The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to quickly adapt to a “new normal”. Children stopped going to school and have had to get used to online learning, some adults had to stop working or have made the move to teleworking. But, more importantly, we have moved to a state of social distancing and confinement, unable, at times, to see our closest ones. So how can we help our kids through another transition, this time back to the “old normal”.
Is it safe to go out now?
Parents have been bombarded with tips as to how to explain the coronavirus outbreak to their kids, in an age-appropriate way, teaching them how to stay safe by washing their hands and keeping a safe distance from others, or not going out at all. We are now moving towards a new phase of this pandemic, a phase of de-confinement, telling our kids they are now allowed to go back out, but under strict rules. However, some children are finding it difficult to adapt, and the anxiety or fear instilled in terms of handwashing and social distancing might be taking its toll. In fact, it is not surprising that some parents are calling mental health professionals for some advice as to how to help their kids ease back to their old basic habits, namely socializing. Some parents are describing their children as showing OCD-like behaviours, throwing more tantrums, manifesting anxiety or even refusing to go see their friends. To them, the coronavirus anxiety is still there and some might find difficulty understanding why and how it is safe now. “What if we catch coronavirus?”, “How can you know that it is safe?”, “But my grandma hugged me, is it OK?”
These are all legitimate questions, especially for younger children who are still very concrete in their views of the world. So what can parents do to help them adapt again and turn the coronavirus anxiety down? These techniques have been found helpful by parents, as children tend to easily relate to them, given that they are attuned to their very concrete and visual way of perceiving the world:
Parents can help children identify “big feelings” like fear, anxiety, worry or anger. They could read a story or tell a story about it (in the current situation, potentially relating to the corona pandemic) and ask children to make a collage about each feeling using magazines or pictures printed from websites. They could put these up in their room and add additional drawing/picture if something new comes up. Parents can then explain to children that these big feelings have a volume button or remote control. In other words, they would be telling the child that these feelings do not necessarily need to be that big, or to be perceived as that big, but that they are the ones to decide whether and how to turn them down. One way to do that would be to go back to their collage and cover the big feeling with something positive or picture/thought that calms them down. This technique is not intended to fully remove the fear or anxiety; however, it will help the child’s emotion regulation, getting more control over and bearing the feeling, until they can eventually, with your help, find a solution to them.
Some children sometimes find it difficult to pinpoint what is making them feel unwell. You might find them sad, sulking or sometimes crying for no apparent reason. Some children do not yet have the words for their feelings or do not know that they can express them in order to get help managing them. Sometimes they might even feel they are not allowed to have these feelings. For instance, a little girl was very worried that one of her family members hugged her after the quarantine but she was too afraid to share it with her parents because she felt she was wrong. In these cases, if you find your child clingy or sad, make sure to comfort them by telling them it is ok to have big feelings sometimes and not being able to explain them with words. What they can do though is try to express them differently; they can paint, draw, scribble but more importantly, they can put this paper away in a “worry box” if they do not feel ready to discuss it with you yet. You would then choose an appropriate time every day to tell the child to pick one of their worries from the box. This would make these worries more accessible and more easily manageable. Keep in mind that it is ok sometimes not to have a solution or an answer. What is important for the child is to know that they are not alone in this and that it is ok for them to worry at times, as long as they are able to express it rather than keep it in.
Another way to help the child visualize that they are able to manage these big feelings or worries is to get them to mark their intensity on a “feeling volcano” or “emotion thermometer”. Every day they would be using a different colour. This way they can see that some negative feelings are going down. An important point to include in this strategy would be to get the child to write or draw (depending on their age) what they feel helped them control their negative emotions. Once a child feels they have managed to decrease their anxiety, some find it helpful not to keep the chart. Instead, they like to tear the paper into small pieces and throw it away or flush it, as a concrete visual way of defeating these worrisome feelings.
Some parents have been reporting that their children are having more “nightmares” in recent weeks. It is sometimes helpful for children to think, with their parents, about an alternative story or ending to their nightmare. This allows them to get more control over some of their thoughts before going to sleep, making sure they are dominated by positive ideas. Another way could be for the child to draw a part of the nightmare and put it in a locked box before sleeping. This tends to work with younger children who are still very concrete. An important tip for parents is to try and encourage the child to think of something they did throughout the day which they are proud of, but also something they look forward to doing the following day. This gives a nice ending to the day and allows them to be excited about the next one.
Back to school already?
Some countries are considering reopening schools soon. Besides some anxieties previously discussed, another issue children might face is separation anxiety, especially if parents have been off work during the confinement period and are now getting ready to go back to work. So how to manage this separation anxiety? Remember, each child will deal with this separation differently. Some children might be looking forward to seeing their friends again, which might make this transition easier. Some tips to smoothen this period include:
Start with this transition before the start of school, making it a fun game with your child. Encourage children and give them ideas for independent games/activities as if they were at school. During “recess time” they could come and share with you the activities they completed. If you have not done so during confinement, you can create a coloured wheel or a traffic light and put it on your office/room door. Red would mean you are busy doing work-related chores, yellow that you are almost done and green that you are free. This is seen as a fun activity for children to help them emotion regulate as they are waiting for their parent and this encourages them to spend more time doing independent activities: their independent game time would be seen parallel to your work.
Some children enjoy visualizing, using a calendar, how many days/sleeps remain before they go back to school. To help them look forward to the day, you can encourage them to draw a fun activity/event they remember from school as the days get closer. They could then take their calendar of drawings to be shared with their friends and try to do some of these activities together.
Start bringing back the school morning routine. Do not hesitate to be creative in coming up with a song about what your child will be doing at school, how much you will be missing him/her and looking forward to hearing about what they did during the day.
Most importantly, remember that your child depends on you and monitors your reaction to any emotional event, in this case, separation. You are the model. It might be difficult for you to see your child go off again but what matters is how you react and make sense of the emotional experience of seeing him/her again.