HELPING CHILDREN DEAL WITH STRESS DURING THE PANDEMIC
Marjorie Noble, MA, Retired LPC, LMFT, RPTS
Download this article as a PDF
We are truly living in unprecedented, highly disruptive, and very unsettling times. The COVID-19 Pandemic certainly has turned our own adult worlds upside down, but our children are experiencing changes and uncertainties that are causing some level of stress and anxiety in virtually all of them as well. How can we as parents or teachers, (or parents who have unwittingly become our own version of teachers), effectively manage the stress and behavioral changes that we see emerging in our children who are under our care?
First and foremost, it is important for us as parents and teachers to find ways to manage our own stress during these uncertain times. Children are sponges for our emotions so that when we are stressed and exhibit heightened fear and/or irritability, our children feel our stress and often absorb these emotions as their own. When we are stressed, we become reactive to our childrens’ behaviors instead of responsive, which only serves to heighten negative behaviors and increase anxiety in our children.
In case of emergency when flying, we are told to put our oxygen masks on first before helping our children with theirs; similarly, good self care becomes the first priority in helping to manage stress in our children. The following are some ideas to help parents and teachers to take care of themselves.
Limit the amount of time watching the news and scrolling social media. If we are in the habit of keeping the T.V. news on for a good part of the day, or are continually checking social media for the latest coronavirus report, our minds become saturated with negativity which heightens stress. Give yourself a definite time limit to catch up on the news, and eliminate exposure to negative news before bed.
Become aware of your physical reactions to stress, like shallow breathing, body tenseness, headaches. Ask yourself what is happening to trigger these responses. Am I feeling out of control, overwhelmed, resentful, disappointed, or fearful? If so can I create a positive thought to combat the thought behind the feeling I’ve identified. For example, after identifying that you are overwhelmed because you think you will never get all the lesson plans done for next week, replace the “all or nothing thinking” with “I can set aside 30 minutes 3 times today and make progress a little at a time.
Practice deep breathing. Taking deep breaths through your nose and slowly letting the air out through your mouth helps to take you out of the fight or flight mode of stress, and activates our parasympathetic nervous system, “God’s natural chill-pill system” in our bodies.(Kerry)
Get periodic exercise – outside if possible. A walk outside puts you in touch with nature and God’s amazing creation, creating in us a sense of peace. Exposure to sunshine stimulates the production of Vitamin D which helps boost our immune system, our mood, and improves sleep, all of which are needed during these uncertain times. Fast walking or running gets your endorphins flowing which act as a natural stress reducer.
Take a personal time-out. Remove yourself from a situation when you begin to lose control. Speak slowly and softly when you feel your anger rising and tell you child that you are feeling angry/frustrated/upset right now, and need a few moments to calm down before you deal with the situation. Three to five minutes locked in the bathroom while you breathe and calm yourself down, not only helps to prevent damaging over reactions to children’s behavior, but also models for your children an effective way to deal with their own anger or frustration.
Find rest in the truths of God’s Word. God has given us what we need to survive in these difficult times. Be grateful for the extra time we do have to speak into our childrens’ lives. Spending at least a little time with the Lord every day can become a game changer in managing your own stress. Tape verses like Phil. 4: 4-8 & 13 to your mirror so that you see them first thing in the morning, and as you soak in His Word, allow His perfect peace to wash over you.
Now that we’ve learned some ways to put our own oxygen masks on first, what are some practical suggestions for dealing with our childrens’ anxiety during these uncertain times? Children deal with their feelings in very different ways depending on their developmental stage and their individual temperaments. Suggestions below will be divided into different age groups; however, “one size does not fit all,” so if your child exhibits none of the behaviors mentioned, consider yourself blessed!
