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As we slowly work our way from lockdown and restrictions around the world, the transition for children may prove somewhat overwhelming. Converge International – a global provider of workplace assistance, health and wellbeing programs – provides the following insights for parents and carers helping children adapt to the ‘new normal’.
Young children might not fully understand physical distancing and self-isolation, but they’ll probably have many and mixed feelings about the experience.
For example, they might feel:
- confused about why everyone is at home
- sad or frustrated that they can’t see their friends, carers and extended family
- worried that someone they love will get sick
- upset by the stress or distress that you might be feeling
- overwhelmed by constant coverage of coronavirus (COVID-19) in the media.
Teenagers probably have many and mixed feelings about coronavirus (COVID-19), physical distancing and self-isolation. Teenagers are also more connected to media than any other age group and might be finding it hard to make sense of all the coronavirus messages that they’re exposed to.
For example, teenagers might feel:
- sad or frustrated that they can’t hang out with their friends and see their extended family
- worried that they or someone they love will get sick
- scared – or relieved – that their studies have been interrupted, especially teenagers in the final or senior years of secondary school
- disappointed that sports, musical performances, work experience placements, birthday parties, school formals and other big events have been cancelled
- scared about getting the virus, particularly if they’re still attending school or part-time work
- overwhelmed by constant coverage of coronavirus (COVID-19) in the media and on social media.
Research into the psychological impacts of quarantine and isolation has found that a range of feelings are normal, including: confusion, anger, anxiety, and depression.
Our behaviour also changes as a result of social behaviour trends, and also fear of exposure. Children might be experiencing insomnia, exhaustion, irritability or avoidance, e.g. avoiding school and crowded places.
Ultimately, coping with change can be stressful. If children in your care are feeling anxious about what’s going to happen, it could be because they’re having to cope with lots of change.
They could be struggling with:
- adjusting to changes that have already happened
- anxiety about changes they know are coming
- worrying about unknown changes they can’t foresee
- or a combination of the above
This is normal. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, the unknown could be dangerous.
New places might have had predators or dangerous obstacles. New people might have been friendly, or they might have been an enemy that could hurt you.
This is why our brain finds change stressful. Our brain likes things that are familiar and routine – because these things feel safe.
Psychologist and child-anxiety specialist Karen Young offers these strategies to parents and carers to support their children through these uncertain times.
Let them know that whatever they are feeling is okay
Children might respond in many different ways to news of a crisis. Let them know they aren’t alone, and that whatever they are experiencing or feeling in response to a crisis is normal and understandable: “There are so many people who feel exactly the way you do. You aren’t alone – I promise.”
Validate their fears and feelings, but do this from a position of strength: “I can hear how worried you are. Everything you are saying makes so much sense. What’s happening is scary, but you are safe. It’s scary, and we are safe.”
Whatever you are feeling is okay too. It can be a source of strength for your children if they can see that even when you are anxious, you can feel strong, or even when you are uncertain about a lot of things, you can feel certain that they are safe: “Sometimes I feel worried because it is so unfamiliar, and I know that whatever happens, we will get through this.”
Reassure your children
The questions children ask will often be driven by a need for reassurance that they are safe, so let this guide your answers. It’s important they feel comfortable to raise their fears or any questions they might have. Encourage them to speak freely about things that are of concern. Answer their questions honestly and with as much information as they need to feel safe.
Let your children know that there are many people working hard to keep them safe – scientists, doctors, nurses and emergency responders – and that people are working on developing a vaccine.
Help your children know they aren’t alone
Crises are a time when communities come together. Families, neighbours, emergency workers and government authorities all have skills and resources to contribute – your children should know that they won’t be alone if an emergency situation arises.
Remind them of the good in the world, and whenever you can, share the good news stories about the things people are doing to help each other.
What if this happens to us?
Traumatic events can make children very aware of their own vulnerability and a crisis can understandably trigger fears that something could happen to them. Children will look to the important adults in their lives for signs of safety. When those adults believe they are safe enough, it will be easier for children to believe it too.
Ensure your children understand how to protect themselves from COVID-19
Talk to your children about the importance of good hygiene practices and ensure kids are washing their hands with soap and water for long enough (at least 20 seconds). Tell them to count to 10 after using hand sanitiser to ensure it has dried. Make sure that children know to cough or sneeze into their elbows and to always wash their hands after doing so.
Educate your children on the facts of COVID-19
Help them understand the symptoms of COVID-19 – shortness of breath, fever, tiredness and a cough – and that so far, it has not affected many children at all.
Let them know that even though the symptoms look like a common cold, people who become really sick with the virus will have more intrusive symptoms. Reassure them that many people do not experience any symptoms – and that even when they do, they get better.
Children might focus on the similarities between themselves and the people who have become sick, which will add to their anxiety. To help them feel safe, it is important to steer them towards the differences. These might include their age, their health, or that they live in a country with access to health services.
Help them find ways to help
Ask your children what they can do to help others in your community. Encouraging them towards their own acts of kindness will help to replace feelings of helplessness with a sense of hope and the awareness they can make a difference.
Perhaps they could write letters to elderly or more vulnerable neighbours, or schedule regular video calls with grandparents.
Maintain a sense of fun, spontaneity and joy
If schools are closed and self-isolation measures are required, it can become easy for children to feel restless. If possible, get outside in nature for some exercise, fresh air and sunshine. Take a daily walk with your children to the park or around the streets, reminding them of the importance of avoiding crowds and keeping a distance from others at this time. If a daily walk isn’t possible, you could grow plants together in your garden or on your balcony, or draw or paint landscapes outside. Exercise and fresh air helps both physical and mental health.
If you are remaining indoors, create a daily challenge, surprise or game for your children to look forward to each day. Schedule regular video chats with family and friends from school to make sure they stay connected. Older children may enjoy keeping a journal of this time.
It’s also important to keep a routine
In times of uncertainty, children will benefit from keeping to their normal routine or schedule. As much as you can, keep rules around bedtime, meals, showers, playtime and homework in place. Having a sense of purpose and routine can help both adults and children avoid feelings of stress and anxiety and making sure we feel productive, fulfilled, confident and in control.