While you are at home: Helping children cope during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Sohani Fernando, LCSW, GSSW Alumna
April 19, 2020
Child wearing mask
The past two weeks have been a whirlwind to say the least, shaking us to the very core, evoking mixed emotions from deep within namely: sorrow, grief, anger, frustration, fear, worry, depression, anxiety, confusion, tranquility, calmness, empathy, love, and gratitude. Everyday activities have come to a standstill as we are forced to stay at home; in a flash, life has turned upside down with death and destruction of people’s livelihood across a large number of nations. Suddenly, we are faced with a stressor called uncertainty, the fear of the unknown not just to us as individuals, but to us as citizens of this world. This monumental problem of COVID-19 has forced us into a crisis-mode, with great devastation caused by something only visible under the microscope; coming to us like a thief in the night confronting our very existence.

At this time of great pain and anguish, I urge you to spend time in reflection. Think about what life was before this global crisis and what it is right now. Reflection is one of those simple yet profound tools to manage stress. Reflect on all the positive things you have done for yourself and your family. Reflect on all the things you are thankful for. Reflect on what you can improve on, both now and in the future. Reflect on how you want to adjust your lifestyle to fit into this new norm as well as ways in which you can help others. Encourage your children to do the same, in an age appropriate manner. When we feel helpless, reflection helps put things in perspective. We are not alone in this battle and there are others enduring similar or far worse circumstances. The present crisis has affected all without prejudice; it struck everyone regardless of financial status, education, race, ethnicity or gender.
Reflection confronts apathy and self-pity. We realize that due to COVID-19, large numbers of people are suffering from illness, demise of family members and friends, loss of employment, lack of daily wages, loneliness and abandonment. Reflection compels us to step back and think about the meaning of life. While we are frantically gathering supplies for the future, countless numbers of people in our nation aren't able to procure their daily provisions. Perhaps, we might even know of a family, relative or a friend in a similar situation or maybe we ourselves are going through such challenges. We may realize that many people across the globe cannot get past thinking about alleviating the pangs of hunger or putting food on the table for their family. This realization helps us to put our lives into perspective. It might even compel us to think twice before panic buying as there is a fine line between wisdom about storing supplies and hoarding.

Needless to say, the daily activities on this planet have slowed down. It’s almost as if we are being forced to stop and be still from our busy lives. Perhaps we can reflect on the beauty of the Earth, the value of family, and count the many blessings we enjoy with thankful hearts. As the world has literally come to a standstill for most of us, let us not be consumed by listening to the news all the time, news that report all the devastating things going on in the world. Instead, take this opportunity to draw on your spirituality and appreciate what you have, including everything that you take for granted. Smell the fresh air for there is very little pollution these days, a rarity in the modern world. Tune your ears to the pleasant sounds of nature around you. If you don’t have the opportunity of stepping onto your balcony or garden space, be creative and go on a virtual nature walk, or better yet, close your eyes and think of it in your mind. You can, for example, tickle your sensations by imagining you are taking a walk in a park, trekking through a forest, enjoying the sights and sound of a waterfall, taking a dip in a pool or sitting on the beach gazing at the sunset while the sea breeze hits your face.
Like a domino effect, more and more countries are facing these challenges with awareness that we are all in it together. With this kind of setup, we need to take care of our own mental health and that of our children.

Most people will acknowledge that the hustle and bustle of everyday life has profoundly changed us as human beings. Our jobs, families, education, lifestyles and aspirations have caused us to run at a faster pace than we ought to have, which has resulted in unhealthy habits detrimental to our mental and physical wellbeing. Unintentionally, our priorities have gone out of control and most of us have not been held accountable with our time here on Earth. We have been consumed by our worldliness and have forgotten righteousness and morality. We spend more time on our electronic devices than with our children and have either put unbearable expectations on them or perhaps we have not raised the bar high enough for them to reach for the stars. Some of us have unintentionally attempted to live vicariously through our children without encouraging them to thrive in their own aspirations. We have neglected our own wellbeing by not getting adequate rest and exercise. We have forgotten the simple and most important things of life, something the majority of us can relate to.