AGES 2-7: We often hear “kids are resilient”, but like adults, children often become stressed when dealing with new situations and uncertainty. Young Children express stress and anxiety most often through behaviors, not words. They are very likely to show signs of regression during these times. Battles over things like food and bedtime may increase. They cry over seemingly insignificant issues. They may have temper tantrums, become clingy, fearful or even withdrawn. Developmental milestones that have been met may disappear during times of stress. To help combat these behaviors:
Validate your childrens’ feelings. When young children are experiencing change and uncertainty, they need to be given words for their feelings and have their feelings validated by parents and teachers even if they are dealing with them inappropriately. For instance, if a child is acting out because he has discovered he can’t go to his cousins house for his birthday because of coronavirus like he did last year, you might say something like, “You are sooo disappointed that we can’t go over and help Johnny celebrate his birthday this year. It makes you sad that things are so different now.” When a child feels that he has been understood, he is more likely to self regulate his feelings. When he is calmer, you can problem solve together about an alternative to helping his cousin celebrate his birthday, like making a big birthday banner for him and driving by his house with it on the car.
Emphasize the positive things that children do during the day in a very specific way, rather than always focusing on what they do wrong. We think this is common sense, but pay attention to the amount of “deposits” you make into a child’s emotional bank account versus “withdrawals”. You might be surprised that when you are stressed, you overdraw!
Keep regular routines. Uncertainty fosters anxiety and fear of the unknown. When a child’s day is relatively predictable, a sense of safety and security is fostered and stress is naturally decreased.
Think “snack, sleep, sick or snuggle?” (Kerry) When a young child is acting out ask yourself what is needed most right now. Is discipline a top priority or are you or your child tired, or hungry? Are you or your child feeling ill, or is your child seeking negative attention because he is needing some extra one-on-one attention? You can discuss the original issue later after the main problem is addressed, when you are both in better shape to process what happened.
Make the new rules for cleanliness fun. Remember it is harder for kids in this age group to adhere to social distancing and to remember to wash their hands. Visual and verbal cues will help with this. For instance, give your child a 6 foot piece of butcher block paper and have them draw a big picture of Dad, covering the whole page. Then lay it on the floor and challenge your kids “not to step on Daddy” when they are around other people. Engaging with them singing Happy Birthday twice or counting to 20 while washing their hands is a fun way to get the job done! Try counting backwards and you are developing a math skill!
AGES 8-12: Children in later elementary years are more aware of how unusual our current situation is and are more cognitively able to process what is happening.
Set aside time to listen to their concerns and correct any misinformation they may have about the pandemic, and why things have had to change so much. It may be surprising the misinformation that they may have assimilated from snippets of news they might have heard which could be contributing to anxiety.
Provide age appropriate information about the pandemic and give them the reasons behind social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing. Instead of talking about how many people have died during the pandemic, emphasize that there are so many people working hard to help. Brainstorm together about some ways your children can be helpful too, like making colorful cards to take to people in nursing homes who are alone and need some cheering up. Activities like this will help to keep them busy while practicing the Biblical admonition to love your neighbor.
Maintain a daily schedule. At a time when so much of our lives are changing and often seem out of our control, one of the most helpful things a parent or teacher can do is stick to a schedule or routine as much as possible. While your child is confined to home for school, play, meals and sleep, sit down with them and talk about the best way to structure their day. Keep a big white board with the schedule written on it. This way they have a visual cue as to what comes next. Be creative and somewhat flexible with the schedule. Go over the schedule each morning with them, and if something needs to be changed that day, they can take an eraser and change it.This will help to clarify ambiguous communication or unfulfilled expectations which leave a child disappointed or confused, triggering misbehavior. Be sure and balance the time they spent in focused school work with frequent breaks for physical activity and rest. Remember predictability is a stress reducer!
Teach your children/students relaxation techniques. The deep breathing recommended for you above, can easily be taught to children of this age group and older. Teach them progressive muscle relaxation techniques (tensing and relaxing muscles in the body from head to toe) to calm down and sooth a stressed nervous system. The “squeezing the orange technique” is a good way to teach relaxation. Give your child a stress ball and tell him/her to pretend it is an orange. Have them squeeze the orange hard, and have them notice how tight and stiff their arm muscle is. As they squeeze, tell them that they are squeezing all the juice out of the orange (or tension out of their body,) and then have them drop the ball and make their arm as floppy as one of their stuffed animals. Tell them that this is what we feel like when we are relaxed, and when we are relaxed, we are able to think better and negative emotions like anger and fear are more manageable.
