Ministry of Education, Guyana

Kids Regressing? Help Them Cope With Stress During Coronavirus

Are the kids going to be okay?

That’s the collective worry I sense from parents when I scan parenting sites and my social media feeds. We are nervous about how this pandemic will affect our children’s wellbeing now and in the future. Since young children aren’t likely to say, “Hey Mom and Dad, I feel stressed and need help right now,” what should parents be looking for? And when we do see signs of distress, how do we support our kids in a way that builds resilience?

I recently spoke with Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, the Surgeon General of California. She is a pediatrician, a mom to young kids and the author of The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity. In the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, her office created an important resource for parents: Surgeon General’s Playbook: Stress Relief for Caregivers and Kids during COVID-19.

Dr. Burke Harris explained that young children often communicate through changes in behavior. Stress may lead to “changes in appetite or changes in potty training,” she said. “Kids who were doing great staying dry may go back to wetting.” They may become more clingy, or they may regress in their language or sleep patterns — which is particularly difficult when “you’ve finally got a kid who is a good sleeper, and all of a sudden they're up in the middle of the night and coming back into your bedroom!”

A Parent’s First (and Second and Third) Step
How can parents help children who are showing signs of distress? “Number one: check in with yourself,” said Dr. Burke Harris. In fact, “That’s number one, number two, and number three. Our emotional wellbeing is the most important ingredient for our children's emotional wellbeing.”

When we regulate our own emotions, we help children regulate theirs. Dr. Burke Harris described it this way: “Our kids are closely tuned in to our signals: our non-verbal cues, our emotional signals, all of that stuff. If you want to help your child to calm down, one of the most important things you can do is calm yourself down. They will feel, ‘Oh, Mom and Dad aren't too freaked out about this. I guess it's probably going to be okay.’"

With her own children, Dr. Burke Harris’s go-to strategy is deep breathing. “I sit with them and say, ‘Let's take some deep breaths. Let’s help calm our bodies down.’ And I do it with them, mirroring for them. Just three deep breaths really help them to reset. It’s amazing how well it works, even for two and three-year-olds.”

When we experience stress, our brain goes into “fight or flight” mode. Deep breathing helps our brain settle down, and then we are better able to problem-solve and work through challenges.

A Safe and Open Place to Share
Fred Rogers reminds parents, “Anything that's human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary.”

Dr. Burke Harris echoes this insight: “Give kids a safe and open place to express their fears. Let them talk about what they are worried about. Sometimes, as parents, we shy away from talking about difficult things with kids. We think it’s going to be too scary for them.”

But the scary situation is there whether we talk about it or not, and if we don’t talk with our children about what is happening in age-appropriate language — and give them a chance to ask questions and share fears — they will make up stories in their minds about what's going on. Sharing feelings and information is the first step, said Dr. Burke Harris. “The next important thing is to help them make meaning of it.”

Making Meaning Out of Difficulty
Both kids and adults benefit when they can find meaning in difficult times. “First, help kids recognize that there are some things that we can't control, but then help them understand what they can control.” For example, when Dr. Burke Harris’s young son saw his best friend over video chat, he told her that he wanted to visit his friend. She acknowledged that it was really hard that he couldn’t see his friend, and then told him, “But guess what: You staying home and not going to your friend’s house is saving lives. That’s what we can do to fight the coronavirus!”

Helping kids focus on what they can do — from being germ busters to staying home to writing cards for first responders — is empowering. Kids love to feel brave, she said. Try telling your kids, “You know what? This is hard, but we're doing it for an important reason. Staying home protects grandma and grandpa. This is what you are doing to save lives, and I'm so proud of you.” This type of reframing takes something that is negative and “helps them find a source of empowerment and pride.”

Even video chatting with relatives can be framed as an act of kindness. Dr. Burke Harris reminds her kids that human interaction is good for people’s health — so that phone call with grandma and grandpa “will help them feel happy and give them a good dose of connection.”

Focus on Simple Wellness Habits
Young kids crave predictability and routine, so even though school isn’t in session, maintaining regular bedtimes and wake up times can boost everyone’s emotional health. Dr. Burke Harris also advocates building in regular exercise — even if it’s for 10 minutes three times a day. “That could be indoor dance parties, that could be online yoga or that could be a bike ride around the block.”

She also noted that “good nutrition is a really important part of helping to stabilize our mood.” Checking in on how your family is doing with these three health habits — sleep, exercise and nutrition — is a practical way to bolster kids’ emotional wellbeing.

Self-Care for Parents
Many parents are feeling the weight of their own anxiety these days, on top of caring for their children. Because of that, said Dr. Burke Harris, parents may be arguing with each other “a little more than they normally do.” Family conflict can have an impact on children’s health, she said, “so although we may be more testy right now, it's important for us to be ensuring that children are not witnessing any type of verbal, emotional or physical violence.”

“That's why the number one, two and three guidance that I have for parents is to be mindful of your own well being. Really take those steps for self-care. Self-care is not selfish.” Her office’s parent playbook offers practical resources for parents who are struggling, including several hotlines parents can call if parents find themselves overwhelmed or in crises.

In safe and supportive homes, parents can help kids find joy, peace and purpose during this stressful global crisis. “It really depends on the frame that we as parents and caregivers give to it. If we can make this time an adventure — if we can make it something meaningful — then I think there is a potential for families to be strengthened by it.”


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