Caring for Your Child’s Mental Health During COVID-19
Resilience Trauma Therapist
Megan D., LLMSW
Right now, we are experiencing a global pandemic for the first time in modern history. This new situation is stressful. Living in the unknown is stressful. We are feeling physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually stressed, and our kids are too.
Children absorb information from their surroundings like sponges. Right now, they are absorbing the anxiety, fear, and weight of having their regular routines cancelled. Even though they may not fully understand what is happening, our children are likely experiencing the loss of normalcy and connection, and a fear of the unknown.
It is rare for a child to accurately assess and articulate their needs in times of stress, instead they express their feelings of distress through their behaviors. As parents and caregivers, we must learn to recognize these signs of mental and emotional stress in our children.
Be on the lookout for:
- Increased aggression of anger
- Mood swings
- Withdrawal from favorite activities
- Nightmares or night terrors
- Extreme sadness or depression
- Increased irritability
- An obsession with talking about the traumatic event or issue
- Inability to focus or restlessness
- Any significant change in mood, behavior, or temperament
If you are noticing any of the trauma responses listed above in your child, it may indicate that your child is feeling unsafe and is in need of additional emotional support.
The biggest resiliency factor in a child’s ability to overcome hardship is strong connection with safe and supportive adults. Currently due to social distancing, our children may have lost easy access to some of their safe adults. Teachers, coaches, church group leaders, favorite babysitters, and others who provide regular encouragement, support, and emotional care for our kids now have very little opportunity to fill our little ones with positive messages and reassurance. This is the perfect opportunity as a primary caregiver to fill some of those encouragement gaps.
In times of increased stress, shifting the focus to building a stronger connection with our children will exponentially decrease any ill-effects of the current struggle. See the information below for some helpful ideas for reinforcing connection & increasing felt-safety.
Talk more. Use this extra time together to listen and respond to your child. If the child wants to talk about hard things, answer their questions with age-appropriate, true statements. If you don’t know something – be honest – but make sure to follow that honesty with reassurance of what your family is doing to stay safe. Ensure that the child knows he or she will not be left to handle the unknown without you.
If the child does not want to talk about scary or hard things, that is okay too. In this case take extra care to be intentional with your words and actions towards the child. Make sure all the verbal and non-verbal communication you use is sending messages of safety. The deeper a connection a child feels to a caregiver the more secure, and loved they will feel. By reinforcing these connections, we are safeguarding our kids from overwhelming stress and anxiety.
Play more. The time spent doing things ‘just for fun’ during quarantine will have a ripple effect in our children. Any family fun activities will lift spirits, break up the “Mom, I’m bored!” cycle, and strengthen your connection with your kids. All of which will help lessen any extra anxieties and fear that our children have absorbed due to the quarantine. So, start tonight… get out the board games, play catch in the yard, or snuggle up and read together. Any time spent playing together will benefit the whole family!
Increasing your child’s feelings of safety*
“Providing an atmosphere of felt safety disarms the primitive brain and reduces fear.”
Make things as predictable as possible. Post a daily schedule, using pictures for younger children. Give notice of upcoming transitions (use 10, 5, & 2–minute warnings)
Provide extra nurture. Spend time brushing hair, giving gentle back scratches or extra hugs, or making hot cocoa together.
Prevent sensory overload. Decrease sensory input – lower the volume, limit the number of toy options, avoid “too-bright” of lighting. Eliminate suspenseful or scary TV shows/movies/books/apps/video games/etc. Choose more peaceful and predictable options instead.
*Information retrieved from: http://child.tcu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/The-Connected-Child-Chapter-Four.pdf