Provide opportunities for peer interaction through FaceTime or platforms like Zoom. Most children miss their friends, and extended family members during these isolating times. It is important to do all we can to help them connect with their friends, as well as relatives like their grandparents whom they haven’t been able to see.
Younger school age children cope with fears through play. If possible, once a week, for half an hour have a special play time with an individual child where they are free to structure the play as they need it to be, giving them opportunities to “play out” their worries or fears. Participate in the play as a follower, allowing your child to lead. This is a good bonding time for both of you, and can be very cathartic for your child.
AGES 13-18: Teenagers have been uniquely impacted by coronavirus stay-at-home orders. Adolescence is a time when children naturally begin pulling away from their parents, and their peers become of utmost importance to them. Now they are sequestered at home with their family from whom they are supposed to be gaining independence. Being cut off from peer relationships has the potential to impact teens so drastically. According to several psychologists who have studied the effects of the pandemic on teens, parents of teens report that their kids are responding with an increase in irritability, sleeping all day and staying up at night, and often lie about their whereabouts so they can break social distancing rules to hang out with their friends.(Lear & Molitor) A lot of teenagers are also experiencing feelings of depression, helplessness, and hopelessness. Suicide is on the rise among teens. Notice any behavioral changes in your adolescent. Many teens are reporting more depression than anxiety about the pandemic. While some may worry about the effects of coronavirus itself, the loss of their peer support system has much more effect on their immediate lives.” (Molitor and Lear) How can we help?
Make sure your teens know the seriousness of the pandemic and the importance of everyone doing their part to keep themselves and others safe. Emphasize that even though they may not get very sick if they contracted the virus, they could easily transmit it without even knowing it to others who are more vulnerable, like their elderly grandparents or anyone for that matter that they may come in contact with. Talk with your teens honestly, letting them know how hard you know this time is for them, but how important it is to be responsible, not to socialize in crowds, to wear their masks, and to practice good handwashing.
Allow plenty of opportunity for social media connection and for creative ways to get together with friends and still be socially distanced. Encourage them to continue to participate in youth group activities that are planned for them with safety in mind. Help them to find creative, meaningful ways to connect like cooking a recipe together and eating it on Zoom, or playing a video game together. Unfortunately, but understandably, children are on their screens more than ever these days. It is still important to limit screen time though, especially before bed.
Keep an eye on your teen for major changes in behavior that could signal a depressive episode, or even suicidal ideation. Red flag behaviors would include withdrawing from the family, isolating in their room, a major change in eating or sleeping habits, agitation and restlessness, self harm, giving away possessions, alcohol or drug use,or major rebellion. Get professional help if necessary.
Plan ahead with your teen. Encourage their input in planning a vacation, for instance, when this time is over. Look into college choices or talk about extra curricular activities they might want to get involved in when school starts again. Emphasize that this difficult time will not last forever and that they do still have a future beyond coronavirus.
Teens still need limits and boundaries, but wherever possible give them choices within your parameters. This helps to diffuse that out-of-control feeling.
Encourage your teen to journal or keep a diary of their thoughts, feelings, and experiences during the pandemic. This is a good way to vent pent up feelings. Also, they are living in a unique period of history and someday they may want to share with their own families what it was like for them to live through a pandemic!
In conclusion, as adults we too need to remind ourselves that “this too shall pass”, and that when it feels like the world is spinning out of control, we know the ONE who is in control. HE will equip us to help our children through these times of uncertainty!
“I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Phil 4:13
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Phil. 4: 6-7
Kerry, Erin “How Moms Can Manage Mental Health During a Pandemic” 5/1/2020
Lear and Molitor “How to Help Kids Cope with Stress from COVID-19 Healthline 2020
Weatherspoon, Lynsey “How to Help Kids with Anxiety During the Pandemic 2020