University of Mount Olive Psychology Department Chair Natalie Kemp shares insights on the psychological impacts of COVID-19 on children.
If you are like me, you may love to travel in the summer. My husband and I love to take little trips with our kids. When we are going on a trip, the first thing we do is get an address so we can put it in our phone to get the directions. Although I like to be spontaneous at times, most of the time I want to know where I am going and have some clear directions of how to get there. I like to know approximately how long it will take and if there are interesting spots we can stop at along the way. There is comfort in a plan and knowing what to expect. When we know what to expect, we can prepare better and know our boundaries. For example, if we are headed east to the beach, I know I need my bathing suit and a towel. If I am headed to my healthy brother’s house, I better eat my own junk food in the car, because he does not allow any in his house. For most people, having a general plan is not only practical, but comforting as well.
Thanks to COVID-19, we are living in unprecedented times. We don’t have a plan, and we don’t know what to expect. Every few weeks, the plans and rules change, and no one really knows what to expect. As adults it can be quite overwhelming and frustrating, but for children it can be absolutely confusing and scary. Developmentally, research shows that children thrive when they have structure and boundaries. Not rigid lines, but events they have experience with and can plan for. As any early childhood educator can tell you, the first few weeks of school is for establishing and learning the rules. Once children understand what is acceptable and what is expected, then they are put at ease and ready to learn and thrive. In the past, families would prepare for the school year to start by collecting school supplies and maybe even getting a few new outfits or shoes for school. Here it is July and we still have no idea what will happen next month. As adults, we wonder if we need to find child care during the day now, and if we can even keep our jobs. When parents start to stress because they do not know what the plan is, it is probable that the kids will feel it and they will start to show signs of stress too.
At the most basic level, stress is the way that your body responds to demands or threats. When we are faced with uncertainty and disappointments, our stress responses are physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral. Let’s explore how each of these look in children and what the adults in their life can do to support them during this unpredictable time.
Physical symptoms of stress in children may present as signs of depression or anxiety. A child may seem lethargic and not want to get out of bed. Since so many of their activities have been postponed or cancelled they may not be motivated to get going in the mornings if they don’t see anything to look forward to. They may complain about always being tired and having frequent headaches or stomach aches. On the opposite end, some children may seem quite anxious and jittery. They may report having trouble sleeping. Appetites may be off as some may even continually ask for food just because they are bored. For all of these concerns, making a schedule is helpful so that children will have a general idea of what to expect. Of course, we can’t plan too far in advance at this time, but picking a time to sit down as a family and talk about what the week will look like and if there are any events to look forward to is helpful. For example, playgrounds may be closed, but families can bring their bikes to a park and ride together, have a picnic lunch or go to a pond and feed the fish. Regular physical exercise is important and parents should model that for their children and try to do it with them. Having a set routine and time for going to bed and waking up will help with consistency as well.
Emotional and cognitive symptoms of stress are those overwhelming feelings of lack of control, being pessimistic, and constant worrying that leads people to become frustrated, lonely, and grumpy with one another. Children may start fighting with their siblings or whining at every request. Because they no longer have a routine or schedule to follow, they become forgetful and disorganized. Their rooms may be even messier than normal and they just can’t seem to focus on anything. They may see their situation as hopeless and talk in very negative terms. Adults have an opportunity to show them hope for their future and provide positive interactions when they can. If at all possible, minimize the amount of news or negative spins on the current state of the world as much as possible. For example, if a child hears that deaths are rising at an alarming rate, they may really be afraid that their loved ones are going to die and leave them alone. Reassure them and take the opportunity to point out any positives and reframe the situation. If a parent has had hours cut at work, explain how that parent is now able to be home more to spend time with the children instead of being away. Acknowledge that it can be scary at times, but that things will work out. Do not dismiss or make fun of their fears, as they may not be willing to express themselves anymore.
Finally, behavioral symptoms may be expressed through physical aggression, avoiding any responsibilities, restlessness, or even nervous habits like nail biting. Children may be mad about not seeing their friends or school events and athletics being canceled. Parents need to find other outlets for physical behaviors. For example, pools in many communities are still open, even if there is a limit of how many people can be in them. Parents can coordinate play dates that incorporate social distancing so that children can still socialize and be safe. Reinforce positive behaviors and encourage prosocial behaviors like helping others or taking responsibility for a chore in the home.
Although we are going through some tough times in our world, we can still be a positive model for our children and offer them hope for their future. Things may not look the same as they once did, but that does not mean that it will always be stressful or bad- just different. Let’s find a way to embrace the differences for a healthier future.