‘Our kids have not had a normal school year in the last three years… leaving them feeling anxious and looking to the adults in their lives to help them regain a sense of control.’
By Leslie Nicholson
Our community has remained vigilant for months about when the Covid-19 virus pandemic would impact our lives, and here we are…sheltering in place, learning about social distancing, and for many people, adjusting to life under one roof with kids for an extended period of time. From older teens to our preschoolers, the new normal is a lot to adjust to for local families.
Three local professionals who have careers that involve working with children, from preschool age to high school age, are offering practical advice to parents who are navigating their way through the next couple of weeks and possibly longer.
“This situation is different from the fires our kids experienced because germs are invisible,” says Vicky Rohrer, a local MFT, who has worked with children in crisis during most of her career. “And with the fires of 2017, and the subsequent smoke days and power outages, the likelihood of any trauma and anxiety lingering from the events from the past couple of years is a real possibility. These issues may be magnified by everything happening around them with the pandemic. The most common reaction parents may see is their child exhibiting a feeling of panic, often manifesting itself in things like a disruption in normal sleep patterns and the inability to focus.”
Rohrer reminds parents and legal guardians that if a child or parent is really struggling with fears about the pandemic, that many therapists are offering tele-help to respect the need for social distancing.
Rohrer, along with local pediatrician Christina Sullivan, M.D., and Jill Pressley, teacher and owner of Miss Jill’s Home Playcare, all agree that the first step that parents and guardians need to take with kids at home is to set up a routine.
“Our kids have not had a normal school year in the last three years,” says Sullivan, who moved to Sonoma in July of 2017, just prior to the fires. “Once again, our kids have to adjust to a huge shift in their normal schedules, leaving them feeling anxious and looking to the adults in their lives to help them regain a sense of control.”
Sullivan suggests helping children control what they can as we go through the upheaval caused by the pandemic. “Focus on things like staying healthy and safe with proper hand washing, covering your mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and keeping your hands away from your face,” Sullivan explains. “Kids are also not able to see older relatives during this pandemic, so setting us video chats and maintaining some kind of contact is the way to safely visit without the threat of germs. This may also help minimize the worry that kids may be feeling about grandparents and older aunts and uncles who may be self-quarantined at home to avoid getting sick.”
Pressley, who works mostly with 3-5-year-olds, has observed her students “modeling” the Coronaviirus into their play at school. “Some of the kids will tell me that their dolls “are very, very sick” with the virus. I give them a space to work out their feelings and guide them into modeling good behavior. This includes promoting handwashing and talking to them about how we can stay healthy in our school space. I see the kids being focused and not fearful.”
When it comes to kids asking questions about what is happening around them with the pandemic, Pressley stresses the importance of being truthful. “Keeping the age of your child in mind, answer your children’s questions to the best of your ability.”
With her program taking a two-week break during the height of the pandemic, Pressley hopes that parents will take this chance to be with their children, but also take an opportunity to get the rest and quiet they also need to stay healthy.
“Don’t fear that they are missing out. They need to play, and just being with family and feeling that they are safe, is the most important thing to focus on right now. Create a routine that is not overly structured. Keeping a bedtime routine is essential at any time, and especially now. And parents don’t have to feel that their kids need constant entertainment. “Boredom leads to creativity” is a good thing to remember and will give parents permission to decompress,” she explains. “Childhood is a ‘lost art’ and kids don’t get that much time to be unstructured. Use this as a time to come together and give them the gift of calm, fun and good memories.”
A good reminder from all three professionals is to limit screen time, especially with older children.
“Limiting social media and exposure to the news is vital for all kids,” explains Rohrer. “The kids will soak up a lot of the stress and anxiety that is coming at them with news reports and social media posts. One suggestion is to set up a family meeting to be able to talk about information that is accurate. And by connecting with them about what is going on, it gives them a space where they can validate their feelings.”
Rohrer suggests parents take this time as an opportunity to model healthy behaviors and show their kids positive ways to cope with stress and anxiety.
“Simple things like deep breathing, showing them how we cope with constant changes in a healthy way, and including fun physical and outdoor activities, will be good for getting through each day,” she says. A fun activity would be to journal or make a small scrapbook to document what you are doing together as a family. As hard as this is, we are living through an historic event. Let the kids become their own historians.”
Sullivan also strongly suggests that parents should monitor media exposure. “There are images and words being used that may scare kids. It is hard for parents to monitor their kids all of the time. Setting up a firm schedule, especially when middle school and high school students will be given assignments online following Spring Break This will help everyone to understand that we all have an important role to play to help in getting through each day successfully. It may have to be a schedule that is hour-to-hour. Every family is different and has to work out what works best for their situation.”
Rohrer does feel that giving kids the chance to enjoy video games and talking to friends through texting can be built into the schedule and will make kids feel connected to their friends they are missing because of the shelter-in-place rules and being away from their peers.
Suggestions for activities that families can enjoy together are gardening, cooking, reading, playing music, dance parties, board games, and role playing. Rohrer suggests parents take this time as an opportunity to model healthy behaviors and show their kids positive ways to cope with stress and anxiety.
“Exploring ways to help the community is a great addition to a daily routine. Kids can feel like they are doing something positive and making a difference,” she says. “They can make cards, help with buying groceries for elderly neighbors and friends, participate in buying gift cards to donate, and participate in ordering to-go meals as a way to support local businesses. They will get a sense of how they are part of our community, create the chance to have great conversations about helping others, and give parents a chance to model empathy and caring, especially important in times like we are experiencing.”
Leslie Nicholson is the Director of R.I.S.K-Sonoma/A Parent Support Network