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Little kids, big feelings: 7 ways parents can help with pandemic isolation and grief

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A note slid under my office door in the middle of a conference call, and I felt a flash of annoyance as I rolled my eyes to pick it up. Then I read it, and immediately felt the familiar guilt and dread creep in.

An invitation to a party in our youngest’s room read, “Please come I’m lonely.” As soon as the call ended, I was there.

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She had decorated her room in centers; one comfy chair for iPad time, the bed full of board games, her desk was adorned with multiple snacks, and the rug in the middle of the floor was the dance party. Our second grader has struggled mightily since her school doors closed on March 13th, none of us knowing that they wouldn’t re-open, and she misses physical contact.

Playing with her friends at recess has been replaced with her dog or maybe her sister. And no amount of Facetime with friends can replace a classroom full of familiar faces, a routine, and a smiling teacher who actually knows how to teach.

While staying home from school would seem like a vacation for most kids and teens, it’s not. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought more stress than happiness to many students. Add in parents without the skills and training to be their substitute teachers, and kids are left to cope without traditional classroom strategies and extracurricular outlets.

Tammy Tucker, Psy.D., a Psychologist and Associate Administrator at Memorial Healthcare System, notes, “Kids already struggling with mental health issues are dealing with the added stress of not having an emotional outlet. Teenagers often times don’t get along with siblings or parents and are stuck inside their home and need a break.”

What Are Kids Feeling?

With so many families learning how to cope with the unknown of the pandemic and adjusting to this new normal, children are dealing with many different emotions. Dr. Tucker explains, “Kids are feeling lonely and isolated, they may have the traditional technology to talk or text with friends, but not having the physicality of being with friends is depressing to many. They are also experiencing a sense of loss when missing out on milestones and rites of passage like dating, going to parties, hanging out with friends, prom, graduation, special recognition events, sports, there’s no way to mark time with the traditional milestones. Kids feel they are “missing out on life” with no way to measure these significant moments.”

How Can Parents Help?

It’s not easy to keep our own sanity during the pandemic, let alone learn how to become teachers and emotional coaches, but there are ways we can help our children through these big emotions. Here are seven strategies parents can use to boost the mental well-being of their children.

1. Parents need to recognize their own mental health struggles. If a parents has anxiety for example, kids will feel it. It’s important for parents to take care of themselves and refill their emotional bank so they can take care of their children’s emotional needs.

2. Acknowledge children’s feelings. Parents need to make time and listen to kids talk about how they are feeling. Don’t dismiss their emotions, acknowledge that this is difficult. And if kids don’t want to talk, give them a notebook and let them write to you privately.

3. Provide routine and structure. Set up a schedule especially during the weekdays for your child/children to wake up, shower, participate in their school schedule, exercise, recreational time etc. to provide a sense of normality. This will also be helpful when kids go back to school, and they will be better prepared to deal with routine and structure.

4. Find new and creative ways to celebrate milestones. We are seeing this all over the country with drive by birthday parties and parking lot graduation ceremonies. It’s vital to create memories in non-traditional ways.

5. Encourage creative ways for kids to safely socialize. This could be through Zoom, FaceTime, or even supervised socially distanced in-person gatherings outdoors.

6. Give kids some control. With so much taken away from our children, their school, friends and even proms and graduation, it helps to allow them some choices. Allow kids to choose the family’s meals, pick what movie you watch, or even the game on game night.

7. Encourage exercise over screen time. With so many children forced on laptops or other devices for distance learning, it can become tiresome staring at a screen all day. Get adolescents and teens moving, this is helpful for their bodies but more importantly for their minds.

And if you can, try to break up their days and spend quality time with them whenever you can. Reading a chapter at snack time or lunch as a family can go a long way to creating connection that so many kids are craving.

While these coping mechanisms may help boost a child’s mood, these do not take the place of the treatment of a mental health professional. If your child is struggling or needs professional help, please reach out for an appointment with your pediatrician. Or you can always find help here, you are never alone.

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