Never in a million years did I expect to be parenting two children through a global pandemic. Sure, I’d experienced parenting struggles, and anticipated I’d be tackling more as the years progressed. My older son just turned 13, and I expected the next few years to be a little tumultuous, to put it mildly.
But the level of uncertainty and upheaval our family — and so many families across the globe — has experienced over the past few weeks is almost surreal.
First, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that our family has been extremely lucky. Although we do have a few friends who have gotten sick with COVID-19, so far, no one has passed away. None of us have been sick, and we haven’t experienced any major economic hardships.
Still, the stress and anxiety of having our lives turned upside down — along with the constant stream of frightening things in the news — has been a lot to handle. And besides worrying about the physical health and wellbeing of my children, my biggest concern has been my kids’ mental health.
Attempting to Explain Uncertainty
My sons are 7 and 13. Just a month ago, they were attending school every weekday, hanging out with their friends, enjoying fun weekend outings, visiting their grandparents and just being normal kids.
Then, within a few days, they were told they weren’t going back to school. They began hearing scary stories about a virus that was beginning to sweep across the community and the country. They didn’t quite understand what was happening and why — and it didn’t help that I couldn’t tell them when it was going to end, or what was going to happen next. If you’re struggling to talk to your kids about coronavirus, trust me, you aren’t alone.
How To Know If Your Child Is Struggling
Not only was this a lot for an adult to adjust to, but I began to see how terribly difficult this might become for my children. None of us have a roadmap for how to understand and digest a crisis of this magnitude. But children don’t have the perspective, knowledge-base, or coping mechanisms to manage the magnitude of feelings that come with something like this.
A few days into the crisis, I began to read about kids and mental health during the pandemic. One of the first things I read, from the National Association of School Psychologists, discussed some of the “hidden signs” that your child’s mental health might be suffering during the COVID-19 crisis.
It was a good reminder that our kids aren’t necessarily going to come right out and say, “Mom, I’m anxious about what is going on. Can you help me?” Instead, they might start exhibiting difficult behaviors that may not even seem related to the crisis.
For example, according the National Association of School Psychologists, your child may:
- Have trouble sleeping
- Have trouble concentrating
- Have changes in eating patterns
- Younger children may exhibit regressive behaviors, including thumb sucking, being extra “clingy,” developing new fears, and withdrawing
- Elementary aged kids may become more irritable, clingy, aggressive, and may be prone to nightmares
- Teens may seem more agitated, have trouble sleeping, have poor concentration, may fight with you more, and may even exhibit delinquent behavior
The good news, notes the National Association of School Psychologists, is even if children begin to exhibit some of these symptoms, most children can manage their mental health with supportive parents and other caretakers.
How To Help Your Children
After reading about what signs of mental health disruption I should look for in my kids, I decided that my best bet was to get ahead of the game, and start to institute some routines for how I would help my kids cope during this difficult time.
Again, I did a little digging around, and found some great advice from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network about ways that parents can keep their kids’ mental health in check during this crisis.
Based on their notes, and my kids’ needs, these are the things I started doing.
1. Create structure
I realized early on that we would need to create some routines just to manage the day-to-day tasks that needed to get done around here. My kids’ teachers have been giving them remote schoolwork to do, but both my husband and I work full-time. So early on we established a loose schedule for our days, just to get everything accomplished.
But it soon became clear that it was more than getting necessary work done. Kids thrive on routine and it seemed clear that knowing that home was a place of order and structure gave my kids a sense of security. Plus, regular bedtimes and getting enough sleep go hand in hand with their mental wellbeing.
2. Limit the news
I have found it important personally to limit my news consumption. I definitely need to know what is going on. But if I consume too much awful news, I can’t sleep, I have anxiety attacks, and it becomes very hard to function. Children are even more vulnerable to these sorts of stressors than adults. So I decided early on that I was going to limit how much news they were exposed to.
At the same time, I didn’t want them to be in the dark about it. I knew they would pick up on news here and there. So a few days a week we talk about what is happening, and I try to let them call the shots about what they want to know, and answer any questions they might have. So far, we have been able to strike a good balance between keeping them informed, but not scaring them.
3. Daily emotional check ins
My kids and I have always checked in each night before bed. I find that they open up the most then, as we are lying in the dark and I tuck them in. Usually we talk about their days or their thoughts and ideas. Lately, I have made it a point to ask them how they are feeling about missing school, their friends, being stuck inside. I tell them all of their feelings are normal, and it’s okay if they are angry or sad. These discussions have been very helpful — and there has been lots of extra cuddling around here.
4. Find the silver linings
I’m not going to lie: being quarantined at home with my family hasn’t been all sunshine and roses. Voices are raised, tempers flare. But there is a lot of good to be had as well. We have been watching a million movies, playing some of the board games we haven’t played in years, and we’re doing a ton of baking. We talk openly about everything that sucks about this time, but also try to emphasize the many special joys we are experiencing togethers, and the memories we are making.
Where Do We Go From Here?
One of the hardest things for all of us — and especially our kids — is that no one really knows when this all will end, and how that will happen. I think we have to be open to the fact that the way we cope with this will change as time goes on. Our children’s needs will change too, as they start to ask when they will see their friends and teachers again, and mourn more deeply the loss of normalcy. No one knows how many months of isolation might affect children in the long-term, either.
I think the bottom line is that we have to give kids as much grace as possible, be good listeners, and reassure them as best we can that this will be over soon, they will be okay, and that they are loved and supported no matter what.