It’s not news that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected our collective mental health. Quarantines, unpredictable school schedules, and general disruption of everyday life has led to increased depression and anxiety, and our children haven’t been spared. For kids, pandemic-related mental health issues can take on varied forms, including irritability and sudden outbursts, sleeplessness, whining and clinginess, worries about the future, and unexplained physical symptoms, like headaches and stomach aches.
As we manage working from home while homeschooling, among other myriad hurdles thrown onto our plates as a result of the pandemic, we parents have the extra challenge of helping our children weather these troubling times. In addition to taking care of our own mental health, we’re called to create an environment where our children can not only cope but thrive. Here are some strategies that can help.
Open up the lines of communication by talking with your children in age-appropriate ways about the fears and worries they’re facing. “Parents can help their children identify and name the emotions kids are experiencing and work together to find ways to cope,” says Gabriela Rodriguez, PhD, child psychologist with Riley Children’s Health. A simple picture book, like How Are You Feeling Today? by Molly Potter, can help younger children put words to their feelings.
Keep in mind your children may ask a lot of questions during this time — sometimes the same ones repeatedly. They may be trying to wrap their heads around abstract concepts or seeking reassurance, so do your best to understand the motivation behind the questions. You might respond by asking them about their worries or what they already know about the situation to encourage them to share.
If you notice differences in your child’s mood or behavior, take a moment to assess the situation. Note when mental health symptoms rise and wane. By tapping into these patterns, you can help your child anticipate these shifts and better control the outcomes. Also be aware of your own anxieties and reactions, as they can affect your child, as well.
Find a Routine
The pandemic has forced us all to be flexible in many ways, and that can be good, but as Rodriguez notes, children thrive on consistency and routine. “They make kids feel safe and secure,” she says.
Try starting the morning by letting kids know what the day holds, she recommends. Hold a meeting over breakfast or post a daily schedule like teachers do — in words for older kids or visuals for younger ones. This doesn’t have to include hour-by-hour detail, just enough information to let them know what’s expected of them.
Find a rhythm for normal activities, such as family meals and reading together at bedtime, to allow a focused time for connection.
On weekends, when schedules are more relaxed, try to keep sleep and wake times within an hour of weekdays to regulate their internal clocks and help sleep come easier.
Focus on What Can Be Controlled
The pandemic has left many kids feeling out of control, exacerbating feelings of anxiety or depression. However, helping children focus on what they can control can help provide a sense of grounding.
In moments of stress, this may look like using coping strategies, like breathing exercises or deep muscle relaxation, Rodriguez says. For the first, take slow, deep breaths together, providing a visual, like a pinwheel or bubbles, to help guide younger children. For the latter, slowly tense and relax each muscle or muscle group, working your way through the body until the uncomfortable emotions have quelled. Search videos online for help with either of these techniques.
When grieving cancelled birthdays and holidays, it might be helpful to imagine together what these celebrations will look like when the pandemic is over. You can also think creatively about ways to create a sense of normalcy even when social distancing is required. Host birthday celebrations on Zoom, plan an online family game night between your children and their grandparents, or set up a fun outdoor scavenger hunt.
“We don’t want to wait until we are feeling extremely stressed to start practicing these strategies,” Rodriguez says. “It’s most helpful to build practicing these strategies into our regular routine, so that we are ready to use them when we need them.”
Find Professional Help, If Needed
If distress increases, daily life becomes disrupted or family relationships are affected, you may need to seek out additional help for your child. Talk with your child’s pediatrician or school for help locating resources.
Pandemic life has posed many challenges for parents and children alike. Don’t forget to allow yourself some grace as you work to figure out this new way of living and keep the sanity within your household.