As we are all adjusting to this new “normal for now” season of social distancing and sheltering in place it is important to get clear about how to support one another and regulate through these difficult times. I wrote HERE about all the different response young people may have to COVID-19, which quite frankly was A LOT of different ways young people might react and process this pandemic.
So now you might ask – what next? What do we DO now (besides of course movie marathons)? I’m glad you asked! Below are some ways I have been talking to parents, guardians, and families regarding how to support their children during this time!
Assess Knowledge and Give Age Appropriate Information:
Let’s ask children what they know about COIVD-19. They likely know some things and this is a great way to open up a conversation and to be able to assess if they have accurate information OR if they have thoughts that are maladaptive.
These conversations can happen in therapy sessions or within family conversations. There are some great tips for parents HERE and HERE for how to facilitate these conversations. One of the most important things to know is that as adults we need to manage our anxiety when talking through these difficult topics to create a safe space for kids to explore their own feelings.
Children need to know age appropriate information about what is happening in the world around them and in trauma. Honestly if we don’t give it to them, they will find out about it from someone else who may or may not have accurate information. If parents or therapists are able to facilitate an age appropriate discussions, safe adults control the flow of information – not the next door neighbor who heard something from his cousin who heard it from their best friend, or who knows where else!
Also – children will just plan old MAKE UP information if they do not have accurate information – and not necessarily consciously. One of my favorite Deb Dana quotes is “story follows state”, meaning that we create stories and assign meaning to our dysregulated nervous systems.
It is also important to not just have one conversation about COVID-19 – this is not a one and done topic. Find the healthy balance between flooding children (ie bringing it up multiple times per day) and avoidance (no conversation). Checking in from time to time to see what questions they have or updating on information is essential.
Below are some resources to help explain and process COVID-19 with children:
National Child Traumatic Stress Network Parent/Caregiver Guide To Helping Families Cope With COVID-19
The Story of the Oyster and the Butterfly: The Corona Virus and Me – Free digital book to help children understand COVID-19
Come Inside Bear – a children’s story about social distancing
Our Hero Is YOU – Free digital book to help children understand COVID-19
Assess and Support Family Stress:
As much as I love a good parent check in, I have been taking much care to check in more so with family systems these last weeks and will continue to do so. I strongly believe that parents are the most important people in their child’s lives, and now more than ever, they are holding the container and structure for their child’s wellbeing. The concept that you need to put on your own oxygen mask before you help others and as mental health professionals is so important, because we need to make sure we are supporting and regulating the family system so the system can regulate the child. This might mean extending sessions or adding additional sessions in the week to make sure families are getting the support they need.
Validate and Express Feelings:
All feelings are OK! I love to say that our feelings are our bodies compasses for what is going on in the world around us. This is also along the lines of Dr. Dan Siegel’s “Name it to tame it” concept!
There is also so much grief and loss in COVID-19, beyond the physical lives that will be lost. The play that never was performed, the vacation that was cancelled, the graduation ceremony that was missed, and the grandparents that can’t be squeezed. Emotions will cycle, things will become repressed and “come out sideways”, and sometimes things will feel stuck.
As adults it is also so important that we model these feelings for children. That we can own, talk about, and name the feelings as well as show children how to regulate in a way that is helpful. I am having a lot of conversations with families about practicing relaxation and calming techniques together as part of the routine. This might include deep breaths, family game night, walks, a family gratitude practice, meditation, or dance parties!
Routine And Structure – But Not Rigidity:
I love the saying “trauma is chaos structure is healing” and I have used that quite a bit these last couple weeks. Creating a routine and consistency, and continuing with routines already in place, can significantly benefit our nervous system by letting it know what to expect. There is definitely comfort in routine. In addition to a schedule that is visual, it might be really helpful and necessary to go over this with children verbally at several points through the day. Get to the point where children roll their eyes and say “I know, I know” – this is the sweet spot where they know exactly what to expect!
On the other hand, step away from rigidity and have realistic expectations of what might be accomplished in the day, knowing that our nervous systems are all on high alert likely leading to those things I talk about HERE including anxiety, anger, fixations, rumination, etc. We will likely not be at our most productive and running at optimal performance – and that is okay. Children (especially because we may be spending more time in our brainstem where it is really hard to learn anything new) will likely not be taking up basket weaving, mastering a new language, or excelling at gymnastics during this time. Identify the bare minimum, good enough, and go with that. It is also okay if you are 10 minutes late for lunch, need to shorten the hour bike ride to a half hour, or wake up around breakfast-ish not at 6am like planned! Everyone in this time needs a little grace.
Physical Distance NOT Social Distance
Even though we can’t occupy the same physical space as others it is so important as humans to connect with one another. What were the activities that children were engaging in before COVID-19? Can we get creative and move some of these online? I have seen AMAZING things with transitioning to all virtual Play Therapy BUT am also seeing other communities rally as well! I have seen virtual dance classes, karate, choirs, and occupational therapy! How can we help children connect with others through video chat platforms, community challenges such as this free downloadable Lego Challenge, or a weekly lunch or tea date with grandparents or best friends?
Move Your Body
This one I cannot emphasize enough. With all the cortisol and adrenalin building up in our bodies due to the stress response we likely all have to some degree these chemicals need to be burned off by movement. Now, these chemicals are meant to be burned off by running for our lives or fighting for it BUT dance parties, jumping on the trampoline, yoga, bike rides, and walking the dog will work too! These ones are also A LOT more fun!
And as I have been saying a lot lately *with humor of course* – what else do you have to do?
What are your favorite ways of COVID-19 Coping for either yourself, your families, or the children you work with? Drop a comment below!
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I'm Ann Meehan, an LPCC, RPT-S, and EMDR Consultant. I help other therapists grow in their passions as play therapists, trauma therapists,and child and adolescent therapists.