The coronavirus pandemic is changing everyone’s lives, including school-age children, most of whom have seen their entire lives upended.
As the days of social distancing turn into months, anxiety and frustration continue to mount, for teenagers missing milestone celebrations to middle schoolers missing their friends to little ones missing their local playgrounds.
Dr. Alexandra Solomon, associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University and clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, says it’s perfectly normal for abnormal times to affect kids’ behavior.
“Our kids, like all of us, play out our emotions in our behavior. So it’s fully expected that we’re seeing shifts and changes during this time,” she said.
When it comes to caring for children’s mental well-being in the face of so much uncertainty, Solomon says the best way to protect kids is to support parents.
“When parents are stressed and managing massive uncertainty, we are increasing the risk of things like interpersonal violence in the home, addiction, depression and anxiety. Kids are the collateral damage. The safer parents feel, the safer they can help their kids feel. In the mental health field, we call this ‘regulating the regulator,’” Solomon said.
In the short term, Solomon says parents could see a range of new behaviors from their children as the pandemic continues.
“We tend to classify kids’ challenges into two broad categories: internalizing, with anxiety and depression, or externalizing — acting out, arguing, whining,” she said. “Behavior is a communication. What is their ‘bad’ behavior trying to tell you? This is a hard one! Rather than reacting and disciplining, start by get curious about what the behavior is trying to tell you. It’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and. You can both set limits and lead with empathy.”
Parents might also be noticing their kids return to behaviors they had grown out of, including some that are disruptive or annoying.
“Rather than telling kids to ‘grow up,’ I want parents to remember that behavior is communication,” she said. “When kids are upset, it’s helpful to get to the underlying feeling and offer empathy and comfort.”
While it’s not necessary or advisable for kids to be glued to grim news reports day after day, they’ll do best if parents regularly check in with them and offer information, according to Solomon.
“After 9/11, researchers found that the kids who did the best long term were the ones whose parents talked with them about what was going on. These conversations validate kids’ feelings and help them make sense of what they were seeing around them and feeling inside of them,” she said. “Parents shouldn’t give false hope and parents don’t need to give kids advice. Parents can ask open-ended questions like: What are you worrying about these days? What have you heard lately? How can I support you?”
Solomon acknowledges the traumatic nature of living during a pandemic and that the resultant stress can manifest in many ways.
“We also want to hold out hope for post-traumatic growth. I hope that kids will be able to call upon the fact that they survived the global pandemic and those memories will be a source of strength and resilience,” she said.
Finally, Solomon reminds parents that now is not the time to expect perfection from anyone, including themselves.
“You need to be a ‘good enough’ parent, not a perfect one,” she said. “Our kids grow from our imperfections. If we were there to meet their every need before they knew they had them, there would be no stretch, no bridge to cross. In the stretch is growth. And when you eff up, apologize, repair, move on! You are your kids’ lighthouse in this storm. Just keep loving them. You’ve got this.”