Now we have the opportunity to pause and smell the flowers, like Ferdinand did under a cork tree, by children’s literature author Munro Leaf. We don’t need a lot of materialism to be happy. All of a sudden the vegetable seller and the “choon pan” bread man have become our everyday heroes. By now, you may have realized that foregoing a meal is not the end of the world and that a thankful heart is indeed a cheerful heart. That there are plenty of opportunities to give to others and there is more joy in giving than receiving. That many people don’t have enough money in their hands to buy even government-subsidized food from the local vendors. That daily wage earners don’t have enough credit in their mobile phones to make urgent phone calls, let alone placing online delivery orders. That many don’t have access to the internet to purchase groceries for their daily needs. That money indeed cannot buy everything. That our cell phones and tablets could never replace human interactions. That you don’t need to have meat every day to fill your stomachs, having rice and pickles is more than what millions of people eat every day, even before COVID-19 ever invaded our world. That it is best to refrain from saying “I am starving” as a little rumble in our stomachs doesn’t mean that we are. That you don’t need branded items to be "cool", and that being yourself and taking care of your inner beauty is worth more than gold. That nurturing your mental wellbeing is as important as your physical wellbeing and that teaching children how to be thankful even in the middle of a storm gives them a stronger education than any lesson plan could ever do. That guiding little ones to help others equips them to overcome self-pity and that empowering them to help themselves is more important than doing everything for them. That instilling life-skills will make a stronger impact on their future careers than any classroom lesson could. That we cannot take our material goods with us when we leave this world therefore it is not worth putting much energy into collecting things that do not matter. That you truly do have time to spare for your children, if you intentionally set it apart and that investment is far more valuable than any of the material goods you gift them. That our hunger to keep ourselves current on social media is competing with our children’s attention and they know it. That we only have a small window of time to win their trust before they find someone or something else that will catch their attention. That they mimic us whether we like it or not, so we need to be mindful of the expectations we put on them. That to gain everything in this world and lose our children’s trust is to gain nothing at all and that no amount of fame, position, riches, or status can ever take the time well spent with those we love the most. We must realize that whatever political affiliation we may have, we are thankful to have persons in authority, medical staff, military personnel and other frontline workers who are relentlessly pursuing the fight to flatten the incidence curve to curb this pandemic, even if it inconveniences us to the core!

There is a plethora of online resources available during this time to help you and your families cope with the current pandemic. Most of these resources are relating to managing stress and have great similarities that have been tested time and time again and are scientifically supported. Stresses can be internal or external; in this situation an external stress has affected the entire planet, namely COVID-19. Like a domino effect, more and more countries are facing these challenges with awareness that we are all in it together. With this kind of setup, we need to take care of our own mental health and that of our children.
By storing extra doses of patience while we were quietening our spirits in the morning and recharging throughout the day we can give that back to our children. Practice the art of tuning into their needs.

It took me two weeks after the lockdown to start writing again. I couldn’t get my mind to focus as I was in a state of grief and despair. Although I am still saddened at the state of the world, I have made up my mind to humbly encourage others to the best of my ability. I encourage you and your children to keep a journal to log your thoughts to ease stress. I want to present you with the following tips from experiences gained while working with children as a psychotherapist and from my own personal experiences. I hope that my reflections are helpful to you as we all journey through these trying times together.

Practice the Art of Reflection: By setting time daily to nurture yourself emotionally through quiet reflection, you as a parent will immensely benefit in the way that you connect with your children. There is only so much mental strength you have before you get to a point of burnout. So why not get a hold of your thoughts and process your feelings before the kids wake up? I encourage you to start the day quietening your thoughts and be clear of mind. Listen to the sounds around you, and tune your ears to nature or something pleasant. Meditate and engage in your spirituality and religious activities. This is worthy of attention, it will help immensely for the rest of your day. You will have inner calmness and strength to draw on as you face emotional ups and downs throughout the day.

Plan for Recharging Moments:Your body is similar to a car in that it runs on a type of energy. You top up your car with your choice of energy source be it petrol, diesel, battery or electric charge and then run it; when you are out of energy, you refuel or re-charge again. Maintaining your car will help you run it for a long time or it will eventually fall apart. Similarly, you need to take care of yourself. During this time of great despair, plan to have breaks; I call these “recharging moments.” You don’t need long breaks, even 5 minutes of quietness or stress management exercises can ease tension and teach your children this as well. I encourage you to let it become a daily part of life, even after this pandemic is over. Practice the art of recharging daily!

