For the kids in our lives, the last nine months have been many things. Scary, because an invisible illness was suddenly spreading across the globe. Confusing, because even the adults in their lives didn’t have many answers. Maybe even fun, at least when the possibility of school closing felt like a snow day. But for many, that novelty has given way to frustration, sadness, and even depression and anxiety. Just like adults, kids are wondering: Will I get sick? Will I get to see my friends again? Will someone I love die? It’s a lot for kids and parents to handle, so here are 4 ways you can help scared and anxious kids through this difficult time.
1. Make sure your kids wear their masks. While kids generally don’t get very sick from this virus, they can still play a part in making sure others don’t get sick by wearing their masks and social distancing. It might take a little imagination, however. If you have younger kids, you can explain the spread of the coronavirus by comparing their mouths to a bottle of bug spray. Weird, yes — but it’s one way for young ones to visualize the tiny droplets they spread, even when they aren’t sick. If they wear a mask, it helps keep those droplets in. If you’ve got older kids or teenagers, take this a step further and encourage them to spread the word. Help them practice what they might say if they’re with friends at the park and someone takes their mask off. Maybe your 13-year-old has been waiting months to see Grandma and could say, “I need to keep my Grandma safe, so do you mind putting your mask on?” With especially anxious kids, you can rehearse it ahead of time so the conversation goes smoothly.
2. Practice positive thinking and mindfulness. In a recent report, researchers interviewed teenagers in California and found that they reported a huge sense of loss, similar to the stages of grief. Most of the teens were sleeping badly because of lack of activity and lots of screen time. Kids of all ages, as well as their parents, can probably relate. In addition to trying to add in more physical activity, try some brain exercises, too, like replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. You might try saying a few things you’re grateful for each night before dinner or before bed. While it may feel cheesy at first, there’s evidence that gratitude boosts your immune system, lowers blood pressure, and motivates us to practice healthy habits. It’s also important to watch for signs of something more serious. Adolescent psychologist Lisa Damour says depression in teens sometimes looks like a prickly porcupine–everybody rubs them the wrong way. Don’t take it personally; just keep offering them a listening ear.
3. Meet tough moments with empathy. There will be times when feelings bubble up and meltdowns will happen, so in those moments, try to put yourself in your child’s shoes. If they’re acting like it’s the end of the world, it might be because their world has turned upside-down this year. But in order to help kids calm down, parents have to calm down, too. Children learn a lot about dealing with adversity by watching adults. Try doing a deep breathing exercise with anxious kids so you can calm down together. Kids see how we are reacting to setbacks, mistakes, and challenges, so it’s essential to keep in mind that our actions are speaking a lot louder than our words. Go easy on yourself if you can’t do this all the time, though–it’s a difficult time for us all, and nobody is perfect.
4. Find new ways of connecting with people. Your kids are almost certainly missing out on socializing with friends and extended family, so get creative about making time for reestablishing some of those lost connections. It will help your children, it will help you, and it will likely help the people you’re reconnecting with. You can also try to get more safe physical contact. Children and teens are sorely missing the physical contact they normally get, and this is contact that can’t be replicated over Zoom or WhatsApp. Keep that in mind, and don’t hold back on the safe physical affection within your own bubble–the hugs, the pillow fights, the hair ruffles, and all the rest.
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