COVID remains a steady topic around dinner tables, but the stress associated with this pandemic remains anything but steady for most families. Stress has continued to increase for all of us – children, parents, and educators – and we are entering the phase of COVID exhaustion. Children in schools face constant changes around face masks, social distancing, and even some communities still using distance learning; this relative uncertainty creates an environment ripe for anxiety in our youth.
Whether it is the lack of being able to be with friends and family, travel plans cancelled, struggling with virtual vs in-person learning, loss of extracurricular activities, increased anxiety or depression…the weight of this pandemic is falling hard on children. We know that children are particularly vulnerable to stress which is why we often see a large spectrum of reactions to unpredictable and constantly changing conditions. Our current environment makes the challenge of balancing a child’s mental and physical wellness even more profound.
Our role in caregiving or parenting children is key in helping children utilize stress-regulating skills. Unfortunately, we have yet to find a way inside our children’s heads to know exactly how they are feeling and what they are thinking. However, there are signs we can look for as a result of severe stress on a child. Some specific behaviors that can potentially help you identify a child enduring severe stress:
(1) Physical health, development, and safety: illness, lack of energy, increased or decreased weight, injury
(2) Psychological and emotional development: depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, heightened emotional responses to normal situations
(3) Social development and behavior: isolation, lack of interest in past activities, increased risk taking
(4) Cognitive development and educational achievement: lack of educational involvement, lack of curiosity, lack of critical thinking
(5) Relationships: increased conflict, increased arguments, disconnectedness, loneliness
Although this list is not all inclusive, it is a starting point. Have you observed some of these behaviors in your children? If yes, have you started to talk to your child about the stress they may be feeling? As one child recently shared, “I’m afraid to talk to my parents about how I’m feeling. I don’t want them to worry about me on top of everything else.” Whether or not you believe your child is experiencing stress, starting a conversation now can help them cope with current or future elevated emotions. And if we are being honest, sharing these strategies with your child, will also help youoptimize your own stress as we all try to move forward together. Here are some ways to help you get started:
Validate: Try not to tell your child what he/she should be feeling. Instead ask them how they actually feel, allowing them to share their emotions, and listen. As parents we want to fix everything and make it better. Try not to solve it immediately. Let your child express their feelings the best way they know how.
Establish Boundaries: It’s normal during challenging times to let boundaries slip; thinking that loosening the reins will help alleviate stress. However, the truth is just the opposite. Now is the time to give children specific boundaries, roles, and responsibilities. Promote positive behaviors by setting clear expectations.
Rise to the challenge: Our children are hyperaware of the changes to their home and school environment. There are daily, sometimes even hourly, reminders of how their lives have been turned upside down; try not to overemphasize this fact. Remind them that we are all facing challenges in our own way and that we shouldn’t be afraid of the difficult things we encounter in life. Every challenge and difficult circumstance actually makes us stronger and more prepared for the next.
Reframe: It is easy to suffer and wallow when the world feels heavy. We have a choice, as individuals and as parents, for how we navigate through the current environment. Instead of getting distracted by setbacks, focus on forward movement even if it is only one baby step at a time. Highlight the good you see, the positive changes (possibly in family connection, empathy, personal growth) over the last year, and the strength they’ve built as they’ve persevered through challenging circumstances over the last 18 months.
Recover: Children rarely have intrinsic self-care tools. When the time is right, express the importance of self-care. Try different positive recovery techniques such as: exercise, journaling, peer support, quiet time, breathing (mindfulness, in particular), or counseling. You can even develop new, creative, ways to let them express their emotions. If they are angry, get a punching bag or let them pound clay or dough. Even better, make these group activities that you can do as a family.
If your child is stressed, or if you are stressed, please know that you are not alone.
If either of you is struggling, reach out for help. Our community and schools have many resources available: school counselors, school psychologists, professional counselors, doctors, support groups, religious affiliations, friends, family (to name just a few). COVID stress is real, but there are strategies to manage it, and as we assist our children, we ultimate help ourselves.
*This article was co-written by Dr Jannell MacAulay and Dr Kendra Lowe, a school psychologist with a doctorate in Education, and the author of Wake Up, Kick Ass, Repeat: A Guide to Self Perseverance Within the Military Spouse Life Cycle.