Want To Help Your Kids Cope During COVID-19? Try Deep Breaths And Listening
Some Utah schools have just wrapped up their first week back in class, and keeping kids safe from COVID-19 outbreaks has been top of mind for most. But what about their mental health? Child psychologist and University of Utah’s Dee Endowed Professor of School Psychology Aaron Fischer explains how to talk to kids about the uncertainty of life and school during a pandemic.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: How would you describe to a kid what’s happening and why it’s happening?
Aaron Fischer: I think the most important thing we can do when we're talking to children about what's happening right now is to be realistic that this is not a normal circumstance that we're all experiencing right now. I think normalizing that through conversations is really important. How I talk about it to my own children — I have a two-year-old and a five-year-old — I talk about how there's a virus and what does that mean to have a virus? Well, a virus is something that can make you sick, and this virus in particular is really easy to catch. If you're sick, it might be like a tummy ache. Sometimes if you're sick, you might have a headache or you might feel really hot. My kids have both been sick, so they remember that experience. But what we're doing as parents — and this is, I think, the really important piece as parents — is to let your children know that your job as the parent is to do everything that we can to keep your child safe.
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CB: Right. So, what should a child's role feel like in all of this? How would you balance a healthy amount of responsibility for their own health and safety without scaring them?
AF: I think striking that balance is really the hard part, because you don't want to scare them. You don't want to create this anxiety and then you start to see internalized symptoms where they don't want to leave their house or they can't sleep or a variety of other things that they might experience.
I think really being clear about what they can do to keep themselves safe — if they wear a mask, for example, when they're in public spaces, that can do a really, really great job of keeping them safe and keeping people that they care about safe as well. To tell them that you can do a lot for yourself, I think that can be really empowering and you can feel safe.
For some of the children that I work within schools as we're getting things kicked off, we've actually been pleasantly surprised to see how many of them have really adhered to that and really are gung ho about wearing masks and saying, “I feel proud about wearing my masks. I'm keeping myself safe. I'm keeping my friends safe. And that's really important to me.”
CB: Everyone is feeling the effects of isolation, uncertainty and fear. What are signs you should be watching for in kids that parents and teachers could potentially work together on? And what are some signs that a parent should be watching for — that maybe they should reach out to a mental health professional?
AF: I love this question. I think it's so important. The things that we really need to be paying attention to are changes in behavior. Parents are local experts. They know their kids better than anyone else, and teachers are second to that. And so if they see changes in behavior where they're more internalized. Maybe your kid would come out and talk to you every day and share their day, but now you're noticing they just want to hang out in their room and they're not really talking much. Those are all signs that maybe there's something else going on. Maybe there's some anxiety or some budding depression. And for some, you might see more acting out or more aggression, maybe more verbal aggression where they're saying things that are hurtful and it's really more of a symptom of where they're at in their circumstances.
Then the second piece to your question which is really — how do we get them connected with supports? We are very lucky here in Utah to have such great support for school mental health. I would say your first line of support is if you think something's different or you're worried about your child, reach out to your teacher. Your teacher will have a school counselor, a social worker or a school psychologist who they can connect [you] with. If you're connected with a community mental health provider really go and talk to them.
BRST Remote Learning Tip: Handling UncertaintyToday's behavior tip is about ways to handle uncertainty during COVID.
CB: Can you describe some effective coping strategies for kids?
AF: Some effective coping strategies that I usually lean on for kids are really basic. [For example,] diaphragmatic breathing. It’s like four seconds in your nose. You hold it — four seconds out of your mouth. And it's really allowing your body to physiologically calm down. That is such a helpful strategy.
Another one, because we keep all of our stress built in our body, is being purposeful in how we're flexing and relaxing the muscles in our body, and thinking about going from our toes all the way to our head and allowing our bodies to relax. Because we may not even realize that we're scrunching our faces so tight and there's so much tension. But once you start to pay attention to that and then practice some strategies around tensing and releasing, that can be really helpful as well.
The last coping strategy that I'd really encourage parents to consider is talking and communicating about feelings and emotions and the stress that we feel. So much of what we do is not communicating these things or having these things come out in maladaptive ways — ways that could be harmful to others. Just being able to say, “I'm feeling really stressed and overwhelmed.” That's a really powerful tool. And then maybe practice some of the deep breathing and muscle relaxation strategies. That can be really effective to get you to a place where then you can start to navigate some of these really intense things.