How to talk to kids about disappointment during COVID-19

By Dr. Mery Taylor, pediatric psychologist at CHOC

With schools closed and the practice of social distancing in effect, it is certainly understandable for children to feel disappointed right now about missing out on birthday parties, field trips or holidays they had been looking forward to. If your child or teen feels disappointed right now, let her express her feelings, and validate them. Share your own disappointments and how you are managing your feelings.

As a parent, it is difficult to see your child experience disappointment. As adults, we have the perspective of knowing that there will be other birthday parties, field trips and celebrations in their future. During this time, children will be most comforted by parents’ words of reassurance that you will get through these challenging times together, and that life will return to normal eventually.

Remind children why things have changed

It can be helpful to remind them about why things are different right now. Remind your child that as a community, we are coming together to “flatten the curve” and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Discuss changes in plans earlier vs. later

For most young children, it will be helpful to start to discuss changes in plans earlier than later. Start slow and return to the topic several times, each time adding a little more detail. Ask for your children’s input on how they can still honor the event though they may not be physically able to go somewhere or have in-person interactions. For example, they can create a birthday card for a friend whose party was canceled and mail it to them and call or video chat them to wish them a happy birthday.

Limit children’s exposure to the news

At this point, children are home from school and it is clear that something has drastically changed in their world. While it is important to keep very young children away from the daily news which can include death tolls and speculations, parents should be honest about what we are trying to accomplish by social distancing. Here’s an explanation of social distancing. It could be helpful to ask them what they already know, debunk misinformation, and provide additional information for better understanding and clarification.

Advice for older children

Older children and teens are likely more aware that there are some special occasions that they many never get back, such as school dances, play performances and graduations. Assure them that their school and teacher will do what they can to make it up to them.

Let them use their imagination

Have fun thinking about what makeup birthday parties, field trips and other gatherings with family and friends would look like. Let them use their imaginations on what decorations they would have, food they would eat and people they most want to see.

Celebrate special events in a creative way:

  • Host a virtual party — decorate a backdrop, make a music playlist and create a themed game.
  • Join friends for a virtual museum tour. Many museums and other attractions are offering free virtual visits during this time.
  • Help your child prepare a special meal or dessert for the holiday or special day.
  • Go into nature for a special adventure with those you live with.
  • Call your friend on their birthday and sing them “Happy Birthday.”
  • Share a virtual meal with friends and family.
  • Host a virtual game night.

Building resiliency

Although this pandemic is not the situation that we would have chosen for our kids to face, experiencing adverse events, with their parent’s support, will help kids build resiliency. They will be able to look back on this time and reflect on how they were creative in finding ways to connect with their friends online, how they found new ways to entertain themselves at home, and how they persevered over new challenges, such as attending school online.

Get more information on Coronavirus (COVID-19)

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Mindfulness Tips for Teens

Teens’ mental health is as important as their physical health. It’s not always obvious when a teen is struggling emotionally, but recognizing the symptoms and seeking early and effective mental health services are important to prevent more serious mental health issues.

Parents should talk to their teens and foster a relationship based on open communication. Seek to understand how your child is feeling, without judgment, before you try to fix the problem.

As a pediatric psychologist at CHOC Children’s Hospital, Dr. Mery Taylor helps teens and their families who are facing a variety of mental health challenges. Typical concerns or issues teens seek treatment for include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Difficulty coping with stressors such as: chronic illness, a life or family change, a social or school concern, and grief and loss
  • Disruptive behavior disorders, including attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and oppositional defiance disorder (ODD)
  • Eating disorders

“Throughout my ten years at CHOC, a majority of teens I have worked with have come to me for pain issues, anxiety, depression, eating disorders and difficulty coping with stress,” says Taylor. “I have also seen an increase number of transgender youth and parents seeking services.”

mindfulness
Dr. Mery Taylor, pediatric psychologist at CHOC Children’s

What is mindfulness?

Practicing mindfulness, or relaxation techniques can help teens build coping skills to address issues, such as anxiety disorders. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in our emotions and not see our way out of them, says Dr. Taylor.

