming home to a long-forgotten puzzle or new-to-them dramatic play gear is an entertaining surprise. A handful of fresh art supplies, even a small box of crayons, can also bring joy to kids of all ages.

  • Get sensory. If you’re up for the mess, a batch of homemade play dough or gak/flubber/slime can entertain for a while. Involve the children in making it for even more bang for your buck. Keep a bin of rice or beans and scoops for digging around in. Bust out the fingerpaint (even for older kids this is a fun throwback!).

  • Consider a harm reduction approach to screen time. Most parents are well aware of the recommended limits on screen time for babies, toddlers, kids, and teens, but then there is the reality of life in a “post-pandemic” world. Some days you have to make concessions. Don’t beat yourself up. Make sure time without screens is quality time and see the Resources section for more suggestions.

  • Engage in the most low-profile way possible. Sometimes you just don’t have it to give. Those are the days you hand your toddler a toy stethoscope and pretend to be the sick patient. Or you make popcorn and have a movie marathon with your older child. See the Resources section for more suggestions.

If none of these suggestions are working, have them layer up and go outside. Heck, throw on your heaviest parka and head out with them—toss a snowball or two. At the very least, the crisp, cold air will wake you up a little!


Games to Play with Your Child in Which You Barely Have to Move or Talk from blogger/author Raquel D’Apice at The Ugly Volvo

Snow Day Activity Guide from ZERO TO THREE

The “Post-Pandemic” Screen Time Dilemma: A harm reduction approach for busy families from Psychology Today

This article was originally published in the November/December 2022 issue of Parent & Family.

Sarah MacLaughlin is author of the award-winning books, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children and Raising Humans With Heart. Her writing has also been featured in The Huffington Post. Sarah is a human development nerd who brings over 30 years of experience working with children and families to her coaching practice. Sarah is also mom to a teenager who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice. Reach out for parenting support via her “Get In Touch” page.