Helping kids understand distance, handle pandemic stress

The Rebound
Posted at 5:00 PM, May 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-15 07:27:04-04

PHOENIX — It has already been difficult explaining to your children that you cannot hug or visit those you love.

Now again, families are having to discuss how going out is allowed but they still have to keep their distance.

It is a hard concept for adults to grapple with, let alone a child. So what are the impacts the distancing is having on their mental health?

"Even the youngest children are aware that their lives are very different," said Dr. Alison Steier.

No matter how young or how old, children have likely picked up by now that something is off.

"I think you know it is a stressor," Dr. Steier said.

She is the Director of Mental Health Services and the Harris Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Training Institute at Southwest Human Development in Phoenix.

She said, a time of physical and social distancing for children can absolutely take a toll on development.

"We always look for kids kind of slipping back in skills or behaviors that they look like they had pretty well wrapped up," Dr. Steier described.

Parents may notice a child who was potty-trained is having accidents or that a bold, confident kid is more clingy.

Dr. Steier said, it is important to be aware of those behavioral changes. But she does believe children will be able to quickly return to normal.

"Sliding back under stress is something that everybody does," Dr. Steier said. "Adults do it too. We are not always on our game particularly when there's a lot of pressure."

But there are some ways you can help your kids deal with stress.

Dr. Steier suggests setting up those FaceTime, Zoom, or phone calls with their friends and family. Even if their attention span is short, they will remember their friend is still there.

"It's good to remind children of their friends... to use your imagination and figure out what they're doing," Dr. Steier explained. "If you're getting ready for bed, probably your friend is getting ready for bed. 'I'm getting ready to read you a storybook. I bet your friend's mommy is getting ready to read them a storybook'. These are the kinds of things that keep children connected in their hearts."

She also encourages parents use this time to be patient and give children extra attention because they may not know how to share what they are going through.

"Giving kids words to you know to understand their own feelings is very organizing and it also shows our empathy for them," Dr. Steier said. "So the best way to learn empathy is to have somebody be empathic with you and your experience."

After all, this is an experience everyone is going through together.

For more exercises to help children with their emotional and social skills, click here.

Southwest Human Development also offers a free helpline for parents to give support from experts in the field. The Birth to Five Helpline is available to take your call Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. - 8 p.m. at 877-705-5437.