Since March, the coronavirus pandemic has changed the lives of people of all ages. But the changes have been especially challenging for parents and their children.
Suddenly, kids are home all day while many parents work remotely. Some children are trying to learn virtually, and most are unable to participate in the typical activities they enjoy.
So, how can we help kids cope during the coronavirus? We spoke with Dr. Maggie Altschaefl, a psychologist at Children’s Wisconsin Community Services, to find out.
Identify emotions and teach coping skills
You want to first learn how your child feels. A good place to start: meet them where they are and let them take the lead.
"Ask them kind of what's going on, answer their questions, be reassuring and use language that's developmentally appropriate," she explains.
Brainstorming words, choosing pictures or emoji are helpful ways to identify emotions. "Be creative and let your kid explore how they want to express their emotions," she says.
Younger children may be experiencing lots of confusing feelings that can lead to tantrums, so drawing, playing out emotions, or journaling can be helpful, according to Altschaefl. Keep in mind that young kids can't fully communicate their frustrations and they may feel like they're being punished if they can't do activities they enjoyed before the coronavirus pandemic.
It's also important to teach kids coping skills. Altschaefl says going outside, playing a game, art, or even baking cookies together can help bring your child's emotions out of that heightened state and encourage some relaxation.
It's also crucial for parents to model good coping skills themselves.
"As adults, we're all feeling stressed and overwhelmed and anxious, so if you can tell them, 'This is really hard for me ... so here's what I do to cope with those strong feelings and this helps me feel better,' " explains Altschaefl.
Need help teaching coping skills? These are good places for additional support, specifically around the coronavirus:
Social skills and learning
When schools abruptly moved to at-home virtual learning, Altschaefl says many parents were concerned about their kids missing out on lessons and social skills learned in the classroom. But she says not being in school for a few months won't have a significant impact on children's development and functioning.
"It would take a lot, an extremely long time, like several years, of not interacting with other kids for them to really lose those basic skills," notes Altschaefl.
Still, she says it's good to practice those basic skills — playing, sitting, learning lessons — at home.
"Kids are very resilient, I think that's an important thing to keep in mind. They'll bounce back," says Altschaefl.
What's especially important right now is to have a relationship with your children where they know they feel safe, "so they will be able to go back and reenter the world and then when they are having difficulties come back to you as a safe place to share their concerns and work through things," she adds.
Set expectations and routines
Try to set expectations about work and playtime every day with your kids, advises Altschaefl, especially for parents working from home. Be sure to give a lot of reinforcement during the day, whether it's verbal or otherwise. But be OK with the fact that things may not go to plan.
"Give yourself some grace, have some self-compassion and realize that we have really good intentions and so not every day is going to go as planned and you’re doing the best that you can to sort of fulfill those multiple roles in your life," says Altschaefl.
Of course, some kids are too young to set routines or for school. So, Altschaefl says all you can do is expect small bursts of them occupying themselves and to work when you can. While this is frustrating, try to reframe the situation for yourself.
"Instead of, 'Man, this is so frustrating. I can't get any work done. I don't know how I'm going to be able to do this.' But sometimes being able to think, 'What a great opportunity that I'm able to spend some more time at home and build a relationship with my kids and get to know them better,' " says Altschaefl.
But again, she says it's OK to not have that attitude every day. Learning to cope, identifying emotions and practicing compassion are skills everyone can work on — not just the children.
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