By Jennifer Miller-Kass, Behavioral Health Administrative Director
These are unprecedented times. We are experiencing something that we have never dealt with before. With schools closed and no playdates or sports, families are spending more time together than ever before. Let us make it good time. Children are impacted in a unique way. Let’s go over some ways we can help them through this time.
It is essential that we recognize that our children will mirror the emotional state of those around them. We must help our children feel physically and emotionally safe. Talk with your child; answer their questions, validate their feelings, and help them understand the action that we are taking to protect them.
Speak calmly and reassuringly. The way you speak to your child sets the emotional tone. Be a role model. Do not be afraid to discuss the coronavirus. Remember, not talking about something can actually make children worry more. Start by asking them what they already know. Do not offer more detail than needed but share honest, age-appropriate facts and correct misinformation. When they ask questions, you do not know the answer to, say so. Make yourself available to listen and talk. Let them know you will keep them updated as you know more. Check in with them to answer new questions and to be aware of their perception of what is happening. Be sure they know they can come to you when they have questions.
This is an opportunity to talk about and label feelings. Let them know it is normal to feel stress and worry. Again, be aware children take their emotional cues from you and your tone. Focus on the positive. Offer love and affection. Celebrate having more time together as a family. Attitude is everything. We GET to stay home and be together.
Too much information on one topic can lead to increased anxiety. Be aware of what your children are seeing and hearing. Teach your children that everything they see or read on the internet and social media may not be true. Avoid language that might blame others or lead to stigma.
Stick to routines
In times of uncertainty, stick to routines as much as possible. Routines help provide feelings of control, predictability, calm, and well-being. Structured days with regular mealtimes and bedtimes are an essential part of keeping children healthy. Reassure them together you will do all you can to be safe and well.
Help them feel in control
Focusing on what you are doing to stay safe helps children feel in control. Like adults, children feel more distressed when they feel helpless; therefore, it is important to let them know what actions they can take to keep themselves and their family safe. Help them understand why social distancing is so important. Teach them hand washing is essential, to cough or sneeze into their elbow to help stop the spread of germs, and rest is best to help maintain a healthy body and mind.
Helping teens feel understood
Teenagers are struggling with not being able to participate in events that are important to them such as prom, graduation, college campus visits and spring sports. We cannot replace these events but we should not underestimate the need for, and the power of, empathy.
Teens have every right to be angry, sad, and upset. Do not hesitate to say, “I’m sorry this has happened.” “You will get through this but I get why you are so miserable right now.” Some teens might feel a relief that they do not have to deal with graduation pomp and circumstance or prom, and that is ok too.
Validating their feelings is what is essential. Some teens may still be going on outings or get-togethers; this is not what experts are recommending. If your teen does get invited somewhere, give them permission to blame you for why they have to say no. Parents may consider loosening the rules about how much time is spent online to offer a connection with peers. Rules are still needed, as outdoor time, family face-to-face time, productive learning, and sleep are still very much needed.
Younger children can stay in contact with friends virtually with adult supervision via social media, Zoom or FaceTime. Talking with their friends this way will help decrease feeling alone and will lessen stress from being away from friends. Also, consider using social media to keep in touch and check on grandparents, family, and friends. It will help you all feel a little closer and less stressed.
What to watch for
We are all in this together. Remember, it is not unusual to experience some distress during times of uncertainty and stress. Watch for signs of distress including: feeling overwhelmed, depressive symptoms that persist or intensify, inability to focus or concentrate, sleep difficulties, excessive crying, unhealthy coping such as increased alcohol use or risky/impulsive behaviors, feeling paralyzed by fear of the future, sudden anger or irritability. If you notice these signs in yourself, reach out to family and friends for support and engage in your usual healthy coping skills. If your distress continues or gets to the point that you are having difficulty managing your day-to-day activities then seek professional help.
Help is available
Help is always available. You can seek mental health help by texting TALK to 741741 the Crisis Text Line or you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-Talk. Locally, 24-hour mental health crisis lines are available: Grant & Iowa Counties 1-800-362-5717 or Lafayette County 1-800-552-6642. There is also information available at: https://southwestern.wi.networkofcare.org/, which the Southwestern Wisconsin Behavioral Health Partnership has made available.