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Mental Health Strategies for Children

and Parents During COVID-19

by Kathryn G. Menu, Southampton Press, 9 April 2020
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It’s been over a month since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in New York State, and almost that long since residents across the region were asked to socially isolate, with schools and many local businesses shuttered to prevent the spread of the virus.

With most families sheltered together at home, essential workers forced to leave children with relatives or in day care centers, the challenges of homeschooling and distance learning, the economic hardships of those out of work or just the overall uncertainty that comes with this virus pandemic, it is an undoubtedly stressful time, especially for children.

Dr. Paul Weinhold of Integrated Psychological Resources, with offices in Manhattan, Great Neck and Amagansett, said children will feel the impact of this moment in a variety of ways, depending on their age, but that parents can use a number of tools to ensure their children feel secure and to help them safely connect with their peers. Dr. Weinhold said parents need to practice self-care and model positive behavior and mindfulness for children during an understandably stressful time.

“Mindful means you can redirect yourself into another place — the mind is very powerful in that way — where you can be positive,” Dr. Weinhold said in an interview in late March. “That’s harder than going negative. We have an open invitation to be negative right now every which way we look, but we want to say, ‘I’m sorry. I’m not taking that invitation right now. I’m choosing to go to the beach right now,’ or whatever place can get you into a more positive place.”

Having a plan or schedule for the day is also recommended, including moments children can look forward to, like an end-of-day family movie or board game.

“I advocate that parents set forth a bit of a plan so kids know that it’s not just totally unstructured time — some of it is going to be school work and that will take a priority place in the sequence, but after they complete that, they know they can relax, enjoy a game with a friend or a board game with parents,” said Dr. Weinhold.

Logan Kingston, a licensed psychotherapist based in Sag Harbor, agrees. “I think because there is so much uncertainty right now, we want to give kids things they can count on, and routine is the number one thing for everyone in the family,” she said. “This way they know what is expected of them on certain days and times, but at the same time, taking breaks is super important.”

Ms. Kingston said creative breaks and fun time as a family throughout the day are important moments children can look forward to as well.

“Make things fun for them — maybe it’s every day at 11:45 a.m. we have a pre-lunch dance party,” she said. “It’s a great idea to get silly right now. I think it is something that’s important because everything is so serious right now, but not everything has to be.”

Dr. Weinhold also advocated for time for families to just be silly together.

“I have some families out there doing a silly dance contest, and it doesn’t have to be that, but something like that, that is physically engaging,” he said. “It’s a reliever for the anxiety that sometimes people don’t even know is inside of them. You can just let go and laugh and be silly or play a goofy game like charades — come up with a family activity you can do based around your schedule.”

Practicing gratitude and mindfulness is another tool Ms. Kingston believes parents and children should practice together.

“One tool incorporated into a lot of mindfulness practices is having a practice where you are grateful — what are the three things you are grateful for this morning? — and maybe at night, what are the three things you are grateful for and talking to them about being thankful. It might help with the little ones in looking at the positives.”

Mantras are also helpful in this way, said Ms. Kingston. One she has used with some of the children she works with is “May my positive attitude help heal the world that’s beautiful.”

“I’m almost trying to make them feel like Care Bears — where they are going to shine this light from their hearts and send their loving energy into the world,” she said. “I love taking these things down to their level, ‘Let’s have a Care Bear moment.’ And maybe as a family, you can sit down and have that moment together.”

Helping Kids in a Crisis

by Logan Kingston, Southampton Press, 19 March 2020

Many of us are struggling to manage our own anxiety around the recent events concerning COVID-19. Consequently, at this time, it is essential that we help children manage their emotions about what is happening in our country and across the globe. 

 

A large population of children and adolescents around the US are already struggling with anxiety in their daily life. With recent directives such as school closings, sports cancelations, and recommendations for social distancing, not to mention shortages on toilet paper and hand sanitizer, it is understandable that many young people are feeling higher levels of anxiety and may be on the verge of panic mode. 

 

It’s important to assure them that the world is not coming to an end, and contracting coronavirus is not a death sentence. 

 

Here are a few things you can do to help your kids feel more at ease in light of recent events:

 

  • Manage your own anxiety. When turbulence begins, there’s nothing worse than seeing a panicked flight attendant, strapping herself into her seat, pulling out her rosary beads, and making the sign of the cross. Before you speak with your kids, be sure you are feeling calm. If you’re feeling anxious, your kids will likely pick up on that vibe. 

  • Give them your full attention. Leave your phones in another room, turn off music or the TV, and be completely present for the conversation with your kids. Some children are fearful of the virus, and it’s important to have this conversation without distraction. 

  • Make sure you’re speaking with them on their level. Telling your three-year-old that nobody is immune to the virus and that we could all potentially get it and not show any symptoms is probably not the best idea. Your 17-year-old, however, would likely understand that. Be sure to use developmentally-appropriate language and offer information that they can understand. 

  • Communicate. Avoiding the topic can actually make things worse. Kids might internalize their anxiety and brace themselves for impending doom. Before you find them writing letters to put in a time capsule for people of the future, ask your kids what they have heard about the virus and what kinds of questions they have. Validate their feelings, and answer as honestly as possible. That honesty includes being candid about your lack of knowledge. Keep the lines of communication open and let them know they can come to you if they have any concerns or fears that come up in the future. 

  • Focus on the positives. Review hygiene techniques recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and remind them of all you’re doing to stay healthy and safe. Talk about the eating habits and supplements you might be taking that are keeping them and their immune systems healthy. Let them know that there are experts around the world who are working day and night to find ways to prevent further spread of this virus. 

  • Monitor their exposure to news. If your child tells you that coronavirus has been traced back to aliens from another galaxy, and Earth is going to be taken over, they might be over-Googling. It’s important to remind kids that not everything they read on the internet is accurate. Neither is everything they hear. Many news stations focus on the latest updates, and, to a young child, hearing some statistics could be confusing, not to mention overwhelming. It is also possible that they may only hear bits and pieces of a broadcast, which could have them misinterpreting facts and/or statistics and sending them into a panic. 

  • Maintain a sense of normalcy and routine around the house. Since schools have been closed and, if it has been recommended in your area to stay home when possible, offer your kids some structure. Plan activities in the home or back yard. This could be a great time to tap into their creativity with art projects. (See my next point!)

  • Offer them outlets for their anxiety. Art therapy is a wonderful technique to help people manage anxiety, stress, and other emotions. Some kids like to draw, write, or build with Legos. If you have little ones, you can ask them to draw how they feel about being out of school. Writing can also be an outlet for kids who enjoy it. Suggest that they write a story about what is happening and how they would like to see things resolved. Music is another way kids can express themselves. Have them create a playlist for themselves that can make them feel better.

 

Bottom line: Keep your kids in the loop to the extent that you feel necessary, and answer their questions. We want them to be assured things will eventually be okay. Doing research on their own could result in additional anxiety. Honest, simple communication can help put their minds at ease. 

 

Although we may not be entirely certain of what will unfold in the coming weeks, we certainly don’t want our kids preparing for an apocalypse or a galactic invasion. Then again, writing a comic book together about aliens who provide a cure might not be a bad idea.

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