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Top 10 List: Help Your Child Cope in a Pandemic

Deborah Cohen, Ph.D., Oakwood School Counselor

The current pandemic has brought drastic changes to our daily lives that are unprecedented in our lifetime. Many adults have said that this time is “surreal”, which Webster’s defines as “unbelievable and marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream.” If the “new normal” seems surreal to us, it most assuredly is creating stress and confusion for our children. There is a plethora of advice on the internet and in the media on how to best support children through the pandemic. To minimize stress, I have boiled down child-centered advice into a Top 10 List of ideas that I think are most applicable to the Oakwood student body. I hope you will find something here that will help your family cope with the pandemic!

10   Stick to routines. You’ve likely heard this advice before, but it is important. This is a time of anxiety, uncertainty, and unpredictability. One thing that can act as a counterbalance is familiarity and predictability – in short, routines! Routines can have a grounding, stabilizing force when we feel unstable. Helpful routines include setting approximate times for waking, exercising, bathing, eating, and going to sleep. Getting back in the school routine will be even more challenging this year given that everyone has been at home for almost 6 months. It’s hard to acknowledge that summer is over and that school is starting soon, but the beginning of school will be smoother if you restart your school routine now!

9       Create and maintain rituals. Rituals are a close relative of routines. They are things that you do with regularity and predictability, and thus counterbalance the uncertainty we are all feeling. Rituals typically bring us joy, togetherness, and good feelings, which help to counteract feelings of anxiety and sadness that the pandemic can induce. Rituals could include birthday celebrations, family movie night, 1st day of school pictures, family game night – anything that you do that is enjoyable and done with some kind of regularity. You likely have created one or two new rituals during the last 6 months. This is an important time to maintain the rituals you have already established as well as create new ones.

8       Boost immunity. Stress takes a toll on our physical selves, makes us tired, and more susceptible to illness. In times of great stress, one of the best gifts we can give ourselves is good self-care in the form of eating well, sleeping well, and staying active. Specifically, experts advise that it is important to eat foods rich in vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc for optimal immunity. When we are living busy lives, matters of basic self-care can easily go by the wayside and seem less important than getting things done. Your family’s health, mood, and overall resilience will be better if good nutrition, regular activity, and sufficient sleep are priorities.

7    Keep calm and carry on. It is important that during this time, adults manage their stress and anxiety well in order for our children to also do so. Anxiety and worry are contagious – we will pick up on others’ anxiety and they will pick up on ours. Just as toddlers look at their parents to decide whether or not to cry after falling down, children will look to us to decide how to react to the pandemic. If children see their parents and teachers calm and confident, they will also be calm and confident.

6       Practice gratitude. Gratitude – the intentional act of reflecting on what you are grateful for – has been shown to improve mood, lower stress, and even improve physical health and immunity, all benefits we can use during the pandemic. The practice of gratitude can also be done for free and in the comfort of your own home! Developing a family gratitude practice – such as recording what you are grateful for in a journal or on slips of paper that could be put in a jar, is highly recommended for counterbalancing some of the negative effects of a pandemic. In addition, developing a gratitude habit is a gift you can give your children that will help them be positive and happy throughout their lives.

5       Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness – the act of noticing and being present in the moment, often accompanied by deep breathing -- is another free, easy, and research-based activity that decreases stress, increases feelings of calm and well-being, and helps increase focus. Apps such as Headspace and Calm are great resources for quick mindful activities. In addition, Mindfulness has been woven into the Oakwood curriculum, so ask your student to explain it and demonstrate it!

4       Process what has happened and allow feelings. Every family has been impacted differently by the pandemic. For some, they have seen family members become ill or die, or they have had their own health threatened; for others there has been the strain of being home and the loss of vacations, playdates, and celebrations. I read recently that “everyone is grieving something” during this pandemic, which rings true. Thus, it is as important as ever to create an environment where kids can talk about their losses and express their feelings and concerns, even if we think they are minor in the scheme of things. In addition, it is a good idea to make sure kids have an age-appropriate understanding of what’s going on in the world with an emphasis on what they can do and what the adults in their lives are doing to ensure their safety.

3       Practice wearing a mask. In order to stay safe and keep others safe, all of us need to wear masks out in public and inside the school building. Hopefully, at this point, kids have some experience wearing masks and have found some that are comfortable and even a little fun. None of us like wearing the masks, but it is a necessity right now, and they will be required to be worn for most of the school day. If your child is not used to wearing a mask for an extended time, or hasn’t yet found the right one, this would be a great time to test masks, find some that work, and practice wearing them for a several hours at a time – either at home or out doing something they enjoy.

2       Prepare for the new look and ways of school. It is good to keep in mind that when kids enter a new situation, they are greatly helped by knowing as much about that new situation as possible. Oakwood students will have the opportunity to see the school and their classrooms when they come in for their one-on-one interviews with their teachers the week before school starts. In addition, we will “practice” our arrival procedure when they are here for their respective interview.  If you can address the changes and talk through concerns and questions, it will smooth their transition to the new way of doing things.

1        Focus on the good. All of our brains are hardwired to focus on what’s wrong or bad in a given situation. This is a phenomenon called “The Negativity Bias” and it helped our ancestors protect themselves from predators when they were living in the wild. Unfortunately, it means that our brains gravitate toward negative appraisals of situations. In a world where there are, objectively, a lot of things going haywire, it would be easy to slip into overfocussing on what’s going wrong. Experts advise that, in order to maintain good mental health, we need to make a concerted and intentional effort to focus on what’s good. Finding and focusing on the good seems even more important during this time. This is something you can do with and for your children by emphasizing the good you see in the world and de-emphasizing negative thoughts and feelings. You can also work on this as a family by starting a family ritual of everyone sharing “something good” at the dinner table or bedtime. Everyone will feel better as a result!

I hope you all are well that your children are excited to be back at school. I invite you to reach out to me with any questions, concerns, or updates related to the psychological impact the pandemic has had on your family. While articles and resources can be helpful, I appreciate that sometimes you want feedback or guidance about your specific situation, and I am happy to provide that. I can be reached at dcohen@oakwoodschool.com. Please take care and do not hesitate to reach out if I can be of help to your family during this strange and difficult time!

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