by Dr. Anisha Abraham
How are you adjusting to social distancing, school closures, home offices, lockdowns and toilet paper shortages? If the onslaught of memes and cartoons are any indication, the last few weeks have been difficult for many families holed up at home! Here are a few tips to help kids to cope with the unfolding uncertainties and challenges of COVID-19.
- Maintain routines. Maintaining routines and schedules can provide children and teens a sense of stability. There are good online tools for creating a schedule for school-age kids. In our house, we made schedules with our tweens, which include online school hours, mealtimes, exercise, piano practice, small chores and free time. Of course, we had our share of drama and eye-rolling, but it does provide a rough guide for the day. For teens, consider their need for independence and creating their own path for learning, but also encourage them to take time away from media use, get physical activity and break large assignments into smaller ones. Finally, a reminder to parents-manage your expectations. Your child or teen may not be working at the same pace or intensity as a regular school day. Acknowledge this, as hard as it may be to do.
- Empower kids to be responsible. Remind children and teens that they can protect themselves and others by practicing proper hand washing, sneezing into your elbow and maintaining social distancing. What we have seen is that children and teens may not get as sick as adults but can still transmit the virus to the elderly (over 60 years) or those who have chronic illnesses. By ensuring our kids use social distancing, we help decrease the total number of infections. What is social distancing? In our house, it means that there are no friends over and we don’t visit friends. If they do meet a friend outdoors to bike or kick a ball, they need to keep about 6 feet away. They are allowed to use the phone, skype or Whatsapp to connect with others. This all may seem tough to enforce, especially with teens. Still, it is ultimately our obligation as parents to teach social behavior and to keep our kids and our community healthy.
- Discuss information based on age. Realize that many kids are curious about what’s happening, and issues are changing by the hour. My kids, for example, are very interested in the daily statistics for COVID-19 rates by country and often check this John Hopkins site. Discuss what’s happening in an age-appropriate way. This may mean avoiding having adult-level conversations around small kids while talking about public health strategies and recent research studies with older ones. Also, knowing that constant social media updates can increase stress levels so encouraging kids to back off on news streams if they are feeling irritable, anxious or depressed.
- Build on strengths and allow boredom. Every child has strengths and interests, whether it is music, arts, science, writing and so on. Building on their strengths helps kids develop resilience and handle challenges. One of my son’s friends is an excellent illustrator and is spending some time each day drawing elaborate cartoon strips. For a teen that loves coding or math, try Khan Academy. For kids that enjoy being with animals- try zoos around the world such as the Smithsonian that have live cams. For those who enjoy the arts and want to create their own masterpiece, try a virtual tour of a museum to get inspired. Finally, how many of you have heard the phrase, “I’m bored” at home recently? Remember allowing a little boredom is a great way to promote creativity and self-sufficiency.
- Embrace uncertainty and start dreaming big. Research shows that kids don’t need to have a linear path to succeed. In fact, those with a slightly squiggly journey end up doing better in life. This is a great time to move beyond what has been planned and do some creative brainstorming on how to redirect and move on. Did the family trip get cancelled? If so, what is on your bucket list for your next adventure? Did the final term of high school or university just get cut short? How can you navigate the next steps? Do you have a cool idea for a short story, or a community service project? How can you start it now?
- Emphasize kindness and caring. Unfortunately, some communities have been the target of unkind remarks and even outright racism as a result of coronavirus. Encourage kids to continue to be kind to all people, regardless of where they are from or what they look like. Also, think of ways to give back to your community and provide outreach: for example, helping a neighbor that is elderly, donating items, to a food bank or buying gift certificates to support a local business.
- Model positive behaviors. Kids learn from adults as to how to react in new situations. We need to model positive ways to stay healthy and handle uncertainty, including exercising regularly, eating healthy foods to boost immunity and staying connected with loved ones. In our house, we pulled out the board games (Pandemic, anyone?), scheduled a virtual dinner with friends, created a Netflix list and are having regular calls with family around the globe. If possible, get outdoors and bike, run, hike or walk as a family. If that doesn’t work, try striking a few yoga poses or doing a mindfulness app at home. Finally, adults need to limit their media use around coronavirus and ensure devices stay out of bedrooms at night.
- Look out for warning signs. Changes in eating or sleep habits, increased irritability or sadness, the inability to get off devices, or the need for constant reassurance can be signs that kids may be struggling and need support. Try talking things out or getting another adult or mentor to be involved. If these don’t help, it may be time to reach out to your health provider or a counselor for additional help. Keeping with the times, many are providing telephone and electronic consults.
What is happening around us with COVID-19 can be scary and difficult for kids and adults. Hopefully, with creating routines, encouraging social distancing, having developmentally-based discussions and building on their natural strengths, we can support our kids at home. In addition, don’t forget the importance of embracing uncertainty, modeling kindness and positive self-care skills as parents while looking out for signs of depression and anxiety. Stay safe and calm!
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Dr. Anisha Abraham is a pediatrician and teen health specialist based in Amsterdam, NL, and on faculty at both the University of Amsterdam and Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC. She works with teens, parents, and educators globally, using her 25 years of experience as a practicing clinician, researcher, and health educator. Her book Raising Global Teens: Parenting in the 21st Century will be released this autumn in local bookstores and on Amazon. For more information, see https://dranishaabraham.com/.