How to Emotionally Support Children during Stressful Times
These are times of uncertainty. We are all working very hard to remain calm, centered and take one day at a time. How we feel and the anxiety that we may carry has an impact on our children and teens and whether they feel safe and secure. It is therefore important for parents to be aware of that and to ensure that you yourself are calm before engaging with your children.
So as not to worry or overwhelm them about the present health crisis, try to limit discussions and information sharing with other adults to when children are NOT in ear shot. And
regarding the sharing of information with your children, wait for them to ask a question and then simply answer it rather than adding a lot of other information which they may be unable to process at that time. Let the child lead the way with their questions.
It is important for parents and caretakers to help their children feel safe and protected. Limiting their exposure to the news is important. Place the emphasis on offering reassurance.
Depending on the child’s age, they will need that in different ways;
Infants : Need holding, cuddling, soft words and song. The key here is the caregiver has to be calm and grounded in order to transmit the feelings of safety;
Toddlers: Will pick up the emotions being expressed at home, even if they are not yet speaking or able to understand a lot of language. They need to know that it is safe to explore and that you are there for them when they come back for comfort, delight and support. They are just learning to identify their feelings, so helping to identify them for your child can be very helpful. They are starting to learn empathy, so how you treat their feelings is a model for them on how to treat others. They still need physical touch for reassurance. Although they may not understand the words being spoken around them, they will feel anxiety and fear so be mindful of the energy you put out;
3-6-years: Will ask a lot of questions. They are just learning language so they need the extra reassurance that they are safe. Use very short truthful answers. This age group may also misunderstand the information they are hearing from others and will need what is going on to be explained in a simple and safe way. They don’t need to know everything. To a 5-year-old’s question “Why do we have to stay in the house? “the simple answer that “we are taking care of our health” will suffice. As stated above, allow children to lead the way with their questions and so limit your answers. When they are ready to know more they will ask again;
School-aged children of 6-12 years : Understand and are listening constantly to information around them, so be mindful of the words and the tone that you use. Try to focus on what they can do rather than what they can’t. They need to know that they are of importance to the family. They are learning social values. Give them jobs and direction to help them feel useful. Big jobs that require carrying, pushing, pulling and the exertion of some energy can also help a child calm down. Consider how children help during this time. They could make cards for people at the hospital who don’t get visitors; help with the care of their younger siblings; assist in cooking or setting the table and bringing wood inside. They can do some school work, arts and crafts, beadwork, constructions and puzzles. Parents or older children can help them share what they are doing by posting their activities or art work online. Taking the children outdoors – to run and get fresh air - is also important. Monitor screen time to ensure they are not hearing a lot of Covid 19 news without you and also limit screen time which although might keep them distracted, can become very alienating.
Teens 13-20 years: feel invincible and might not see the rules applying to them. Be aware that this is because of the developmental stage they are in. Be patient and understanding rather than angry and help them see that they are doing something good with their social distancing by keeping their Doda’s and elders safe.
Teens are learning to be independent yet still need reassurance. Taking the time to have discussions about what they think can be helpful. If you share your thoughts and feelings they may too. They are thinking on a broader level and this may be overwhelming for them as it is for adults. As a way of coping and minimizing their feelings of powerlessness, they may distance themselves from the whole contagion issue or appear to be unconcerned. No doubt hey will still want to hang out with their friends.
Avoid trying to convince them of the gravity of the situation but rather encourage them to get involved in doing something; expressing their feelings and thoughts using humor, cartoons, jokes (even if they are dismissive), creating videos, music and rap/scat/poetry. Social media will help them to connect with others but just like for adults, it can become extremely overwhelming. It may be helpful to give them information about specific sites that give accurate information. Check in with them regularly (even if you feel they are pushing you away), give them choices of safe activity instead of “telling them what to do”. Telling anyone what to do triggers a rebellion. Choices create inclusion.
It is important that the home feel as safe and as reassuring a place as possible Although we are compelled to be together and mostly inside our homes for reasons that are concerning, this can also be a time to connect. Take things slow, talk, tell stories, look at old and not so old pictures, cook, watch movies, play (cards, board games, bingo) and enjoy each other.
Attached you will find 3 social stories which help children of various ages with and without special needs understand the situation broadly and the need to wash hands. As well you find a few websites which have lists of family activity ideas as well as having free movies, games and other resources. We encourage you also to share what you might find with others.
By Suzy Goodleaf, M.Ed., Psychologist OPQ. Kahnawake.
In collaboration with Nancy Rother, M.ED. & Louise Dessertine, M.A.