May 9, 2020 - Health

Q&A on managing changes in kids' mental health during coronavirus

Illustration of a child's silhouette surrounded by colored shapes and lines

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Parents are struggling with self doubt when it comes to handling behavioral issues and managing homeschool responsibilities.

Why it matters: Children and parents alike are feeling the stress of the pandemic and there is evidence it could be long-lasting. Here's some advice from experts on how to help children cope.

Q. My child is acting out or overreacting to minor things, and other times withdrawing from the rest of the family. What can I do?

A. These are normal responses to traumatic stress, says Melissa Whitson, an associate professor at the University of New Haven who specializes in children's trauma.

  • Feeling helpless can exacerbate stress, so help children assert some control over the situation in small ways. Reframe social distancing as doing something good to help others.
  • Let them make signs, make masks or take part in some sort of volunteer effort. "Finding ways to feel like we are contributing to something is very helpful. That goes for kids, too,'" she said.

Q. How do I get my kid to give up the iPad without triggering a tantrum?

A. Plan in advance for transitions from screen time and decide how you're going to cope when there are problems, says Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University.

  • Carve out non-screen time and let children know about upcoming changes in the schedule, she said. Also, don't be afraid to kill the internet if you don't think the kids can handle making the transition, so they understand the privilege is linked to responding well when it's time to put the screens away.
  • She also suggests practicing calming exercises with kids before they need them and helping them find a routine, like going outside, reading a book, or sitting on your lap. "When you see them getting upset you can say 'you need to do your calming routine right now,' to help them develop those coping skills."

Q. The homeschool expectations are too much and I can't keep up. Am I failing my children?

A. "Nobody is going to be completely keeping up, that's a very tall order under these circumstances," Englander said in a webinar earlier this week. "This is about moderating our expectations; this is not a time for us to beat ourselves up or deciding we're going to shoot for the Moon."

  • Even if it's a struggle to keep up academically, focus on social and coping skills. Kids who have a meal each day with their families do much better with their social relationships, she said. Have family conversations and keep old routines when possible, as this can be reassuring for kids.
  • Carve out regular time for exercise. Getting outside is the best thing for mental health and behavioral problems, she said.
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