In a full-blown global pandemic, I find myself wistful for this time last year, when a measles outbreak was the biggest health story around.
The COVID-19 crisis is tough to write about because … well, because everything just seems harder right now. Things aren’t just changing week to week but minute by minute. The only certain thing is uncertainty. That’s unnerving for anyone, especially children, who rely on predictability and structure for comfort. Schools are closed, trips have stopped, people are fearful for the lives of their loved ones. Then add in isolation from friends and extended family, loss of income and the cancellation of events of all kinds.
Oh, and throw on heaps of pressure to maintain a child’s schooling at home. It’s overwhelming. Tensions are high, patience is thin, emotions are raw, and, more often than not, concentration on even routine tasks is … wait, what was I saying?
Let’s consider some ways that families can overcome the stress and fear of this unprecedented time. Here, Lauren Pantoulis, a licensed professional counselor, who sees children, adolescents and adults, shares mental health advice she is giving to her clients during this challenging time.
Stay on schedule
Pantoulis says it is important to maintain routines as much as possible. Keep sleep and wake times consistent, and get showered and dressed. “Dress for the social life you want, not the social life you have,” she says. Even in isolation, wash up, brush your teeth and put on some bright colors. How you dress will impact how you feel.
“I’ve been dressing up in costume every day and challenging my friend’s 5-year old to a daily costume contest. My husband thinks I’m nuts.” —Julie Klinger-Luht
Make self-care a priority
When we’re stressed out, healthy habits fall by the wayside. “Stress and eating don’t mix well, and we find ourselves overindulging, forgetting to eat and avoiding food,” Pantoulis says. Stay hydrated and eat sensibly, recognizing that good nutrition will help give you the strength to weather a crisis. Create a toolkit of items that may soothe you when you’re feeling anxious and overwhelmed: a cozy blanket, a journal, a coloring book, bubbles, favorite photos, small treats, etc., and help children do the same with items that bring them joy and relaxation.
Get your three 30s
Throughout the course of your days, make sure to fit in three critical half-hour activities: getting outside, moving your body with purpose and connecting with other people. Pantoulis suggests that if you are concerned about the risk of contact with others, you may opt to go outside in the early morning or late evening or just make a point of opening windows and experiencing the satisfaction of fresh outdoor air.
Purposeful body movement could be following an exercise video or simply cutting loose and dancing to your favorite music like nobody’s watching (because they’re not). The other 30-minute slot of your day should include reaching out to other people to find or offer support. FaceTime or Zoom conferencing are great ways to connect for virtual “play dates” at any age. Help the kids check in with their friends this way, too.
“Time to teach ‘real life’ skills: checking the oil in the car, running the lawnmower, using basic tools, cooking. My girls are 12 and 15, and the overwhelming issue is boredom (versus stress), so I think they will welcome something different to do.” —David Coyne
Be a good playmate
Play with your kids. “Children rarely communicate how they are feeling but will often make a bid for attention and communication through play,” Pantoulis says. “Don’t be surprised to see themes of illness, doctor visits and isolation. Understand that play is cathartic and helpful for children—it is how they process their world and problem solve.”
Playing with children is not only a good way to see things through their eyes and better understand how they are coping, it’s also just a fun way to spend quality time. When this is all done, kids will remember the time you spent making them feel like your attention was all theirs.
“We utilize different parts of the house and yard for different parts of the day with my 5-year old. Getting up and getting ready for the day and setting up work and play times helps.” —Amy Metzger
Be gentle and forgiving
Know that isolation can bring out the worst in people, and don’t take it personally if someone starts an argument. “Each person will have moments when they will not be at their best,” Pantoulis notes. Especially with children, you can expect behavioral issues when routines are disrupted, and you should respond gently. “Expect increased anxiety, worries and fears, nightmares, difficulty separating or sleeping, testing limits and meltdowns. Do not introduce major behavioral plans or consequences at this time—hold stable and focus on emotional connection.”
Have a safe space for privacy
When people are sheltering in place, space is at a premium. Pantoulis suggests that everyone finds their own retreat space to get away from the stresses of work or when they just need to be alone for a while. “Help children identify a place where they can go to retreat when stressed. You can make this place cozy by using blankets, pillows, cushions, scarves, beanbags, tents and forts. It’s good to know that even when we are on top of each other, we have our own place to go to be alone.” Empower children to take time out to seek solace in that special spot when they feel overwhelmed.