Be Mindful of Information Overload: Without a doubt there is a hunger in most of us to be updated as much as possible about the situation of our country and the world. However, this does not mean that we cannot acquire news in a structured and limited manner. Rather than finding out the latest news every hour, intentionally block time to do so. Since the news is now full of harsh reality, reality that is devastating, painful, and traumatic, thereby I believe it is not advisable to listen to this negativity all day long. Instead, we need to offset it with positivity, even though it may be difficult to do so. Whatever we fill our minds with eventually manifests in the way we think, perceive and behave. The danger is that too much negativity can eventually turn into a clinical diagnosis of mental illness; the same goes for your children. If the television is constantly running news about COVID-19, or if we are on social media 24/7 clicking on every clip that comes our way, then what example are we setting before the children? What if we substitute “recharging moments” instead of “moments on social media”? Your children will start imitating you and develop stronger coping skills to face challenges in life instead of being consumed and overloaded with the news. Be mindful of addictions to social media which is a topic of its own!

Empathic and Consistent Communication: Don’t hide information from children; instead, explain the COVID-19 pandemic to them in the most age-appropriate manner. They probably have been exposed to the news; hiding the truth does not empower them. Parents will know their children best and will have to tactfully share information. You don’t need to talk about the pandemic multiple times a day or even daily. We must demonstrate great empathy towards children as after all, it wasn't too long ago, that they went to school and upon return, they were told that their “April” holidays would begin from “tomorrow onwards” because of a deadly virus. There was no preparation ahead of time and they had to go into urgent crisis mode with everyone else. Our children were completely cut off from their schools, classmates, friends, neighbours, relatives, outings, trips, parties, shopping, etc., overnight. Now they know something is quite wrong with the outside world, they don’t have their favourite foods to eat, neighbours to play with and their friends to socialize with. Some have large houses to freely move in, while others have tiny spaces without proper ventilation in overcrowded conditions; yet others live in apartment complexes and high-rise buildings with very little opportunity to interact with nature. Therefore, I believe it is of utmost importance that you extend as much grace towards them as you can manage, daily.

Facilitate Emotional Expressions: Expect your children to express a variety of emotions since they need outlets to let out their feelings. Adults need to be aware of their own emotions first so that they can demonstrate patience and empathy when children are expressing theirs. Regulate their emotions through stress management techniques such as the ones mentioned in Annexure 1 below.

Allow Time for the Grieving Process: It is probably not an exaggeration to say that most of the world is grieving inside which is expressed in a variety of ways. It is important to recognize at what stage we are grieving so we can better understand our children. There could be denial, anger, anxiety, frustration, depression, fear, apathy, all of which can be part of the grieving process. The gravity of a pandemic is in the fear of the great unknown. We just don’t know what will happen to us, our country, and the world at large as things are rapidly changing. While you should be allowing time to grieve for you and your family, don’t let it consume you. Try not to allow yourself or your children to be stuck in negative emotional states as that will be detrimental to their mental wellbeing. A helpful tip is to deliberately plan activities that will make them joyful. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate, perhaps a pinch of silliness here and there could do wonders for their day! There are great benefits to a simple smile; while it may seem inappropriate to smile at a time when the world is solemnly mourning. However, continuous moments of grief and depressed states hurts our ability to cope. When it becomes a downward spiral, without the ability to cope, we become helpless and unhelpful to others. Thereby, it is vital to strike a balance, especially around children, and so try not to grieve all the time, especially in front of them. They need to know how we feel but striking a healthy balance with moments to be thankful, hopeful and helpful to others is vital. Be intentional about offsetting negative emotions with positive ones and engage in practical ways to be hopeful.

