March 19, 2020 - Liz Schondelmayer
In the wake of vast social distancing due to the COVID-19 virus, many parents and caregivers are facing a unique challenge: helping their children cope with the realities of the novel coronavirus strain.
Mental health expert Joanne Riebschleger, a professor in the MSU School of Social Work with a lifetime of experience working with children and families, is offering suggestions on how parents can approach this difficult situation with their little ones - and make it out even stronger on the other side.
#1 - Recognize subtle signs of distress
The sudden changes brought about by COVID-19 can be overwhelming for young children, in ways that they may not know how to communicate to their parents. Besides lacking the structured routine of school, they may miss their friends, and for older children who understand the serious health implications of the virus, they may fear for the health and safety of themselves and their loved ones.
Dr. Riebschleger says to look for signs such as changes in sleeping and eating patterns, or changes in attitude. “The most common way that children show stress is holding all their feelings in or letting their feelings out by being angry,” she notes. “Some children will go back and forth between holding in feelings and suddenly being red hot angry over what might seem like little things.”
#2 - Communicate openly and honestly as you build a routine
Some parents may feel a tendency to “sugarcoat” the situation to their children. Dr. Riebschleger, however, advises parents to be transparent, yet reassuring, with their children.
“Children want to know what to expect,” explains Dr. Riebschleger. “Explain that, while it might seem like a long time to be staying home, they will eventually be able to return to school and their regular activities. Once they seem less worried, it could be a good time to point out that they are safe at home and there will be more time to be together as a family.”
Establishing a daily routine can also give children a sense of normalcy and structure during this uncertain time. With regular times for school work, chores, and play, children will know what to expect from day to day.
#3 - Allow for avenues of safe self-expression
As Tip #1 explained, sometimes children struggle to express their feelings using words. However, Dr. Riebschleger points out that younger children especially may share their feelings through their play or through artwork.
She offers a suggested activity that can help children share their feelings in a constructive manner: “Ask them to draw a picture of what worries them about staying home right now, then have them explain the drawing to you. Then, ask them to draw a picture of how they can feel safe and happy. Have them explain that drawing as well. Offer compliments on their ability to come up with these ideas, then put the ‘feeling safe’ picture in a place where they will see it.”
It is also important that children are given the chance to stay active during this time. Dr. Riebschleger suggests that parents encourage activities that allow children to get moving, such as jumping, dancing, walking, et cetera.
#4 - Designate some one-on-one time
During stressful situations such as this, Dr. Riebschleger emphasizes that it is normal for children to need a little extra attention. “Even 15 minutes can go a long way in making children feel like an important priority in the midst of constant change,” she notes.
This one-on-one time could mean reading a book together, playing a game, completing a creative activity - anything that gives the child individual, undivided attention.
#5 - Remember to take care of YOU
Parents and caregivers can only give as much energy as they have. Therefore, Dr. Riebschleger says that self-care is an important way to regulate their own feelings and emotions, and better react to those of their children.
“You, too, may need some time to relax, imagine, and move your body,” says Dr. Riebschleger. “Try to focus on the positives. Your children will notice if you are handling things well and that will help them feel secure, too.”
For children and teens with more pressing mental health needs, Dr. Riebschleger and colleagues developed a website called Mental Health Information for Teens. The site was developed with the help of MSU student volunteers responding to input gleaned from community middle school and high school students eager to make a difference. The site includes resources and help guides for children and teens who are experiencing mental health struggles or have loved ones who do.
Keep up with the latest COVID-19 updates and find MSU community resources here.