We are now coming to grips with the enormity of the psychosocial impact on those directly impacted by COVID-19, as well as on the general population, including children and adults. Being mindful of that impact is key to getting through this difficult time.
There are recommendations for keeping children safe and healthy that are not only medically important, but also give children an opportunity to take control and cope with the situation. Remind them to wash their hands, use hand sanitizer, practice social distancing and wear a mask outside the home.
That is important, but right now, anxiety also commonly impacts children.
Parents usually do a better job recognizing externalizing behaviors such as hyperactivity in their children, rather than internalizing behaviors, such as anxiety and stress.
Adults are more easily able to express feelings whereas children are more likely to internalize their worries. You may see signs of it — crankiness, being clingy or trouble sleeping. They may somaticize and complain of stomachaches and headaches.
Ask your child, “Ever worry about stuff?” You will often be amazed at the responses. Talking about feelings helps. Reassurance is one of the cornerstones of nurturing parenting. Remind children that doctors are learning as much as they can, as quickly as they can, about the virus and are taking steps to keep everyone safe.
Let your children know that you will make the world a safe place for them, that you will always be there for them. Maybe you can give them their own mantras or brief prayers to recite when stressed or nervous. It is surprising how many adults continue to use the words they learned from their loving parents in early childhood.
Reinforce that anxiety is normal, and lots of kids feel it. Reward brave, non-anxious behavior. Congratulate a child who says, “I wash my hands to stay safe.”
Provide children with tools for stress reduction. Teach the two basic steps to stress management. The first is to say, “I feel.” We say that either out loud or using our inside voices. Say, “I feel ... ” and then describe how we feel — “I feel stressed” or “I feel worried.” Sometimes just saying “I feel ... ” is enough to solve problems or at least diminish them.
The second step is to say how we can cope or what we can do. That is when we say, “I can ... ” Here we teach tools such as breath awareness, body awareness and mind awareness to help children cope with stress and fears.
In my book “Harriet’s Monster Diary — Awfully Anxious (But I Squish It, Big Time),” these tools are incorporated into the story. Harriet also uses a “stress furometer” which combines the “I feel” and “I can” tools. It allows children to grade or color code the intensity of their feelings and come up with coping tools to address each level. Try using the “I feel” and the “I can” approach yourself in front of your children. You can model coping behaviors.
Keep young children away from frightening images on TV and social media. Discuss with older children what they are hearing on the news and correct any misinformation or rumors.
Use media for social connection. If kids are missing their friends, cousins and grandparents, use creative apps such as playing Uno on Houseparty or Hangman on Caribu.
Biorhythms are often lost at stressful times. Maintain routines for sleep and meals. Activities that enhance rhythmicity are calming such as playing music, swinging and dancing. Tips for maintaining biorhythms include:
Create a daily schedule that can hang where everyone can see it.
Try to have breakfast together.
Decide where everyone will work most effectively and without distractions.
List times for learning, exercise, meals and especially afternoon breaks.
Include your own hours as well, so children know when your workday is done.
Be creative and prepare props or music, and dress up at dinner time.
Enjoy playing games or watching a movie together in the evening.
Stick with normal bedtime routines.
This is a time to emphasize emotional well-being above academic advancement. Be reassured, the kids will catch up. It is a time for parents to be kind to themselves and practice self-care. We need reminders to take breaks, practice mindfulness and stress management and congratulate ourselves for a job well done.
In the future, children will look back and remember with awe how their parents coped. JN
Raun Melmed is director of the Melmed Center in Scottsdale, which provides counseling services for children and adults, and the author of several books in the ST4 Mindfulness Books for Kids Series. He is also a co-author of “Autism in Lockdown” with Temple Grandin.