Expect Varied Behaviours from Your Children: Expect children to display varied behaviours, depending on their emotions and how they regulate their feelings. Some youngsters express their feelings outwardly, while others inwardly and quietly; I am sure adults can relate to this as well. If we suppress feelings, these may be manifested at unexpected moments and at times in inappropriate ways. For instance, a child may suddenly start screaming for no apparent reason out of feelings of frustrations of not being able to go outside or a child that has slept alone in his or her bed may be fearful and not feel safe to do so now. In another instance, a child may demonstrate apathy and not be motivated to complete his or her school work. Or, a usually calm and introverted child may have sudden outbursts of anger or sobs out loud. Younger children may start bed wetting while others may start nail biting, fidgeting or twitching just to name a few outward reactions. Yet, even others may show unexpected mood swings or have nightmares. Expect these as normal reactions to traumatic incidents; the COVID-19 pandemic may be affecting your child more than they have expressed or acknowledged. After the pandemic is resolved some children may start demonstrating emotional and behavioural changes while others will continue on with their lives with no significant changes. It is important to encourage and lead your children in stress management activities daily so that they are able to regulate their emotions more effectively and cope better to adversity in the long term. By chance, if your children are displaying behaviours that are extreme, out of the ordinary, and/or reoccurring for extended periods of time disrupting their daily functions, then it is important to seek help from a mental health professional. Depending on your child’s age, personality, resilience, protective factors and coping skills, he or she will react in different ways to the current crisis. Those who are resilient and have strong coping skills may not be affected much by this pandemic but adults should be prepared to nurture children through their emotional and behavioural states. Preparation is key!
It is no secret that in times of distress, most humans need to find security and affirmation, and younger children will need more physical attention.

Provide More Attachments and Attention: It is no secret that in times of distress, most humans need to find security and affirmation, and younger children will need more physical attention. While hugging and kissing is not something that is encouraged during the COVID-19 pandemic, children maybe looking for warmth now more than ever before. Use your discretion and best judgment with physical touch. If you find that kissing your children is not appropriate during this time, you can improvise and find ways to provide attachments in other ways: for instance high fives and pinky hugs with clean hands, where your pinky finger wraps around your child’s pinky or perhaps find them a favourite soft toy to hug. They need to know you are paying attention to them. We now have one of the greatest opportunities to be excellent listeners. By storing extra doses of patience while we were quietening our spirits in the morning and recharging throughout the day we can give that back to our children. Practice the art of tuning into their needs. These are the days they need the most attention from us, to feel a sense of security and familiarity in the middle of global chaos.

Balance their Day and Engage their Minds: Be mindful about balancing educational experiences with social, emotional and spiritual ones. Pace their school work and lessons so they have fun while learning. The best kinds of learning happen when children move; according to neuroscience, movement and exercise increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain causing more alertness. Therefore, add movement to their educational experiences and allow them to have fun while learning and completing their school work. While you may be confined to the walls of your home, you can still ask your children to walk, wiggle their legs, stretch their arms, blink their eyes, wave their hands, even while remaining in the same spot to add some kind of movement!

Plan for “Thankful” Moments: Positive thoughts evoke “feel good” chemicals in our brains, such as endorphin, oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine, which in turn aid in feeling calmer, happier, and less anxious. The opposite is also true; when the brain perceives a threat or danger, cortisol is produced. While cortisol also known as the “stress” hormone has specific functions in our bodies, too much of it causes havoc and various complications. Therefore, even in the midst of this crisis, plan for thankful moments. Teach your children to think and talk about what they are thankful for. Perhaps they can draw, paint or even write them down. You can collect these in a container and read them whenever you or your children are feeling down and out. Perhaps encourage them to memorize phrases from your religious books that can help them stay positive.

Be Mindful of “Cabin Fever”: Prolonged times of staying in enclosed spaces can result in restlessness, irritability, apathy, depression and anxiety. Cabin fever is a term associated with such feelings of distress when one is in isolation or confined to enclosed spaces. Movement is a great tool, in any form, whether it is in the form of stretching exercises or walking inside the house. Encourage your children to move to keep their minds alert and their bodies in shape. If you have the luxury of a garden, use it if possible to get some sun and fresh air as this will help in some way to overcome feelings distress.

Provide Parent-Led Choices: Choices empower children but they need to be given choices that are appropriate. During times of pandemics and traumatic events, most children feel helpless and powerless. There is very little that they can control and they observe that their parents have limited capabilities to make their lives normal again. Therefore, give them something to feel empowered about without always telling them what to do; it will give you a break too from micromanagement!

Balance Routines with Flexibility: Routines are greatly beneficial to keep children engaged in a sense of normalcy, however, having some flexibility is important over rigid routines and structure during this period of quarantine. We need to empower them to make decisions throughout the day, to plan, to set goals, to help, and to choose. Therefore, be flexible and give them these opportunities.

