Susan C. Stone's Practical Parenting Blog dotcom

PREVENTING AND RELIEVING YOUR CHILD’S STRESS DURING COVID-19

Posted on: June 11, 2020


During this scary and unprecedented time of COVID-19, children and parents are experiencing tremendous stress. Routines and order have been uprooted and and replaced with chaos and unpredictability, not to mention illness and loss of life. Hopefully, as you read this, you are safe and healthy, but the impact of this stressful time has the potential to define how kids will learn to handle stress for their lifetime. What follows are some strategies for you to get through this in the best way possible.

No matter how you try to keep the worst of the information from your kids, they know life is very different – they’re not at school. they don’t see their friends or relatives, they can’t go out and play or attend activities. Though your child may not be able to express their “stress” in words, they show us in several other ways. Look for changes in their physical health – digestive disorders, fatigue, hyperactivity, unexplained aches and pains. They also manifest stress through emotional changes – fearfulness and anxiety, irritability, loss of joy, anger, more easily upset. Also, look at behavioral changes which signal stress- regressive behaviors, clinginess, being less cooperative, aggression, an increase in nervous behaviors. Some children will even show depresssion – sadness, fatigue, appetite changes,excessive worrying, sleep disturbances.

The following are some ways you can prevent and reduce the stress they experience: I call them STRESSBUSTERS.

Be Parental – Be seen as “the one in charge”. Stick to your rules and their enforcement, maintain routines so life does not seem chaotic. Deal constructively with sibling issues – giving each child alone time by themselves and with you, give them activities they can enjoy together, take a strong stand on physical or emotional warfare separating them when tempers flare, use sibling “team charts” to reward cooperation. Finally, watch their diet – being stuck at home leads to a lot of snacking,and sugary snacks increase the amount of stress people experience.

Control the flow of Information – Neither you nor your children benefit from constant exposure to news about the pandemic. It can overwhelm your thinking and cause stress and anxiety. Children under eight should be protected from TV and radio news as well as from adult conversations about the pandemic.

Communicate with your child – Even if you strictly adhere to controlling the information flow, your child knows something is going on as school and camps are closed, people are wearing facemasks, they can’t have playdates or visit grandma. Talking with your child lets you know what they’re thinking and feeling and allows you to provide correct, age appropriate information, perspective and reassurance. In terms of information, first find out what they know! You don’t want to provide more details than a child is ready to hear. But, always answer honestly – children are aware when we are deceiving them which interferes with trust.

In terms of perspective, children need to know most people are going to be just fine and that the pandemic will not last forever. Reassurance comes from hearing that it’s your job to keep them safe and your job to keep yourself safe. It also comes from hearing that smart people are working hard to to find good ways to get rid of the Covid-19 germ and help people recover.

There are three elements that will make your communication most effective. The first is timing. When children are interrogated or forced to talk, they shut down. Instead, wait for them to ask questions or watch their fantasy play or drawings for opportunities to comment. Time alone with your child, especially at bedtime, often prompts them to open up. This is also a good time to bring up something you know they’ve seen or heard about the pandemic. The second element is demeanor. Whether answering a question or supplying information, it’s essential that you maintain a calm demeanor. Your reactions effect their perspective on this situation more than anything else. The third important consideration is providing empathy. Whether fielding a complaint, handling a meltdown or helping with school work, remember that we are all struggling to cope right now and children have many fewer resources to do so. Empathy is shown through being patient, identifying feelings and even letting them know you share their feelings. Be particularly aware of children who don’t express themselves at all – this doesn’t mean they have no concerns or questions. You may have to prompt them with questions or statements about how many other people are handling the situation. Ultimately, the most important outcome of communicating is the connection you make with your child.

Teach Safety Rules – This serves a dual purpose. It helps children stay healthy and gives them a sense of control over the virus. Make sure to teach them in a non-scary and non-intense manner – again parental calmness is the most important factor. In addition to the well known recommendations for washing hands and social distancing, have children who are old enough also participate in wiping door handles, food, etc. Being proactive enhances feelings of control and security.

Control Screen Time – The pandemic has forced screens to take over our lives! We use it for work, school, socializing, escape and entertainment. Social distancing, being home all the time and the uncertainty of the future is making everyone feel down, hopeless, lonely, bored and agitated. Using social media, binge-watching shows, playing video games or just web surfing actually effects our brains in ways that make us feel better because these activities increase the amount of dopamine our brains produce and dopamine is the “feel good” chemical. But, like other “feel good” activities – drinking, drugs, gambling – our brains crave more and more screen time to achieve the same level of gratification. And, like those other activities, stopping brings withdrawal! That’s why your kids get irritated, angry and aggressive when asked to stop.

Yet, screen time is both necessary and a stress reducer so I’m not suggesting you delete it from your lives. The answer is to balance High Dopamine Activities with Low Dopamine Activities in a one to one ratio. Your kids – and you – need to spend time exercising, doing board games, reading, hobbies, art projects, cooking, etc. If you struggle to remove screens from your kids, try doing a one week detox which resets the amount of dopamine needed to feel gratified.

Manage your own stress – One of the most important measures that will benefit your children during this time is for you to appear calm. This can be a huge challenge given your own anxiety about working from home, the uncertainty of the future, economic issues and much more. So take good care of yourself – limit your exposure to the news so it doesn’t dominate your thinking; keep routines for yourself to emphasize what is controllable and predictable; do what de-stresses you, yoga, exercise, meditation; staying in contact with your support system, etc. If you have a bad moment, let your children know it’s not their fault. Don’t feel compelled to spend all day playing with your children – it’s a good time for them to learn to spend time on their own and for you to have “you” time. And don’t stress over being your child’s teacher – You’re not prepared for this and, in the end, every child will be in the same boat needing to catch up and schools know this!

See the positive outcomes – Believe it or not, this moment in history can have very positive outcomes for you and your child. It’s an opportunity to model and teach tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity, patience with imperfection, resilience, ingenuity and grit. It’s a great time to enhance your child’s life skills by participating in chores with you.And, despite the bad moments, without external demands and activities, it’s a time to bond tightly as a family. These lessons will last a lifetime.

A Few Survival Strategies – Try to inject some fun into daily life. Play games, have movie night, bake and cook together, do a family puzzle, use a silly voice when giving directions, make your child laugh, have them make you laugh, have a picnic instead of eating at the kitchen table, have a scavenger hunt, let the children plan a party… For all the activities they are missing, have them compile a “wish list” of the things they’d like to when we are free to do them. Arrange virtual playdates for your children to keep them in touch with peers and relatives. Make sure to have an agenda – show and tell, book sharing, etc. However, be aware that overuse of virtual contact can discourage kids from participating.

Finally, remember to inject empathy into all your interactions with your children. We’re all having a hard time, meltdowns and anxiety. Uphold your rules, boundaries and routines but do so with compassion for how hard this is for everyone. AND STAY HEALTHY!

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