Posted on Monday, Apr 06, 2020 by Dwight Bain

Lockdown Stress. Helping your kids deal with it. Part 1

Strategies for parents, teachers, and caregivers to manage hidden stress affecting kids during Coronavirus lockdown

Coronavirus is a serious threat that may not come to your home – your family may be spared the disease. Sheltering in place during community lockdown may protect you and your kids from the risk of infection. However, the pandemic impact will ripple out beyond physical health to financial reality and emotional overload. The most vulnerable populations are the very old and the very young. People are social distancing to protect the medical health of the very old. Parents and teachers need to understand the urgency to protect the mental health of themselves and the very young.

Children look to their parents for cues on how to relate to their world. 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. Talking about emotions is essential for mental health. Think of the wisdom given by Mister Rogers to children,

"Anything that's human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary."

Bottled emotions don't go away; they either blow in toward emotional fears, or blow up into angry or acting out behavior. In older kids these fears can lead to anxiety, depression or self-destructive behaviors like drugs, alcohol or even suicide. COVID-19 will go away. The Centers for Disease Control or World Health Organization will eventually find a vaccine, but untreated psychological damage won't go away and could go on for years. Parents and teachers need to know what to do to prevent that from happening now. Here's the first challenge.

Get down to the level of your child to gain perspective.

Think about the life of a five-year-old this school year. Leaving mom and dad to go to school for the first time. Then getting used to sitting in a desk, lining up to go to the lunch or recess, and then pick up line to answer the predictable question when they get into the van, "what did you learn in school today?" Now those patterns have stopped and these kids 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.

A five-year-old doesn't know how to handle their parents being a 'hot mess'. Children can't speak up to say, 'could you calm down?' to their parents, so I will say it for them.

"Parents - Calm down."

Take a deep breath. Calm your anxious thoughts. Grab a pen and use this guide to figure out how to help your son or daughter manage the stress of this complex situation to be emotionally healthy. By the way – when you are calm and figuring out options, your kids will calm down and learn to do the same thing.

COVID-19 is complex for parents to understand. It can be very difficult for small children to grasp, but helpful videos like the ones on PBS where Elmo teaches how to wash your hands to kill germs is a good place to start. Keep it simple with creative approaches to handwashing. Coronavirus is serious. Thousands of people will get sick, and the overwhelming majority will get better by practicing daily hygiene. Start there. Children of every age can practice handwashing, covering coughs and sneezes, staying hydrated, and getting enough rest. These skills will keep them healthy now through lockdown and for the rest of their life.

What matters on Wall Street isn't as important as what happens on your street.

Kids don't worry about global economic indicators because they don't understand the global economy. They aren't supposed to be worried about global events because they are just kids. As parents you aren't supposed to be worried about global events because you can't control them. A parent's responsibility is to manage their home and children, not solve world problems. When your children see you as a caregiver modeling healthy behavior, they will begin to do the same. Children tend to do what children see.

Communities are on lockdown to stop the spread of the disease. That's a responsible way to flatten the curve as explained in this PBS video.

It doesn't mean you have to stay in crisis response. Breathe and change perspective. You aren't 'stuck at home' you are 'safe at home'. You can connect as a family and get through this pandemic with emotional courage to stop confusion and chaos from entering your home. Take care of what you can, act responsible, and let go of the rest. Worry about disease or recession won't help you or your children feel better. Work at wellness, and your kids will feel better because you feel better.

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. One of the most requested resources American citizens said they wanted more of was time. For a few weeks you and your family will have significant time together. Make it count.

Give up toilet paper wars.

Decide to focus on your family and home responsibilities first. 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 killed!" is wasted energy for parents and can be confusing to kids. The ultimate examples are moms and dad who may be expressing anger at God, even if they didn't believe in God before. "Why would God do this to me?" … is not the kind of question that will change your circumstances and distracts you from working on making your home a safe and emotionally secure place.

Focus energy on an empowering question, 'What can we do about the situation we are in? What can we do to keep the kids safe?' Moving from wasted energy to creative change is crucial for parents during COVID-19. Part of this can be reaching out to other parents, being a part of Facebook groups, watching YouTube videos on how to teach your kids algebra at home. There are free resources on almost anything you can think of. Give up the fear and grab hold of new skills to grow through this global experience. Courage to change and creativity is in abundance when you change perspective. Check out creative ways for setting up school at home.

 Shelter at home isn't easy, but it is manageable with a plan. Time moves. Time never stands still. Weeks at home will zoom by with no measurable progress if you don't have a schedule designed toward purposeful activities. Kids feel afraid if they see their caregivers afraid. Take a breath and begin to map out a daily schedule, six days on/ one rest day off, for the children and adults in your home. It's normal to feel scared because nothing like this has ever happened in our country.

While it's normal to feel scared, it becomes unhealthy when people stay idle and silent. Break down the word emotion, and you have E-MOTION… get moving as you work your plans and watch how your kids perk up with positive energy. Harvard's Dr. Richard Weissbourd describes it this way,

 "Children are more distressed when parents appear helpless and passive, and more comfortable when parents are taking action."

You will always miss what you are not trained to see.

Traumatic situations create traumatic emotions – that's normal for adults and kids. Any event outside the usual realm of human experience, which is distressing, can create helplessness, anxiety, or panic. Traumatic stressors usually involve a perceived threat to one's physical safety or someone close to them. This is an intense psychological reaction to feeling threatened, which is completely normal.

Traumatic stress overwhelms coping mechanisms leaving children feeling out of control and helpless. Continual exposure to the trauma creates a survival reaction of being depleted, exhausted, or worse, self-destructive. Children experience traumatic stress differently based on age and maturity level as this guide will outline to help parents and teachers.

Here are the normal signs of emotional overload for children or their caregivers.

Traumatic Stress Symptoms:

  • Chronic exhaustion or energy loss
  • Inability to listen to instruction or emotional distancing
  • Sadness or continual waves of grief (lost of graduations and prom)
  • Hopelessness, dread or self-destructive thoughts
  • Hyper-vigilance of danger, for instance, when someone sneezes
  • Detachment or emotional numbness
  • Inability to embrace complex concepts
  • Indecision or second-guessing every decision
  • Poor concentration or difficultly remembering the most basic of tasks
  • Fear, anxiety or panic
  • Sleeplessness or disturbing dreams
  • Anger, frustration, moodiness or continual irritation
  • Intrusive fearful thoughts
  • Physical aches or muscle pain, (usually from an unidentified source)
  • Minimizing the severity of the situation, especially among older adolescents

Think about you, your child, or your partner as you reviewed the list of normal stress reactions. Many of the people you know likely have some of these symptoms because they are normal in a time of crisis. The goal is to normalize and calm emotions to make them more manageable for both parents and kids.

Stay realistic. When children are feeling confused, highly anxious or emotionally numb, their ability to think creatively to do schoolwork at home will be impaired. Adjust expectations about school performance accordingly to focus on their emotional ability to cope. Until their brains are working better by learning how to control their emotions, they might not be able to retain much new information.

Continue Reading - Part II

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