“Every day, weather and safety permitting, step outside. Even if it is just for five minutes, getting outside and breathing air outside of your home can do wonders for your mental health.”Michelle Codington, MS, LMFT
As the pandemic continues, many parents are wondering how to talk to their kids about our future. When will schools reopen? When can we visit freely with friends and family members? Will we have a graduation in June? If we don’t have the answers, how can we reassure them?
Michelle Codington (MS, LMFT), Executive Director and Co-Founder of “Where Kids Thrive,” a place where children can feel safe expressing traumatic feelings, joins us to help navigate these tricky conversations.
Q&A With Michelle Codington MS, LMFT
What are some tips for parents on talking to their kids about the virus as it continues to rage on?
It’s important to remember that when scary things happen in the world, kids don’t have the ability to process them like adults do. They need our help to make sense of what’s happening around them. Keep in mind that understanding helps combat anxiety. Therefore, the more we talk with our kids about what’s happening, the more likely they are to feel reassured. While the coronavirus has certainly been a tremendous stressor, whether it actually traumatizes a child will depend on several factors. Many of these factors are outside of our control.
Routines are very helpful in maintaining some sense of normalcy, in that knowing what to expect (even little things like Monday is taco night) gives a small sense of control. Maintaining even small routines will help alleviate anxiety.
Whether or not family members or loved ones became ill (or died) from covid-19 will also play a role in the degree of impact this experience will have on a child. Grief and loss evoke big feelings in kids and grown-ups; therefore, it’s critically important to create an environment where kids can process big feelings in safe ways.
Emotional fluency can be taught and practiced in various ways other than just talking. Games designed to teach different feelings can be very helpful, particularly for children under age 12. Some examples of social-emotional games include: Ungame, Mad Dragon, Feelings in a Jar and Feelings Flashcards. Games put things into a context that’s easier for kids to digest, since they may not have the vocabulary or cognitive ability to articulate what they’re feeling inside.
Even if your family hasn’t experienced the death of a loved one, a sense of loss has been pervasive throughout this pandemic. Life as we knew it ended so suddenly and left us in a vacuum of uncertainty. Important events like graduations, celebrations, athletic events, camp are important developmental milestones to kids. That combined with the absence of the structure of school and social connection with friends is a perfect recipe for growing anxiety.
Having a calm, safe, regulated adult to help kids feel safe is the most important factor to help them cope.
What are some things parents can model for their kids or do to help them cope?
Set the tone.
Kids take their cues from us. So, when tackling difficult subjects, it’s important to create an atmosphere of confidence and openness. Kids are looking to us to be competent leaders in the midst of so many unknowns.
Even if you don’t always have all the answers, it’s important that your child feel comfortable asking you whatever is on his/her mind. (S)he may have heard stories or predictions from peers that are unrealistic and scary. This gives an opportunity to correct any misinformation your child may have heard.
As tempting as it is to reassure kids that everything will be fine very soon, that may not be realistic. The ability to hold big feelings and work through them is a valuable skill that we should encourage kids to cultivate. This might sound like, “I’m scared too. It’s hard to know what to expect,” or “I’m sad we can’t see grandma too. I’m glad she has people giving her good medical care.”
Holding big feelings and processing them effectively is not something children are good at (yet). The primary way children learn skills is by having them modeled by a trusted grown-up. Therefore, it is imperative that we show kids that it is possible to have many big feelings (at the same time) and hold them in appropriate ways. No feeling is bad, but how we handle them matters most. Notice when you start to get knocked out of your “window of tolerance,” and do whatever you need to do to bring yourself back to calm. This illustrates to your child that feelings aren’t scary and that they don’t last forever.
Play is a fundamental part of the developmental process, and a key way children learn social skills, problem-solving skills and communication skills. An atmosphere of playfulness goes a long way in softening the impact of anxiety and stress. When we are playing, we aren’t as worried about all the bad things that may (or may not) happen. It allows us to relax and be present in the moment. This connection is extremely healing for children.
