The Warren family of Tempe has been hit hard by the emotional disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mom Amy Warren is concerned about her kids, ages 9 and 6.
“My oldest has developed some nervous ticks. My youngest is crying over everything. The change to their everyday lives has affected them in significant ways,” she said. She plans to seek counseling through a friend who is a psychologist. “The kids definitely need to talk with somebody. It’s too much.”
The Warrens are not alone. Raising Arizona Kids readers and social media followers are observing pandemic-related stressors ranging from children missing their friends to fearing a possible death in the family.
Today’s installment of our week-long “Pandemic Parenting Town Hall” addresses parents’ concerns for their children’s emotional state. What are local children going through? And what can be done?
“It’s a time of unprecedented stress for children right now,” said Laura Falduto, PhD, a child, adolescent and adult psychologist in Scottsdale. “The entire country closed down schools overnight. Kids were in their routine, and it was upended. The predictability and reliability of their lives changed dramatically and quickly. It’s an enormous adjustment for them.”
Some children have felt the fallout more than others.
“Some kids are thriving because there’s a less hectic pace of life. They may be experiencing less stress because they’re more comfortable at home,” Dr. Falduto said.
That is the case for Melissa Bankston of Chandler, whose five children have adapted easily to the new routine. “They engage with their classmates and teachers every day,” she said. “We are enjoying our time at home together.”
Even a lack of expression can be troubling. Kellie Columbus of Chandler says her two kids, ages 11 and 14, usually ask her about “everything.” So their silence is indicating that something is up.
“They are sad,” she said. “But they don’t really express anything about this new world. I ask, but they don’t seem to have questions. They do seem concerned. I think it’s so truly overwhelming that they don’t even know how to begin processing it.”
Kellie and her husband Josh have put structure in place to help their kids, who attend Summit School of Ahwatukee. They keep to a school schedule of online learning from at least 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays, she said. After school hours, they try to “quell the stress” through regular exercise — a long-time family activity that helps with continuity in an uncertain time. But she knows that the kids miss their activities and friends.
Social isolation is one of the most often mentioned challenges of pandemic living.
Kids are longing to resume their lives — and even their school days. Dominique Ferguson of Scottsdale said her two children, students at Benchmark Elementary, are worried that their school won’t re-open in August. Even if it does, they fear another COVID-19 outbreak could shut it down again.
“They are ready to go back,” she said. “Doing work at home has just gotten old for them. They miss their friends.”
Children and teens are responding to this unprecedented crisis very differently — from acting out to shutting down to going with the flow. Experts advise parents to stay alert to changes in their children’s behavior that might indicate worrisome issues:
- Excessive crying or irritation
- Unusual irritability or temper tantrums
- Unexplained headaches or body pain
- Regressive behavior such as bedwetting
- Intense worry or sadness
- Personality shifts, such as quietness in a normally outgoing child
- Changes in eating and sleeping habits (more or less)
- Difficulty with attention and concentration
- Lack of interest in usual activities
- Trouble with school performance
How to help?
- The CDC recommends ways to support your child through this time:
- Talk with your child and answer questions about the COVID-19 outbreak. Share the facts about the disease and emphasize what you are doing to keep the family safe.
- Let your child know that it is normal to feel upset given the circumstances: Tell them you also have concerns and how you are dealing with them so they can learn from you.
- Limit your family’s exposure to news coverage of the pandemic, including social media: Children may misinterpret what they hear and can be frightened about something they do not understand.
- Manage screen time even though there may be more needed during this time of self-isolation — strive for a balance between digital and non-digital activities.
- Try to maintain regular routines with creating a schedule for learning activities, exercise and relaxing or fun activities.
- Try to keep your home organized and orderly.
- Stay in touch with family and friends through social media, teleconferencing and phone calls — use technologies such as Facetime and Zoom to stay connected.
- Be a role model as a parent – take breaks, get plenty of sleep, exercise, and eat well.
Experts also ask parents to check in on their own anxiety levels. “Kids feed off of the anxiety of how their lives have changed, but they’re also reacting to their parents’ stress,” said Dr. Funda Bachini, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
How do you know when it’s time to seek professional help for your children?
“If you notice withdrawing, or big shifts in mood, and if you’re doing everything you usually do to help your kids and you’re not seeing an improvement, I always recommend erring on the side of talking with someone,” said Dr. Bachini.
Right now, therapy sessions are available but families may need to access them through tele-medicine. Few practitioners are taking in-person appointments.
A good dose of medicine is providing hope to children, Dr. Bachini says: “Remind them that this situation will get better. We will get back to a consistent life. The uncertainty won’t last forever.”
The University of Arizona Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health has issued a “Toolkit for Parents and Teachers” to provide best-practices guidelines on communicating with children about the COVID-19 outbreak and minimizing the impact on family life. It includes a downloadable Coronavirus Comic Book and a Teacher Guide.