Children may be processing the disruptions in their lives now in a way that the adults around them don’t expect: acting, backing off, withdrawing, or even looking surprisingly happy. Parents need to know that this is all normal, experts say, and there are a few things we can do to help.
But in some cases, exposure to stressful events, which at this time may include the absence of routines, the loss of a job and financial hardship for a parent, or the serious illness or death of someone a child cares about, it can leave children feeling traumatized.
Dr. Burke Harris said the Covid-19 pandemic is a “perfect storm” for this stress to have a negative impact on children’s physical and mental health and behavior. But at a time when there are so many unknowns, tools are available to help mitigate the harm children experience. Rather than fear stress, she said, we need to tune in to our children, assess their needs, and help them turn stressful situations into opportunities for growth.
Here are some ways that parents can help children cope with stress without becoming toxic to their emotional and physical well-being.
Watch your children closely.
When we see a child acting in a way that we consider inappropriate, we must consider that it is outside its window of stress tolerance, explained Corinne Edwards, a private practice therapist with more than 15 years of experience working with children with stories of trauma. “Children’s brains are connected for survival, and given this, it’s important to look at their behaviors from the perspective of considering what need behavior is trying to satisfy during this difficult time.”
For some children, tantrums and bedwetting, stages that seemed to have passed months or years ago, may be the only sign that they are facing an internal struggle.
“Reactions that seem unwarranted for a given circumstance, or different from the typical behavior of a child, may be signs of underlying distress,” said Joy Gabrielli, a psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology at the University of Florida.
If you are not sure if the stress response you are seeing is normal, you can seek advice for your child. Often your child’s regular healthcare provider can direct you to mental health resources that can be accessed through telemedicine while you are under orders to stay home.
Understand the effects of adversity on children.
While many children are experiencing a stressful situation right now, those who have been exposed to other adverse childhood events are at increased risk of struggling during and after this crisis.
“An ACE score is not the beginning and the end,” said Dr. Burke Harris. Instead, he compares it to a thermometer. You may be sick and have no fever. But if you have a fever, it is an indicator for everyone that you are sick and that we must pay close attention.
“When we can predict, hopefully we can prevent,” said Dr. Burke Harris. By knowing who is most at risk of toxic stress from Covid-19, policymakers can deliver community resources to those who are expected to need them most.
Yo Jackson, a professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, who also serves as associate director of the Child Abuse Solutions Network, emphasized that it would be too simplistic to say that children in households with the highest Risk factors are suffering the most right now. “The dose matters,” he said, “but it is much more nuanced than that. We can’t just “check the boxes” to decide how Covid-19 will affect a particular child. “
Dr. Burke Harris agreed. “The same stressor will not elicit the same response at all,” he said. Children who were not at risk before Covid-19 may face new risks because safety nets that parents relied on in the past have disappeared, and those who relied on support networks in the past may be overwhelmed by the lack of currently available resources.
Avoid making assumptions.
Adults must recognize that for some children, the new loneliness brought on by Covid-19 feels like a gift. While we may be struggling with the closing of schools, children may rejoice in it. We can assume that our children miss their friends, but they may appreciate having more time with us. And some who were dealing with bullying or social challenges at school may be relieved not to have to see other children.
Find “stress busters” that work for your family.
When we think about adversity in childhood, the key, said Dr. Burke Harris, is to think about what children can do and what we can offer, in the face of that stress.
“While dosage matters, damping also matters,” he said. Shock absorbers help us deal with stress and allow us to process it healthier. Along with positive relationships, Dr. Burke Harris explained that sleep, exercise, and nutrition can also help children keep stress under control.
Dr. Burke Harris recommends that parents help children avoid the ill effects of stress by first talking to them about the pandemic. She advises parents to help children understand that there are things they can do to help others, such as staying home whenever possible and wearing a mask when they go out. Children feel good when they know they are helping to solve a problem.
Dr. Burke Harris also encourages parents to keep children connected to friends and family, which can be done through video chats, phone calls, and letter writing. Lastly, he recommends that families create and stick to a routine that gives children structure, allows them to play, have hygiene and, when it can be done safely, carry out physical activity.
Some children will struggle more than others during the pandemic, and these children may need even more support in the coming months.
“As difficult as it is to see distressed children, we want to interact with them from a place of support,” said Edwards. These moments are connecting opportunities, and we can help children grow by helping them learn how to process their strong feelings and by reminding them that they are not alone.