Schedule Daily Chores: Due to the present pandemic, adults are on a heightened state of alertness. We are on alert for any news update and are in online queues frantically trying to secure basic provisions for our families; we are listening intently for the local vendors to come to our streets, and are constantly sanitizing ourselves; we are worried about money and distressed about the global situation; we are caring for elderly parents and can’t sleep at night; we don’t have ample facilities to print our children’s school assignments; we are physically and emotionally drained; and we don’t get a break as we are constantly on the clock washing clothes, cooking, cleaning, babysitting and being strong for our families while struggling on the inside. Our children are watching our emotional status and therefore need to support their parents. I encourage you to schedule daily age appropriate chores for each member of your household to contribute to supporting one another.

Pay it Forward: Encourage your children to give to others without expecting anything in return. Brain storm ways to help others in need, whether it is to write letters to senior citizens who are lonely in Elders Homes, calling relatives to cheer them up, or donating to community service agencies. Currently, even social service agencies that usually supply dry rations to the needy are struggling as their funding has been severely curtailed. They may have the manpower to distribute the goods but don’t have funding to do so. If you have some extra cash, would your family consider ordering a package to another in need? Perhaps we have an opportunity to sacrifice personal luxuries and gourmet delicacies to feed hungry families in support of our country’s efforts. There is something powerful that happens when we give out of our need. It keeps us humble and empathic towards others in need. Paying it forward helps empower our children to look beyond their needs and makes them stronger human-beings.

MORE PRACTICAL STEPS TO HELP CHILDREN COPE WHILE AT HOME:
• Provide them with structured activities to keep them busy
• Encourage them to explore their spirituality and faith
• Teach your children to pray for the needs of others
• Allow them to free play
• Allow limited screen time with a balance of educational programs and entertainment
• Give them opportunities to interact with nature, either physically or virtually
• Reduce exposure to the news and social media
• Provide opportunities to be creative and express themselves-: Art, music, dance, writing, poetry, cooking, gardening, sewing, carpentry, building, etc.
• Teach them to journal their thoughts (use an exercise book or diary if you have one)
• Engage in family fun activities such as board games
• Provide ways for your children to stay in community with classmates to the fullest extent possible
• Teach them stress management techniques- (see Annex 1 below)
Annexure I
There are a number of stress management techniques you can find online. The following techniques are commonly used to de-stress and has been practiced by millions across the globe. They are helpful for the entire family! Please discontinue if you have pain in any part of your body while engaging in these exercises.
Diaphragmatic Breathing: There are various styles to deep breathing. Keep one hand on your heart and one on your belly. Inhale, taking a deep breath with your nose filling your lungs with air (your diaphragm pushes down against the stomach causing your stomach to rise) after counting 1, 2, 3,.. (depending on your age, less or more counts) then exhale slowly with your mouth. Continue this for about 1-5 minutes (depending on your age). Safe Place (Calm Place): Close your eyes. Think of a place you have been to in the past that brings you feelings of relaxation. For example, the beach, a river, a forest, under a tree, your home, in a garden, etc. While you think of this place, engage in diaphragmatic breathing. Just breathe, thinking of that familiar, peaceful place. Tapping into your senses, pay attention to the sounds, the sights, the smells associated with this place. Engage with that place in your mind. Picture yourself in that place enjoying the beauty and tranquility of the scenes you are viewing in your mind. After enjoying the peacefulness of your “safe place”, you can open your eyes slowly. Do this exercise as part of a stress management routine to de-stress. This is a great tool to teach children, especially during this time of being home-bound. Children are probably longing to go on a fun trip somewhere or just step outside into their familiar worlds but cannot do so due to the current crisis. Encourage them to picture their calm place and even draw it if they like.
Balloon Breathing: Children enjoy doing this type of exercise. It involves placing your hands on your head and pretend to blow up a balloon gradually. As you take breaths with your nose, keep moving your hands up, like as if to show the balloon being inflated. Once you’ve reached the top, then slowly exhale with your mouth while deflating the balloon. Move your hands down gradually until it reaches your head. Repeat this (1-5 minutes depending on your age). Children under 5 years may only be able to do this exercise for about a minute before they get restless while older children for a longer time.

This article first appeared here in the Daily Mail in Sri Lanka.
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