RESILIENCE IN THE MIDST OF THE COVID-19 CRISIS: Helping Children Cope

This is the sixth piece in an ongoing series on topics relating to how we cope personally and collectively in the midst of this health crisis. For questions, topic suggestions, resources, or other, please feel free to reach me at rb@reneebranson.blog

I will also be holding a FB Live each day that I post an update around 3pm EST on my Resilient.Bounty page. This will be a brief 10-15 minute opportunity to discuss the issue, connect with others, and get support. 

Helping Children Cope

Today, I want to change hats ever so slightly and focus on something different. Long before my work in workplace mental health, I was an educator and therapist who worked with children who had experienced trauma. Most of us are either parents or have children in our lives in some way. Today, I want to turn my attention to how adults can help children cope during times of acute stress.

As the global pandemic of coronavirus has yet to reach its peak, we in the United States are in the early days of what is an enormously anxious time. Our lives have been narrowed into the confines of our homes for the most part. Televisions are turned to the incessant breaking news. The chimes and dings of updates sound from our phones keeping us on alert. Unfamiliar words and phrases like “exponential spread,” and “epidemiology,” are swirling in the background in our homes and the foreground of our minds. As stressful as this all is to adults, it is especially so for children. They have limited understanding and, for the youngest, limited vocabulary to express their fears. Even older children and teens process stress and trauma differently than adults do. Here are a few things to keep in mind and ways you can help as you and your child navigate all the big feelings they are feeling right now. 

Signs of Distress in Children

Anxiety, depression, and fear don’t always look the same in children as they do in adults. Things to watch out for:

  • Loss of interest in play or other activity
  • Clinging to parent, afraid of being alone
  • Angry or tearful outburst unrelated to anything specific
  • Difficulty concentrating or completing a thought
  • Aggression
  • Temper tantrums
  • Change in appetite
  • Physical complaints: stomach ache, headache, or increased reactivity to minor injury such as stubbed toe 

*In some more extreme cases, young children can regress in their development. This can show up in toilet training or need for previously outgrown comfort items like pacifiers, blankets, etc. While this can be frustrating and even frightening for a parent to notice regression, this is a normal, protective response. Your toddler might need to go back to pull-ups again for a while and that is ok. Allow them to go back to a blanket or other comfort item. This will help them both in the short and longer term. They will catch back up.

Teens and Crisis

Adolescence time where it is developmentally appropriate, and necessary, for children to begin expanding their primary relationships beyond their immediate family. They are meant to be more independent, social, and less engaged with parents. Social distancing will likely feel more acute and even punitive to them. We tend to expect our older teens, who look nearly like adults, to respond like adults in crisis. It is helpful to remember (for our own sake) that their brains are still developing their pre-frontal cortex. They are more likely to be rash and feel invincible. Their outward reaction might be one more of anger than fear. It is important to normalize and empathize with those feelings. It does not mean, however, that you have to normalize inappropriate behavior that stems from the feeling. My 17 year-old is allowed to feel and express grief about the end to his track season; he isn’t allow to express that grief by picking a fight with his 12 year-old brother, however. Below are ways to help children of all ages express their feelings.

Helping Your Child Express Their Feelings

  • Don’t be afraid to talk about the coronavirus with your child. Kids worry more when they are kept in the dark. They are more likely to develop frightening fantasies to fill in the gaps of what they don’t know. 
  • Be age-appropriate. Older children can understand more of the complexities than younger children. For younger children, make sure that you are the one watching the news and then filtering it to them.
  • Follow their cues. Allow them the opportunity to ask questions. Answer them, again, in a developmentally appropriate way. If you don’t know the answer, it is ok to say you don’t know. Reassure them that when you do know, you will inform them. 
  • Model healthy ways to deal with anxiety. We want to protect our children and sometimes that means we are hesitant to allow our children to see our own emotions. While I don’t suggest falling apart in front of your child, it is ok to express that this is nervous time for everyone, and then together do something healthy to ease the anxiety. 
  • Stick to routine. Routines are comforting for children. It reassures them that there is control and order in their world. 
  • Play. Children communicate through play. Give them ample opportunity to express themselves and their anxiety through drawing, clay, and dramatic play. The CDC has a coloring book online, Coping After A Disaster. While it deals mainly with fires, storms, and other natural disasters, many of the pages are very applicable to dealing with the pandemic. Older children and teens can be encouraged to express emotion through art.

Most importantly, continue to give your child the love, cuddles, support, and care that you know best how to provide. Be well. Stay resilient.  

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

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