Moving my practice to teletherapy was the easy part. Helping kids of all ages manage their emotions, cope with profound loneliness and learn to navigate the frustration of this new world of distance learning is much more difficult. Amid the changes caused by the coronavirus pandemic, technology keeps us connected, but without the safety of the school structure, countless children will suffer from anxiety, depression and loneliness. Children worldwide are wrapped up in a grief they can’t begin to understand caused by a collective trauma with no clear end in sight.
While some kids have a support system or therapist to help them, most do not. Mental health workers are trying to assist people of all ages with the hope that we can mitigate some of the long-term effects of extended lockdowns and school closures, but we need all hands on deck to protect our kids’ mental health.
Here are some ways parents and educators can support children and adolescents through this crisis.
Build coping skills. One thing kids and teens need to hear on repeat is that all emotions are okay. There is no right or wrong way to feel about this global pandemic. Parents should get in the habit of checking in with each child privately throughout the day to give them an opportunity to verbalize feelings and talk about triggers.
“These uncertain times are guaranteed to raise everyone’s stress levels — including our kids,” says Michele Borba, author of “Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.” “A simple, no-cost way to manage unhealthy emotions is to breathe deeply. Say: ‘Pretend you are smelling a flower, and then slowly blowing out a birthday candle.’ ”
Or have your child squeeze a ball of Play-Doh while you inhale together and count to four, then let go of the dough slowly while exhaling. This also works with a stress ball or by pretending to have a warm lump of clay in your hands. Adding this step to deep breathing helps release pent-up tension.
Other helpful coping strategies include visualization, where the child gets into a relaxed position and the parent tells a slow, calming story rich with details while reminding the child to breathe. Or try having children reframe thoughts (state their worry, catch the negative thought and flip it into a realistic, more positive thought). Or decorate an old shoe box with your favorite things and use it to put your worries in at the end of each day.
Learn how to manage anger. Now is the time to figure out some techniques to decrease negativity in the home. In other words, stop yelling. Parents have a lot on their plates, and it is difficult to juggle work responsibilities, parenting responsibilities, keeping the family physically and emotionally safe, and running a distance-learning school. Chances are, you feel like you might snap at times.
“It’s important to take care of yourself: good sleep, healthy eating, daily exercise and getting outdoors, reaching out to friends, relatives and colleagues,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, psychologist and author of “Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem.” “But despite all of that, you’re going to lose your patience with your kids. That’s a ‘when,’ not an ‘if.’ ”
Parents can come up with a signal, and a plan to implement when the signal is used, to give themselves the emotional space to work through stress and frustration. One hand in the air, for example, can represent “Take 5,” telling kids to set a timer for five minutes of coloring, listening to music, yoga or another quiet activity while parents engage in their own calming activity. Or create an emotional-temperature check-in station. Color a picture of a thermometer to represent different feelings from calm (cool) to angry (boiling). Write a name for each family member on a sticky note and place your sticky note next to how you’re feeling. If anyone places a sticky note at the boiling point, do a quick check-in to see what might help (deep breathing, exercise, walking outside) and give them space to cool down.
It’s normal to lose your cool at times of stress, and you can revisit the moment with your kids later. “Use these less-than-perfect moments to teach your kids about relationship repair,” Kennedy-Moore says. “Say you’re sorry, if necessary. Ask for, and seriously consider, your kids’ ideas about how to solve the problem. Talk about what you’re going to do to try to prevent it next time.”
Adjust expectations. To hear social media tell it, this is a time when everyone should be enjoying every moment and learning new things as a family (a privilege not everyone shares). And parents suddenly find themselves in the driver’s seat for their children’s education, expected to manage distance learning regardless of resources, finances, work schedules and child-care struggles. Then there are the expectations parents have of their kids regarding learning, training for extracurricular activities and being “productive” during this time away from school.
“Best expectations are always tailored to the child, slightly ‘one step more’ and delivered calmly,” Borba says. “Do a daily check-in on your requirements. What is the typical response from your child: acceptance and eagerness or resistance and behavior flare-up? If the latter, chances are things need to be toned down.”
Remember that kids and teens are under stress. They are grieving the loss of their school year, sports season and other special events while trying to learn from home to move up to the next grade. It’s overwhelming. Be realistic and flexible in your expectations to help your kids remain calm and focused.
Practice empathic communication. There’s a lot we don’t have control over right now, and that can trigger negative emotions, but we can control how we respond to and communicate with others. One thing I hear on that tiny screen day after day during my sessions with kids: I just want my parents to understand me.
While it’s a natural reaction to want to downplay the intensity of the problem or offer positive reassurances to gloss over a child’s negative thoughts, the best thing a parent can say is, “That sounds hard. I understand. How can I help?”
Kids of all ages tell me that they just want their parents to listen without giving them solutions or feedback. They simply want to feel heard and seen. It can be difficult to resist the urge to fix things when kids are struggling, and parents often jump right into problem-solving mode. The good news is that kids tend to offer a lot of second chances. As Kennedy-Moore reminds us, “Love means trying again.”
Tap into technology, and stay connected. Many parents spend a fair amount of time trying to manage and limit screen time. There are positives and negatives to technology, though, and now is the time to tap into the positives. It’s still important to focus on balance and make sure that kids and teens are getting exercise and engaging in activities that don’t involve screens, but technology can be a source of support, connection and education.
“Teens report feeling lonely, anxious, and bored during school closures,” says Cheryl Eskin, program director of Teen Line, a confidential hotline based in Los Angeles. Eskin suggests using technology to stay connected. “Our Teen Line message boards are a place for teens to feel less alone and find other people with similar struggles.” She also suggests the Teen Talk app for connecting with other teens; Calm and Headspace for practicing mindfulness; and even TikTok to see coping tips from other teens.
Parents can also seek support online. Weldon offers virtual parent-coaching and live “socials” to support parents through this difficult time, and many parenting educators are hosting free Zoom sessions or videos on social media to offer support and guidance.
And maintaining social connections is imperative. It’s a good time to revisit the idea of pen pals, but virtual pen pals are another option. Connect your kids to others by way of letter-writing or video chat, texting with family members near and far, phone calls, or virtual games such as Scrabble or Draw Something.
Katie Hurley is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting educator, and the author of the new book “No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident and Compassionate Girls.” You can find her on Twitter and on her blog, Practical Parenting.