Social distancing has been difficult for so many of us and children are not immune to the stress of this large change. When faced with uncertainty, children often struggle to adapt the way we are able to in adulthood. As a result, their struggle can be even greater and more confusing for us as parents.
What to Do if My Child Shows Distress During COVID-19
One of the most notable frustrations in childhood is that kids do not necessarily have insight into their emotions, clues as to what is driving their frustrations or words to help articulate this problem. Moreover, distress in children does not come out in the “typical” ways that we would anticipate, but may present in ways that would not immediately make many of us think they are in distress. Commonly, kids will present with attention seeking behaviors, temper-tantrums, increased frustrations, difficulty following instructions, and wild mood swings.
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As a parent, it is natural to become overwhelmed by the idea that our child is struggling. We love to dream of a world in which our child is never stressed and only has positive life experiences. But when faced with hardship, this is a great opportunity to help your child increase their emotional intelligence and insight into their emotions. Ironically, it is in hard times that we have the greatest opportunity to grow.
Highlighted below are a few steps we can take to help our children through this time of stress:
Give Them The Words
Helping children put words to their experience is very calming and reassuring for a child. Often overwhelmed by their emotions, children need assistance in identifying what they are feeling and expressing what is going on inside. In these moments, parents have the opportunity to create a greater understanding of their emotional world and provide them with empathy and reassurance that their feelings are okay.
Stick to simple phrases like, “It looks like you are feeling very frustrated that you can’t play with your friends.” Then provide reassurance by saying things like, “It’s okay, I am frustrated too.” Giving them the words to explain their emotions can be very empowering and help children feel understood.
Check Your Emotions
Emotions can be contagious. Just like laughter can fill a room with excitement and joy, anxiety can be felt by those around us. In these circumstances, children often will pick up on and mimic the emotions of those around them. Therefore, when a parent is feeling more anxious a child may show symptoms of distress. But when a parent is able to take time for themselves and lower their distress, their children may also exhibit less anxiety or frustration.
Create a Routine
As much as we love our free time and lack of schedule, we often thrive in consistency and predictability. Setting a routine schedule for ourselves and our children can be a positive move for their mental health. Creating a new normal will help them feel more in control and better able to predict the future.
Take Time to Talk
Bedtime can be a great time to add the routine of asking them about their day and how they felt about their day. We often talk about the content of what we did, but it can be easy to forget to ask them how they felt about this. The more often we have discussions that encourage emotional reflection, the more easily they will be able to identify their emotions, have positive discussions, and feel comfortable coming to you proactively when they are feeling stressed.
Remember, more than anything else, kids just need to know that they are safe and that they are loved. It really is not more complicated than that! So parents, be kind to yourself as you are trying to figure all of this out. None of this is easy and you too are experiencing the stress of having your world turned upside down. Though stressful, you and your child can come out on the other side of this pandemic stronger and even closer than before. Keep up the good work!
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Dr. Melissa Estavillo is a Licensed Psychologist and founder of Biltmore Psychology and Counseling. With over 7 years of experience, she specializes in both individual and couples therapy in Phoenix and Scottsdale, AZ. She integrates complementary methodologies and techniques stemming from Emotionally Focused Theory, Psychodynamic Theory and Other Evidence Based Practices to offer a highly personalized approach tailored to each client.