Do you think it’s going to be hard for kids to catch up socially and academically?
Yes. Certainly academics have suffered and will likely continue to. However, it will likely be easier for kids to “catch up” academically in the long run while social and emotional gaps may become more problematic. Relating to others and negotiating social connections are foundational skills in life. These are usually learned during childhood and adolescence
Although kids and youth are extremely resilient, this experience has been challenging for kids on the social and emotional level in many ways. With younger children, it is likely that the lack of social opportunities will affect how they learn about rules, social engagement and social cues. Play and social interactions help children develop problem solving skills, communication skills, and the ability to regulate their emotions. It is certainly not impossible for these kids to learn those skills later or in other ways, but once social opportunities are safer and more available, we should be intentional about encouraging and arranging those types of interactions.
With adolescents and teenagers, social interactions are a large contributor to self- esteem, identity formation, and continued learning on how to navigate relationships in the world appropriately. Their social interactions at this age help prepare them for important aspects of their future (career, long-term relationships, etc), and teenagers learn to lean heavily on their social relationships in the present. Although technology can help bridge the gap here, tiktok videos and texts messages are no substitution for face-to-face interactions. The isolation our youth are currently experiencing may cause an increase in anxiety, depression, and loneliness. We need to be proactive about making sure youth have access to mental health resources to help them navigate this social crisis.
We’ve been in this for longer than anyone expected. What are some suggestions for dealing with Covid fatigue?
To address Covid fatigue, we have to look at what that really means for us. For some people, it’s the isolation and lack of social support. For others, it’s the loss of independence and alone time. If that doesn’t sound too bad, just ask any introvert who lives with a large family what that does to their mental state. And for many, Covid has cost them their financial stability, which can have obvious effects such as increasing stress, causing conflict in the home, and increasing feelings of self-doubt and depression. But whatever the individual consequences from our Covid fatigue may be, we encourage you to be deliberate in implementing strategies to try and mitigate these effects. For those missing their social interactions, we have seen weekly Zoom parties and driveway hangouts bring some major relief in this area. Create regular, scheduled events, so that you have something to look forward to. And be creative about what you do during these interactions. Play some word games, ask get-to-know-you-better questions, sing virtual karaoke…. We can make these moments fun and still share bonding experiences; we just have to work a little harder at it.
Try to incorporate 15 minutes of “you” time a day. Maybe that’s an extra long shower. Maybe it’s closing the bedroom door and listening to your favorite music. Perhaps it’s 15 minutes right before bed of reading, or a quick mud mask you got from the Dollar Store. Whatever it is that relaxes you, take charge of your day and find 15 minutes to make yours. It doesn’t sound like long, but it can make a significant impact on your stress level.
And every day, weather and safety permitting, step outside. Even if it is just for five minutes, getting outside and breathing air outside of your home can do wonders for your mental health.
How do you know when your child needs additional help dealing with their feelings around the current state of the world?
If you notice your child exhibiting prolonged stress reactions (i.e. eating disturbances, sleep disturbances, irritability, inability to concentrate, heightened sensitivity to minor events, excessive emotional outbursts), (s)he would likely benefit from professional counseling. Mental health practitioners are generally trained in adult, cognitive-based models of psychotherapy. However, not as many are specifically trained to work with children using creative and expressive modalities. Like a pediatrician, play therapists are explicitly trained in the concerns unique to childhood and alternative ways of helping kids heal (not just talking). Make sure the professional you are considering has specific training in working with children.
MS, LMFT, Executive Director/Co-Founder, Where Kids Thrive
Michelle is a dynamic clinician with 20 years of experience in counseling, mediation, leadership and consulting. She is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist whose diverse roles have included: therapy with families, children and couples; international adoption consulting; mediating for family court; and consulting/training for various businesses and non-profit organizations. Prior to founding the Thrive Program, Michelle was the Clinical Director of a statewide Intensive In-Community agency serving at-risk children and teens.