You’re likely experiencing negative feelings and concerns because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Common examples include feelings of isolation, worries about finances, frustrations with work and childcare needs, plus the added fears of possible infection and illness from this new virus.
Just as adults worry about unexpected changes in our routines and social plans, children manage these stressors too, but in different ways. Part of our job as adults is to help children deal with their worries in healthy ways. Many parents and teachers have been asking for advice on how to help children better manage stress and improve their adaptability during these uncertain times.
While there are health standards, such as wearing a mask and maintaining six-foot social distance to stop the spread of the virus, children are unique in their needs and developmental level with stress management. What seemed reasonable in March felt different in June, and August is different again.
Reminder to all parents and caregivers: as long as you’re trying to do the best for your kids and trying to make informed decisions, there are very few instances where there is a “right” or “wrong” choice. Every parent needs to consider their family circumstances, developmental levels of their children and local government regulations. Below are some tips to help you and your family manage the uncertainty of the upcoming school year.
Tips for coping: Start with yourself
First, remember you need to take care of yourself. We can make analogies to other traumatic events, but this situation is totally different than anything we’ve experienced. Never minimize or discount your own feelings, but deliver information in a tempered way. If children see your concern, avoid saying, “I’m panicking,” for example. Instead, say something like, “I’m uneasy about the world right now. This is new for all of us, and we’ll work through it together. We’ll make good decisions to stay safe and healthy.” Second, everyone needs grace and flexibility. Some people adjust more slowly to change, and they need patience. Be forgiving about the need for extra support and guidance, whether it’s you, your friends, coworkers or your children.
I suggest letting go of more traditional concerns whenever possible. Your children will remember this time for the rest of their lives. Would you rather they remember the stress or remember a special movie night with popcorn? Plan small, special treats throughout the week. Are you worried about too much screen time? Let it go for now (within reason). The kids want to eat their ice cream outside? Go for it. Worried about a little extra sugar? Remind them to brush their teeth more frequently.
Tips for helping your children: Watch for signs of distress
There are also more serious concerns we need to watch for in our children, such as significant changes in behavior or functioning, which may indicate the need for professional help. For example, your child used to be quiet and reserved, but now they’re acting out frequently; or they used to be outgoing and now they seem withdrawn. This might indicate depression or anxiety. Watch for changes in eating or sleeping habits, or more pronounced bouts of anger and frustration. If your child is exhibiting several of these symptoms or seems out of control, you might consider enlisting the support of mental health professionals. There are many local mental health providers that you can contact, most with online opportunities for behavioral health services. In my experience, the volume of children being counseled has increased significantly compared to last year.
Help kids work through what they’re missing
Many parents I’ve spoken to lately have concerns about online school experiences this year. There are some children who do well with online learning, and this has been a chosen option for an increasing number of children in the past several years. The experience has been positive for them, likely in part because it was a choice that was made, rather than an unexpected change. For many parents and kids, the biggest concern isn’t academics (although that’s certainly on people’s minds), it’s how to replace the social piece that’s missing.School provides a unique social environment. Children are in close quarters with kids at similar developmental levels. They enjoy the shared experience of learning that takes place. Add to that playing with friends in their neighborhood and at local parks, competing in sports, participating in music—many of these activities are no longer available.
Let’s look at these and review some suggestions for supporting children at different ages.
Preschool and elementary school
For the youngest age group, I think the biggest focus should be on emotional development. Early school-age children are learning to read, and reading to them and letting them read to you is critical. But what they’re missing—especially in preschool and kindergarten—are important emotional skills, like how to take turns, share toys and share responsibility. These activities help children learn frustration tolerance by having to wait for something that they want. If you can replicate simple things at home that teach patience and how to pause and think, you can provide them with those skills.
One way to do this is to be open about their feelings and help them express moods appropriately. Ask them, “How are you feeling?” Teach them empathy by discussing how other people might be feeling. When we put them in someone else’s shoes, we start to prepare them to be kind citizens for greater good in society.
Look for opportunities to recognize their emotional control. For example, say, “Nice job sharing your toys with your brother (or sister).” Focus on effort and build skills with regular daily tasks.
When you take kids on brief outings, try to make mask-wearing an adventure. There are many fun fabric designs that kids might enjoy and, if possible, let them choose which one they wear. If you’re comfortable allowing them to play with close friends and you trust them to stay distanced, make those choices without worrying about judgement from others.
If you’re not comfortable, talk openly with them about missing out on things. There’s grief involved with the loss of activities they were expecting. Adjusting to potentially new and limited experiences is difficult. Let them express their disappointment, and then look for solutions together. For sports, suggest taking some time to focus on skill-building, so they’re better prepared for the next season. Perhaps ask them to be creative and think of something new they want to try. They might want to learn to cook a special dish or try a new activity like fishing. Consider involving family members such as grandparents via phone or Zoom to discuss other ideas.
Middle school and high school
For middle school students, school includes learning more about their social identify. Students going through puberty are asking big questions: Who am I? What do I want to be known for?
Technology is more of a social tool for this group. I like to recommend that parents continue to monitor social interaction at these ages. Make sure appropriate topics and conversations are taking place. Ask them who they’re talking with and what topics are important to them. Openly discuss things like cyber-bullying, helping friends in distress and managing in-group or out-group issues.
During the older grades, areas to focus on include habit formation. There’s quite a bit of mental health research that shows a connection between gratitude and happiness. They go together in positive and cognitive psychology. Remind them to make progress on a long-term goal, and take time to appreciate any positive experience. We want to work on the underlying thought process of what success means. Emotional intelligence and the ability to learn new things are important skills that will help them throughout their lives. Encourage them to form good work habits and to set goals for themselves, but also to make time for their hobbies, interests and passions.
The most common mental health concerns for high school students are depression and anxiety. Seniors especially are experiencing sadness of missing out on “the last time I get to do XYZ.” For them, missing sports and other types of performances are a loss of part of their identity. First, acknowledge their sadness. You might be sad about it also. Parents look forward to those special events in their children’s lives. Empathize with their loss. Ask them if there’s a way to be creative to adjust for it. For example, there are some interesting videos being shared through social media of creative performances and gatherings from a distance. Could they work with friends to record performances from a distance and edit them together? Can they organize a list of athletic training events that a group of teammates will commit to? Or a combined art project, for example? We need to acknowledge that, while we can’t “make up” for the expectations of our old normal, we can instead try to adapt to this new world.
Learning to cope and finding resources
How do you truly help kids cope with this level of disappointment? We’re all learning as we go. There’s a benefit to remembering that the disappointment is being widely shared. Restrictions and worry aren’t at one school or one place; it’s most schools and most places, all going through similar changes and uncertainty. This will be a shared experience that they and all of their peers will always remember. WHAT they remember isn’t pre-determined, and we can help our children to form positive memories during this time as well. This is sometimes called a “growth mindset,” the idea that we can grow through overcoming challenges we face.
There are several organizations trying to help parents—and teachers—cope by providing additional resources. Here are a few I recommend:
Nationwide Children’s Hospital mental health resources: onoursleeves.org/ (also offers a teacher’s guide to help integrate new strategies into distance learning)
Yale Child Study Center for Emotional Intelligence: medicine.yale.edu/childstudy/communitypartnerships/ycei/
Greater Good Science Center: greatergood.berkeley.edu/
Parker L. Huston is an assistant professor of pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine and clinical director of the “On Our Sleeves” mental health awareness program at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.