The Covid-19 pandemic has affected us all in many different ways, but it seems safe to say that we have all experienced a collective increase of stress. While many children have been fortunate enough to miss the symptoms of the Coronavirus, they have certainly not avoided the stress that has come along with living through a pandemic. The effects of stress on kids vary widely due to several factors: age, previous exposure to/practice of coping skills, perceived level of threat/security, other health conditions, protective factors such as family support, financial and food security, and positive relationships in the child’s life; however, if you have noticed physical and behavioral changes in your child or teenager, it is likely a symptom of stress and/or anxiety. While kids experience stress in many different ways, some common signs include increased mood swings and irritability, clinginess, difficulty focusing, headaches, stomach aches, sudden new fears, development of nervous habits, withdrawal from family, friends, or activities, bedwetting, sleep problems, changes in appetite, chest pain, rapid heart rate, fatigue, and emotional outbursts.
You may be wondering how you can support your child during this time of high stress. I will start by saying that the more you can incorporate self care into your days and support your own mental health (and believe me, I know this is harder than ever right now), the more effective you will be in supporting your child’s well-being. The pandemic has created an unprecedented level of stress for kids as the situation has been constantly changing and uncertain; however, there are several ways that parents can help ease the stress that children are experiencing.
- Start by creating some sort of routine. Thankfully with school starting, a routine will start to take shape, but there are ways you can help facilitate this even further (especially if your kids are schooling virtually). Kids function best when they know what to expect. During a time when so much of their world may feel chaotic, having a schedule or daily routine will add a sense of security and predictability. If possible, ask for your child’s input when creating a schedule. Are there certain activities that they would prefer to have happen at specific times of the day? Are there activities that you as the parent know are important for them to be engaged in every day? The schedule can be flexible, but providing some sense of consistency is important.
- Sleep!! Sleep is one of the biggest ways to help keep our children emotionally regulated. During sleep, the sympathetic nervous system (that part of the nervous system responsible for the fight/flight/freeze response) has an opportunity to take a break. Long term or chronic stress results in continuous activation of the nervous system, causing problematic wear and tear to many bodily systems. Because our nervous system is responsible for regulating our moods and transmitting all kinds of information that helps us during daily functioning, it’s imperative that it gets a chance to relax during sleep. Parents can make sure their children are following a bedtime routine, not staying awake on screens late into the night, and sticking to a somewhat consistent bed time.
- Help facilitate social interactions. As humans, we are wired for connection with others and play is absolutely essential for a child’s development and well-being. I know this is a tricky one right now, and we’re all struggling with how to help our kids stay socially engaged! When possible, parents can be intentional about allotting time in their day to play with their kids (even if it’s only in 10 minute spurts or a chunk of 30 minutes during lunch break or at the end of the day). Help facilitate zoom meetings with family members and other kids. Schedule one on one social distance playdates or lunches. Look for opportunities for your child to engage in activities they like with other kids (outschool.com offers tons of low cost group classes that facilitate socialization during learning activities or games like minecraft).
- Talk with your kids every day. Ask them often what’s on their mind. Allow them to share their thoughts about what the pandemic experience has been like for them. There are no right or wrong answers here, and parents can provide some powerful stress relief by just listening and validating their kids’ thoughts and emotions. This is also a great opportunity to listen for misperceptions that your child may have that could be exacerbating fears. In these cases, it’s important to correct these misperceptions and provide reassurance to your child. Your child may also bring up realistic fears and stressors that you can help them talk through, make sense of, and work to cope with. There are many valuable opportunities to provide a sense of relief to our kids when we give them center stage.
- Physical activity!! When we move our bodies, it helps to regulate our nervous systems in a powerful way. Movement is naturally built in to a child’s school day with PE, recess, after school activities, and playdates. However, with the pandemic, many kids are not getting the physical activity they need to help their brains and bodies function at optimal levels. Parents can be diligent about making sure their kids are exercising, playing outside, playing movement oriented games inside, getting up off the couch more often, and finding creative ways to be active throughout the day.
- Finally, offer reassurance to your children. You are their attachment figure and a critical source of comfort and security. Remind your children of all the helpers that are working to keep people safe. Tell them that you are there to take care of them, and normalize their worries and fears.
We are in uncharted territory, both as adults and parents. Know that we are all struggling to find the best ways to help ourselves and our families through this crisis. You don’t have to be perfect to be an amazing source of support and relief for your child. By incorporating playfulness and some of the strategies listed above, you will find that both you and your children can move through the days with an increased sense of comfort and normalcy….something we all need more of right now.