While sheltering at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, the best way to protect your family’s health and safety is by practicing good hygiene, taking preventive measures such as social distancing, prioritizing immunity, both through healthy food and movement, and by proactively protecting the mental well-being of you and your children.
“Science has shown that both parents and children are vulnerable to psychiatric distress at times like this,” says San Diego-based psychologist Sarah McEwen, Ph.D., Director of Research and Programming at Providence Saint John’s Pacific Brain Health Center. A recent research review in the medical journal The Lancet evaluated studies about the impact of quarantine on kids and adults, and found children were four times more likely to suffer PTSD symptoms, and 28% of parents reported psychological trauma as a result of a quarantine. “During previous infectious disease outbreaks, common stressors included being ill-informed, fearful, frustrated, and bored,” says McEwen, who has two sons herself, ages 3 and 7. “As parents, we need to be proactive about minimizing stress,” she says.
Here are seven tips for how parents can minimize stress for their families and help kids thrive in challenging times.
Stay informed so you can keep them informed
It’s important to be up to date on health and safety mandates so if your kids come to you with rumors they’ve heard and worst-case fears, you can address their concerns and explain what is really going on. It doesn’t mean you need to watch an excessive amount of news, but it does mean staying well-informed. Make sure you are getting your information and updates from reputable sources, such as the C.D.C., W.H.O., and the American Academy of Pediatrics, rather than from random online stories about the pandemic that are unsubstantiated by science.
Don’t downplay the severity of the pandemic with children, advises McEwen. Be honest with them, but also be mindful of each child’s age, psychological development, and personality type when talking about the facts. For example, young children (those aged 4 to 7) “can imagine they are somehow responsible for what’s happening in the world,” says McEwen, “in addition to having a poor understanding of how the virus is spread.” So it’s important to reassure them that COVID-19 isn’t their fault, and go on to explain as accurately and simply as you can the facts about how the virus is transmitted. For children over 8, says McEwen, “communicate the facts truthfully, but also be honest about the uncertainty and fears you and everyone else are feeling, giving them an avenue to then express their own concerns.” You can reassure the kids that as a family, you are protecting everyone and keeping them safe.
With so much disruption to regular activities and school schedules, many parents understandably feel the need to rigidly structure their children’s day. And particularly right now, it’s great to make a daily schedule for yourself and your kids. But “don’t feel the need to cram every hour with structured tasks,” McEwen says. Make sure there is free time for your children to play and just hang out.
She also cautions that when parents are overly rigid about sticking to schedules, “they risk eliciting feelings of failure and frustration for themselves, and disappointment for your child if you find you need to work, or if something unexpected comes up and you don’t check all the boxes for the day.” Explain to them that things may change, she says, and be ready for that yourself.
Kids need more exercise than adults, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — about an hour, as opposed to about 30 minutes for adults. So try to make sure the kids spend as much time moving as possible. McEwen recommends exercising together as a family, while noting that it can be tricky if you’re working full time or in a small space.
To make sure kids get the movement they need — which can also mitigate their boredom, manage stress levels, and maintain everyone’s well-being — McEwen recommends combining anything that gets your heart pumping with fun, for example, creating an obstacle course around the house. “What works for our family is kick-starting the day after breakfast with a backyard soccer game. No agenda or score keeping, just time for us all to be together outdoors, moving and having fun with each other,” she says. Or, she suggests, you could use the popular social media platform TikTok to create your own dance videos.
Encourage them to socialize
To maintain good mental health during social isolation, “it’s essential — not optional — for everyone in the family to stay socially engaged,” says McEwen. Arrange video playdates where, for example, the kids can do a collective group activity with friends, like play with Legos, while the parents can talk and listen to music.
Celebrate milestones creatively
While social distancing, special events matter for kids, and this unprecedented time presents opportunities to make unique memories your kids will remember forever. Consider celebrating milestones in imaginative ways. For example, you could surprise your child by arranging a birthday party over video chat, or do drive-by birthdays, stopping outside a friend’s house with balloons and banners and singing.
Help them find meaning through giving back
With no clear end in sight to the pandemic, maintaining a positive mindset is something we do have control over, says McEwen. Giving back gives us a sense of meaning, boosts optimism, and makes us feel better about ourselves and the world — and that also applies to children, she says. It’s important for them to see social distancing and sheltering in place as something good they’re doing for themselves and others. “Keep reinforcing to yourself and family members that ‘we are doing what is needed to keep others safe so we don’t overwhelm our healthcare system,’” McEwen says. And regularly engage in other ways of giving back as a family. That could include making masks, donating to crowdfunding relief funds for struggling local businesses, and donating to first responders who are risking their lives at the front lines of this pandemic.
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