“My friend’s entire family has been learning TikTok dances, posting them on YouTube and challenging another family to learn one. They go back and forth. It has been hilarious and impressive.” —Susie Santos
Lower your expectations
Let’s face it, there’s a lot being asked of parents right now: working from home, schooling at home, caring for everyone at home, not leaving home. “These are scary and unpredictable times for children. Focus on strengthening the connection through time spent following their lead, through physical touch, through play, through therapeutic books and via verbal reassurances that you will be there for them in this time,” Pantoulis advises. “We are doing too many things in this moment under fear and stress. Be accepting everything about yourself, your current situation and your life without question, blame or pushback. We are all truly doing the best we can.”
Turn off the bad, see the good
“Find a few trusted news sources that you can check in with consistently, limit it to a few times a day, and set a time limit for yourself on how much you consume. Keep news and alarming conversations out of earshot from children—they see and hear everything and can become very frightened by what they hear,” Pantoulis reminds us. Instead, try to focus on the good in the world. Balance the negative with stories of hope and kindness. And find your own ways to be a source of good in the community. Giving back and helping others makes us feel more positive overall.
“To keep in touch, two friends and I started watching a show together via FaceTime. Maybe a glass of wine or beer is involved, too.” —Cleo Stamatos
Control what you can
You can’t control what is going on in the outside world, but you can find ways to exercise control within your own world. “Organize your bookshelf, purge your closet, put together furniture, group toys. It helps to anchor and ground us when the bigger things are chaotic,” advises Pantoulis.
Find your feel-good outlets, and get busy with enjoyable distractions. Appreciate that you may not have a long-term attention span right now, but you have long-term timeframes to engage yourself with novel ways to take a break from what’s going on. My distractions of choice seem to be Candy Crush and jigsaw puzzles. I find satisfaction in the little victories.
“We’re planting vegetables, delving deeper into learning more about living a minimalist lifestyle, baking, having old-school DJ dance parties and reading!”—Dorothy Freas
Pantoulis tells clients that repetitive movement (knitting, coloring, painting, jumping rope, running, drumming) and expressive arts (sculpting, drawing, dancing, music, singing, playing) can be effective means of self-soothing. Creative outlets also offer kids a way of communicating difficult emotions.
The best medicines
Laughter is good therapy. In troubled times, balance the somber climate with lightheartedness whenever you can.
“We all need a little comedic relief in our day, every day,” says Pantoulis, whether it comes from YouTube videos, a funny movie or (one of my personal favorites) silly viral memes on Facebook. There is no denying the gravity of the situation, and nobody is minimizing the seriousness of what has unfolded in recent days and weeks and months. But sometimes you simply need to find a glimpse of humor somewhere to pull you through. Getting a reminder that there are still unexpected reasons to smile in the world is a priceless thing.
Actual therapy is also very good therapy. “If you are having difficulty coping, seek out help,” Pantoulis urges. Even in these distanced situations, therapists can help, with many able to connect via telehealth. Keep up your medications and sessions if you already have a therapist. Seek out support groups for specific issues, and know that even if you feel isolated, you are not alone.
“FaceTime/Zoom with loved ones has helped us feel more connected and laugh in spite of coronavirus craziness. I’m allowing my kids time to rest, sleep late, talk to friends electronically, TV, family time, walks, etc. Our lives are normally hectic, so to slow down and focus on what is truly important has been nice.” —Dana Dalton
One day at a time
Each day is one day closer to the day this is behind us. Nobody can predict just what we’re in for next. And that creates anxiety. “When I work with patients who have anxiety around overwhelming issues, I suggest that they engage in a strategy called ‘chunking’—focusing on whatever bite-sized piece of a challenge that feels manageable,” Pantoulis says. Remind yourself that this will pass, though it may feel as if the path we’re on is never ending. Life will carry on, and one day we will have the ability to reflect on this time with the perspective of survivors. Think of potential positive outcomes. What will we have learned? How will we have grown?
Deep breaths, parents. It’s going to be OK. This is not our “new normal” it’s just our “new right now.” Trust that a normal will be back.