This article was originally published by My Oregon News on April 20, 2020.
By Melanie Mesaros
Early learning experts tackle questions from families of school-aged children and younger on managing stress during COVID-19 outbreak
OREGON – Families may be juggling a number of different scenarios during the COVID-19 outbreak. We compiled some information for parents and caregivers that covers how to help manage stress and navigate tough questions during the pandemic.
For Children Under 5
Responses provided by Dr. Shauna Tominey, Oregon State University Assistant Professor of Practice & Parenting Education Specialist
Do young children pick up on a parent’s anxiety or stress?
We are in a situation that is likely to come with heightened stress for all of us. That stress is going to come out in lots of different ways for children and adults alike. Children are likely carrying heightened stress and they pick up on our stress as well.
Some signs of stress in young children might include tantrums, difficulty sleeping, regression (e.g., bathroom accidents), asking for help with something they usually do on their own or having a heightened response to a situation that might seem like “no big deal” on another day. In contrast, some children might become more withdrawn. For others, we might not notice a difference in their behavior at all, but that doesn’t mean they are not feeling or picking up on what is happening around them.
To help manage stress as a parent, prioritize self-care strategies such as prioritizing time connecting with your child, taking a walk outside, reading a book, staying socially connected to friends and family through video chats and calls, and establishing healthy routines around eating nutritiously and getting regular sleep.
How can I help my young child manage their stress during this time?
It’s important to let your child know that all emotions are OK. So often we jump to helping children change their feelings, especially unpleasant feelings, by saying things like, “Don’t cry. Calm down. Let’s do something to feel happy.” Instead of trying to change your child’s feelings, help them learn healthy ways to express those feelings first. For instance you might say, “Sometimes when I’m disappointed, I like to talk about my feelings or listen to music quietly. Do you think you would like to do that right now?” As children learn different ways to express their feelings, they will be able to better ask for help and to manage them with support.
How do I explain to my preschooler why people are wearing masks or why we can’t play with our friends?
Be honest and use language children will understand. Let them know what is happening and why in a way that you feel comfortable. As a parent, it’s important to think how much to share with our children and help them understand why routines have changed in a way that don’t leave children feeling helpless and afraid. Let children know that we are being helpers – a disease called the coronavirus (or COVID-19) can make people sick. Most children do not get very sick, but we can still pass the coronavirus to others – even if we don’t get sick. We are staying home to help keep everyone we care about in our family and community healthy. Everyone is doing their best to be a helper for one another.
Very young children may not understand why they can’t go to school or child care or see friends and family members. They may also feel unsettled by changes in family routines or nervous about seeing people wearing masks. Even if children are unable to understand your words, you may still find it helpful to explain out loud to children what is happening and why. Talking with children builds their vocabulary and their understanding. Children look to parents and caregivers to figure out how to respond in new situations. Your calming and reassuring words can help your child feel safe.
For School-Aged Children
Responses provided by Dr. Grace Bullock, a Mental Health Strategist and Policy Analyst for the Oregon Department of Education
How do I help my child stay focused on distance learning or develop a new routine at home?
Similar to adults, children are feeling considerable stress and disruption as they learn to adjust to COVID-19. Prior to focusing on learning, it is important to attend to their emotional and social needs. This means first taking time to reassure them that they are safe, and that you are doing everything possible to keep everyone in the family healthy. Predictable schedules are a great way of building a sense of security, but too many changes to a child’s daily routine can add to their stress.
Try making small changes to their daily life including adding short school lessons two or three times per day. Consider shorter learning sessions for younger children (10-15 min) and longer sessions of up to 30 minutes for older children. Some children may adapt to distance learning readily, while others may need more of your time, support and encouragement. If possible, work with your child to establish their schedule so that they will feel empowered, and have a sense of ownership and understanding of what is expected of them and when. Most importantly, make sure that children have time for creativity, rest and play, and support them in maintaining their social connections with friends as much as possible.
What should I do about managing screen time when school is now online?
How you manage screen time will likely depend on the agreements and understandings that you have with your child prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Similar to helping children adjust to developing a new routine, it is important to not attempt to institute too many changes to their typical habits too rapidly. Work with your child around developing a schedule that includes time for studies, and times for play, and monitor their screen activities, giving them ample encouragement for staying on task. You may also consider adjusting parental controls on their devices to allow you to better manage what games and on screen activities they have access to.
Do you have any tips for how to balance working from home while helping my children with their school work and assignments?
First and foremost it is important to be aware of your level of stress and take care of your physical and mental health. Although it may seem more important to care for your child or family during this challenging time, you will be less able to do so if you allow your health to decline.
Children learn by example. The more that they see you taking care of yourself, the better equipped they will be to care for themselves. Consider meeting with your child and family members and creatively developing a daily schedule that includes time for work, play, and some adult alone time if possible. Work with your children to create a clear understanding of the times of day that you need to devote to work, and how best to communicate with you during those periods. Most importantly, do your best to flexibly adapt to the unexpected in what will likely be a bumpy transition as we all learn how to work, play, and co-exist in a very different way.
How can I talk to my high school senior about the disappointment of the school year ending and missing out on experiences such as prom and graduation?
High school seniors and their families are experiencing a great deal of sadness, loss, and disappointment as they face the loss of many end-of-year senior traditions and rites of passage like prom, senior trips and graduation ceremonies. Some students may also be feeling fear and anxiety about classes and assignments, college admission requirements, paying tuition, and what their first year of college or work life might look like.
It is important to remember that each student will react differently.Make time and space to listen to seniors’ feelings and to validate their experience. Focus on their successes, and assure them that this situation will end, and that they will be able to return to their lives. Encourage teens to stay connected with their friends by phone and electronically, and give them time and space to grieve, and to participate in activities that they enjoy.