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What child mental health experts say kids need during this crisis

What child mental health experts say kids need during this crisis

Picture of Giles Bruce
(Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
(Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, many mothers and fathers — myself included — are now attempting a Herculean balancing act, serving as stay-at-home parents leading homeschool while also working from home.

On top of that, parents are having to become childhood therapists of sorts, assuaging their kids’ fears and communicating what’s happening as a deadly virus sweeps the globe. And these caregivers have to maintain their own mental health as well, while families are sheltering-in-place, often in tight quarters.

Piece of cake, right?

Experts say there are steps parents can take to not let themselves or their children get overwhelmed with stress during this unprecedented crisis. While journalists have their hands full covering this exponential mother-of-all stories, it’s worth communicating some of these insights to worried parents in your audience who are eager for help and guidance in these trying times.

Child mental health experts I spoke with offered a number of key takeaways. First, parents should make sure their kids understand what’s going on in a way that’s developmentally appropriate.

“Children know that the world around them has changed. Even young children have likely heard words like ‘coronavirus’ and ‘quarantine,’” said Tali Raviv, a psychologist and associate director of the Center for Childhood Resilience at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “So it’s up to parents to help them make sense of what they are hearing, seeing and feeling.”

“We want to make sure they’re not spending all their time talking about this. Keep it short and sweet. Even while sheltering in place, this doesn’t need to be the No. 1 thing on children’s minds all the time.” — Megan Tudor, UC Davis MIND Institute

She suggests caregivers first make sure they’re in a relaxed headspace — step away and take a few deep breaths if necessary — then “keep explanations simple and factual to avoid overwhelming your child with too much detail.” She said parents can encourage kids to focus on things they can control — for example, washing their hands or writing letters to first-responders — and to emphasize that world leaders and scientists are working on solutions to the pandemic.

“We want to make sure they’re not spending all their time talking about this. Keep it short and sweet,” said Megan Tudor, a psychologist at the UC Davis MIND Institute and an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics. “Even while sheltering in place, this doesn’t need to be the No. 1 thing on children’s minds all the time.”

Instead, with the closure of schools and public places, she said it’s crucial to develop a schedule.

“I cannot overemphasize the importance of routine,” she said. “It’s just a really uncertain time. Having something certain and predictable about the day to day is important … wake-up times, meal times, daily physical activity for everyone in the family, play time, relaxation time, bed time.”

Just because the term “social distancing” has entered the lexicon doesn’t mean kids can’t socialize (Tudor prefers saying “physical distancing”). For example, children might FaceTime with their friends or write cards or emails to their teachers and coaches.

In this new reality, parents have to educate and entertain their kids all day while working remotely or coping with the financial pressures of a job loss. Other parents might be considered essential workers — say in health care or public safety — and risk exposure to COVID-19 every day. Some caregivers might know someone who died from the virus and have to process that stress while taking care of their children.

As Tudor noted, “Kids are sponges: They’re picking up everything parents are feeling and dealing with right now.” (She pointed to potential resources like the Disaster Distress Helpline and the National Domestic Violence Hotline.)

“Flight attendants instruct passengers to put on their own oxygen mask before helping others in case of an emergency, and this metaphor is particularly true during stressful periods when caregivers may not have access to their own routines and social support,” Raviv said.

She suggests that parents talk to other adults to process everything that’s going on, get exercise, and find opportunities for laughter.

“Children look to their parents for how they should feel and respond in ambiguous, uncertain times,” said Mark Reinecke, a psychologist and clinical director of the Child Mind Institute in San Mateo, California, a concept he calls “social referencing.”

“Children and teens observe how we respond and will remember how we cope,” he said “By modeling an effective response, we are modeling resilience in the face of adversity.”

He suggests not catastrophizing the situation, staying calm, and being reassuring, saying things like, “We’re going to get through this.”

Also, he said, look for silver linings. He pointed to the example of a recent Facebook post from a friend in Australia. It was a picture of her daughter playing her first game of Monopoly. He said the little girl’s smile “radiated from Sydney all the way to Chicago,” calling it “a moment she’ll remember the rest of her life.”

“Social distancing has made us closer,” he said. “There is a sense of families coming together.”

He added that if kids are having a particularly difficult time with all this — many were prone to depression and anxiety even before the outbreak — parents should contact a clinician, many of whom are offering telehealth appointments nowadays.

As for me, I’m not a mental health expert by any means, but I am a parent, of a 6- and 4-year-old. What gets me through these stressful times is realizing that I’m not alone, that parents everywhere are going through this — apart, yet together — and sharing tips and ideas on how to pass the time at home.

I’m also not trying to be the perfect parent (not that it’s possible to be, even in better times). I haven’t turned into some master homeschool teacher. My kids are probably consuming too much screen time and not always eating the healthiest food. 

But they’re healthy and safe. And that’s all that matters right now.


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