Managing your child's mental health during isolation

The outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has proven stressful for many people. Fear and anxiety about the disease can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in both adults and children.

Children react, in part, on what they see from the adults around them. Children look to their parents for cues on how to relate to their world, and for support and encouragement during times of crisis. When parents are highly stressed, their children feel stressed. Coronavirus can scare children now, which could create emotional problems for months or even years to come. If a child feels overwhelmed by a continual flow of sad or scary news, they don’t understand it leads to confusion about how the world as they know it has changed. This is especially troubling with young children who don’t have the life experience or vocabulary to tell the adults in their life what hurts. 

Not all children will respond to this stress in the same way so it is important to watch out for the following signs of stress in children, based on age:

INFANTS AND TODDLERS

  • Regression of sleeping, toilet training or eating; slow down in the mastery of new skills
  • Sleep disturbances (difficulty going to sleep; frequently waking)
  • Difficulty leaving parent, extreme clinginess
  • General crankiness, temper tantrums, crying

3-5 YEARS

  • Regression - returning to security blankets/discarded toys, lapses in toilet training, thumb sucking or other age inappropriate behaviour
  • Immature grasp of what has happened; bewildered; making up fantasy stories
  • Blaming themselves and feeling guilty about how the crisis affected their family
  • Regression of sleeping- fitful/fretful sleep, frequent waking or difficulty going to sleep
  • Fear of being abandoned by parents or parents dying from coronavirus, increased clinginess 
  • Greater irritability, aggression, or temper tantrums
  • Excessive crying or irritation
  • Difficulty with attention and concentration

In order to help support your child you need to talk to them about the COVID-19 outbreak and answer questions and share facts about COVID-19 in a way that your child can understand.

Talking about emotions is essential for mental health. To help explain emotions to young children draw happy, sad, angry and surprised faces on paper or paper plates and discuss these emotions. Get your child explain what makes them feel such emotions and how they could overcome these. Reassure your child that they are safe and let them know it is ok if they feel upset.

Bottled emotions don’t go away, they either blow in toward emotional fears, or blow up into angry or acting out behaviour. COVID-19 will go away, but untreated psychological damage won’t go away and could go on for years. Parents need to know what to do to prevent that from happening now. To put this into perspective, if your child has just started school, consider the life of your child this school year so far. Your child has become accustomed to sitting and listening to the teacher, having a varied schedule of activities throughout the day, lining up to go to lunch, and on pick up answering the predictable question, “what did you learn at school today?” Now such patterns have stopped, these children are back at home with parents who may be on emotional overload with working from home to keep a job, or fighting with each other about money or the frustration of not being able to manage all the details of a culture changing by the day whilst also being in isolation, and children don’t know how to handle their parents sense of anxiety.

Energy wasted on panic, “we’re all going to die!” or blame, “why didn’t you buy more toilet paper?” or regret, “why didn’t I go to school to be a doctor?”, or anger, “your coughing is going to get us all ill!” is wasted energy for parents and can be confusing to children. Focus energy instead on an empowering question, ‘What can we do about the situation we are in? What can we do to keep our children safe?’ Moving from wasted energy to creative change is crucial for parents during COVID-19. Positive action as a family will get you through the lockdown. Schedules, routines, tasks, schoolwork, family game time and meal prep can connect your family in new ways. Take advantage of this time to draw close and have family dinner again. Also be mindful that the answer doesn’t lie in entertaining your child is “for the moment” by putting them in from of the television or the iPad. Whilst it is easy to fall into bad habits during isolation, after all this has passed, these bad habits will then need to be resolved.

Isolation isn’t easy, but it is manageable with a plan. In order to help reduce such anxiety in the home we have the following tips:

-Limit your family’s exposure to news coverage of the coronavirus crisis, including social media. Children may misinterpret what they hear and can be frightened about something they do not understand.

-Try to keep up with regular routines. Whilst schools are closed, create a schedule for learning activities and relaxing or fun activities.

-Be a role model. Take breaks, get plenty of sleep, exercise, and eat well.

-Connect with your friends and family members.

-Relax. Take a deep breath. Calm your anxious thoughts. Take time to figure out how to help your child to manage the stress of this complex situation to be emotionally healthy. When your children see you as a caregiver modelling healthy behaviour, they will begin to do the same. Children tend to do what children see.

How to Help Children during Coronavirus Lockdown:

- Ask how they are managing the stress. Listen carefully and compassionately

- Spend time with your children in the same room, it’s more comforting to be together than alone and isolated during lockdown

- Offer a listening ear of support, comfort and encouraging words

- Allow your child to reach out to text or call their friends or family

- Reassure your child that they are safe and that the family is fully practicing government protocols on physical and medical safety

- Social distancing outside the home is essential, but you can still hug your kids! Physical touch can bring security to a child.

- Guide your children in taking on additional household responsibilities and everyday tasks. Even a very young child can do something to help, for example, putting their own laundry in the laundry basket, helping fold washed clothes, or drying the dishes

As a parent you need to be mindful not to take your child’s moodiness or frustration personally; crisis brings out the best or the worst in children, parents, partners and other family members. Give a lot of grace, since we will all need a lot of grace during this period of lockdown. Encourage all family members to monitor and discuss stress overload and to keep the conversation moving forward toward emotional coping skills which build mental wellness and resiliency. No one gets through crisis alone, especially children. Reassure that traumatic emotions are normal reactions to an abnormal situation like coronavirus lockdowns

If in doubt about your child’s mental health you can reach out for help from The Parent Infant Clinic. You do not have to go through a crisis alone. We recognise the importance of offering emotional support during this time of isolation. We provide online consultations and psychotherapy services for children and families. To book a consultation or to discuss online therapy, please get in touch.