How to care for your children's mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic
As we grapple with COVID-19’s disruption to our everyday lives, we should consider the mental and emotional effect the pandemic is having on our children. With the majority of schools closed around the country, many K-12 students find themselves confined to their homes and learning remotely for the first time. James E. Connell, Jr., PhD, the program director for Drexel University’s School of Education EdS in School Psychology, spoke with us about how to talk to your children about the pandemic, and the best ways to manage their mental health during this time.
Does my child know what’s happening?
According to Connell, the ability to fully comprehend the COVID-19 pandemic will largely depend on the individual child. Even an older teenager may not fully grasp the larger picture. They are likely to understand it in terms of how it has affected them: canceled graduation, uncertainty about upcoming events, and things of that nature.
For younger children, it’s less important that they have a clear understanding of what’s going on, and more important that parents are able to create some type of structure for them. Having a schedule will make it easier for them to navigate this new environment.
“When you start getting down into the early primary grades, the extent to which they comprehend what’s going on is perhaps less important than what type of structure and educational opportunities occur in the home, so that the transition from school to home is easier for them,” Connell said.
Keep calm and carry on
Regardless of the age of your children, your actions and emotions during this time are going to have a huge effect on the way your kids view the pandemic.
“Kids are going to manage this based on their caregiver’s responses, and how their caregivers are managing this,” Connell said. “They take their cues from their caregivers.”
So, if you are noticeably anxious or short-tempered, your children will likely be as well. Remaining calm and reassuring your children that things will be okay, and that they will receive the support they need, is vital during this time.
It may also be helpful to limit your children’s exposure to the media right now. “The kids do not need to be tuned into the 24-hour news cycle,” Connell said. While it’s important that you stay informed, your kids don’t need to be constantly inundated with news of more illnesses and deaths.
How to tell if your child is experiencing trauma
Despite your best efforts, your children could still start reacting to the heightened stress of our current environment. How can you tell if your child is starting to experience some sort of trauma?
“I would look for signs of internalizing and externalizing behaviors,” Connell said. Internalizing behaviors may be anxiety or signs of depression. This could mean changes in sleep or eating patterns, or signs of social withdraw. Externalizing behaviors could look like temper tantrums or needy behavior.
The best way to help your child at this time is, again, to set a good example with your own behaviors. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself and sticking to a normal (or as close to normal as possible) sleeping, eating and personal hygiene schedule. Keeping a routine will assure your children that things will be okay.
In addition to maintaining a schedule, communication is key. Your child may not be able to verbalize the stress that they’re feeling, but you can help them try to maintain some degree of normalcy. Help them talk through what about this new situation is most stressful to them, and try to come up with ways to help mitigate that stress. For example, if your child is suffering from lack of social interaction, try to help them set up some sort of virtual playdate or hangout with their friends. The closer they can keep to their normal routine, the more well-adjusted they will be.