By Beth Lawrence, The Sylva Herald
In a crisis, worried parents sometimes forget that children also experience stress and anxiety.
There are some things parents should understand and steps they can take to help children cope with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Western Carolina University Professor of Development and Cognitive Neuroscience Alleyne Broomell.
How stress affects children depends upon their age, experiences and biological makeup, she said.
Some children keep their feelings to themselves; others misbehave.
“Many children will have difficulty communicating their feelings clearly, and it might be difficult to understand the effect that the current situation is having on them,” Broomell said.
They can have trouble understanding and coping with adult issues, so they might vent frustrations through their behavior: acting out or being withdrawn, changes in eating habits or interactions with siblings and others.
Anxiety can also impact a child’s development.
“Big events like the current pandemic can result in higher levels of psychological disorders, such as anxiety and depression,” Broomell said. “There is evidence that the way parents respond to their children can reduce their likelihood of developing one of these disorders. Parents can encourage resilience by being supportive and communicating with their children.”
She suggests parents be “socially present and engaging” with children by setting aside time for school work, reading to children or crafting and working on projects together.
Broomell also advises staying in touch with friends and family.
“Keeping up with friends and grandparents over video calls or writing letters and drawing pictures to send, even over email, to folks in your community are a few ways to say connected during this time of physical distancing,” she said.
Because children express their stress differently than adults, parents should be watchful.
“Just because a child doesn’t verbally tell you that they are anxious about a situation, doesn’t mean that they don’t need support and assurance,” she said.
One important step parents can take is to explain to the child in an age appropriate way what is going on using terms the child can understand. It is important to let the child ask questions and express their feelings, said Nathan Roth, assistant professor and clinic director at WCU. Reassure the child that you will do your best to take care of them and teach them to express their feelings and ask for help.
Roth also advises teaching social distancing and hygiene.
Caregivers can also keep a routine. Sticking to a routine can reduce stress and soothe children.
“Creating a daily schedule and enforcing normal bedtimes and meal times is a good place to start,” Broomell said. “Of course, life in a pandemic is going to be a little different than normal, but sticking to a routine can help everyone feel more secure.”
Letting children help create the schedule could help give them a sense of control, relieve anxiety and foster their cooperation throughout the day, Roth said.
Parents should also limit exposure to media and limit screen time.
Caregivers can also take care of themselves as a means of helping children cope.
Children learn by imitating their parents.
“Taking care of your own mental and physical health is incredibly important during this difficult time,” Broomell said.