Children are social creatures. Spending time with their peers, learning how to navigate personal dynamics and dramas, is an essential part of growing up.
So what happens when all peer interactions come to a grinding halt? That’s something we’re all in the middle of figuring out. Schools are closed indefinitely. Play dates are discouraged as social distancing is enforced to keep the COVID-19 virus at bay. Kids are isolated, relying solely on siblings and parents for companionship.
At the same time, children may feel stressed by fears about the health and well-being of themselves, their parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends.
How can we, as parents, help our children through these myriad challenges, and the mental health issues that might arise as a result? Here are some tips and suggestions from Dr. Kahlila Lawrence, an instructor in the University of South Florida’s School Psychology Program.
- Establish routines and stick with them. “No matter the age, routines create a sense of predictability and normalcy for us all,” Lawrence says in an article on the USF website. It is one thing that we can control during this time and it will support your child’s mental and emotional wellbeing. Furthermore, developing routines for your child now will do them a world of good when they return to school after this pandemic has lifted.”
- Get regular exercise with your child. The more flexible schedules many of us now have mean we can set aside time in the morning to get some stretching, yoga, or walking in with our children. This will help children focus more effectively on their school work.
- Allow time for creativity. Working on arts and crafts or similar project can help a child compress after doing school work. As developmentally appropriate, Lawrence suggests “singing, dancing, acting out a skit, writing, reading magazines, listening to music, playing with toys, and cooking.”
- Rest and relaxation are important. Even older children benefit from at least a short nap or quiet time. Ideally, this time does not include screens, though a book or some soothing music can help kids decompress.
- Get them outdoors. Our range might be limited by stay-at-home orders, but a trip to a park or even a backyard for some fresh air and exercise should be part of every parent and child’s daily routine — especially now.
In addition, the National Association of School Psychologists offers tips for parents seeking ways to help their children cope with the stresses of a world that changed so suddenly. The association puts the situation in helpful context:
“It is very important to remember that children look to adults for guidance on how to react to stressful events. Acknowledging some level of concern, without panicking, is appropriate and can result in taking the necessary actions that reduce the risk of illness. Teaching children positive preventive measures, talking with them about their fears, and giving them a sense of some control over their risk of infection can help reduce anxiety. This is also a tremendous opportunity for adults to model for children problem-solving, flexibility, and compassion as we all work through adjusting daily schedules, balancing work and other activities, getting creative about how we spend time, processing new information from authorities, and connecting and supporting friends and family members in new ways.
Here are a few specifics tips the association offers:
- Demonstrate deep breathing. It helps calm the nervous system. Practice deep breathing with your children daily, and as often as necessary.
- Stay focused on the positive. This can be challenging for adults during these tough times, but it is very important for the mental health of your children. “Celebrate having more time together as a family. Make it as fun as possible. Do family projects.”
- Take time to talk, and let your children’s questions guide you. “Often, children and youth do not talk about their concerns because they are confused or don’t want to worry loved ones. Younger children absorb scary information in waves. They ask questions, listen, play, and then repeat the cycle. Children always feel empowered if they can control some aspects of their life. A sense of control reduces fear.”
- Monitor your children’s mental health. Most children will be able to cope with the stresses of the pandemic, but some may struggle. This is especially true of children who previously have experienced trauma, ranging from loss of a loved one to abuse. Children with preexisting mental health issues may also experience exacerbated symptoms. Parents should be on the lookout for some of the following behaviors:
- Preschoolers: bedwetting, clinginess, thumb-sucking, regression
- Elementary school-aged children: Irritability, nightmares, aggressiveness, nightmares, withdrawal
- Adolescents: Sleeping and eating issues, increase in conflicts, ‘delinquent’ behavior, poor concentration.