“The more we attend to the fear, the more power it gets and we can become paralyzed about what to do, or avoid aspects of our life in attempt to manage the anxiety. We can get stuck on a cycle of trying to avoid our anxiety and forget to live life. At times, we allow our negative thoughts and emotions to dictate our actions without stopping to assess if they are valid and irrespective of the consequences. For example, we might avoid going to school because we don’t feel we have studied enough for a test and then end up missing out on important instruction for another class. Mindfulness makes us stop for a minute and check in with ourselves,” says Dr. Taylor. “Mindfulness asks us to be curious of our thoughts and feelings without judgment or action—to just be in the moment. Developing acceptance and compassion for the painful parts of our inner emotional life can weaken the power of the anxiety. Once weakened, we can better manage our fears.”

Tips for practicing mindfulness:

  • When something is bothering you, shift that attention to yourself, rather than what you’re reacting to.
  • Stop for a moment to center yourself, by addressing and labeling those sensations (fear, worry, anger). Validate these feelings to ourselves can help to lessen our fight or flight reaction.
  • Now turn to your attention to your body. Identify the sensations going on in your body. All emotions are experienced as sensations in our body.
  • If you find yourself attending to the thoughts or feeling again, gently bring your focus to your body sensation (e.g., muscle tension, heartbeat, etc.).
  • Practice relaxation techniques to calm the nervous system, to stop the nervous reaction and respond more cognitively. For example:
    • Autogenic relaxation. Autogenic means something that comes from within you. Visualize a peaceful setting. You can repeat a phrase such as, “I am relaxed” to invoke muscle tension release. Focus also on breathing slowly and evenly.
    • Progressive muscle relaxation. In this relaxation technique, you focus on slowly tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups in your body. You can start with clenching your hands into a fist and then relaxing them. Focusing on the difference between muscle tension and relaxation, will help you become more aware of physical sensations.
    • Form a mental image of a place that find to be peaceful and calming. To relax imagine yourself exploring this place. Try to incorporate as many senses as you can, including smell, sight, sound and touch on your journey. If you imagine relaxing at the beach and feel the cool sand on your felt, and sound of the crashing waves
    • You probably already know other things that calm you (e.g., listening to music, taking a shower, walking your dog, etc.). You can do those things too.

Parents can help facilitate mindfulness.

“Being non-judgmental is a big part of mindfulness,” says Taylor. “It’s important to accept that we do what we can, and that we have limitations. It’s important to acknowledge everything you have going on in your life that’s happening at once, and to give yourself a break.”

“A parent might acknowledge and normalize the anxiety associated with college applications as a way to show compassion and thereby minimizing the urgency that the teen feels. Once more calm, the teen can focus on the college application, instead of attending to the distressing thoughts and feelings.”

Parents hoping to teach mindfulness practices to their teens are also encouraged to model the behavior themselves, says Taylor. Remind teens that practicing mindfulness can also improve concentration at school and improve performance.

CHOC believes mental health treatment should be fully integrated with physical health treatment. Our psychology team works closely with patients’ medical teams to attend to emotional, behavioral and developmental needs through inpatient and outpatient therapy. Our goal is to foster the whole well-being of the teen and family.

CHOC psychologists have recorded a library of guided imagery audio tracks to help children and teens relax, manage pain, ease fears and anxiety, fall asleep easier and more:

Experience guided imagery as a healing tool

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Helping kids cope with separation anxiety

It’s your child’s first day at her new preschool and when you try to leave, she bawls. This isn’t unusual on the first day, but you begin to worry when she continues to cry at drop-off time for the next three days.

What your child is experiencing is common and shouldn’t prompt too much concern: separation anxiety, says Dr. Mery M. Taylor, a psychologist at CHOC Children’s.

Separation anxiety often happens when small children make big transitions to new places. This begins in toddlers at age 2 or 3. Crying on the first day of preschool is normal and usually subsides after the child becomes engaged in the new environment, she says.

“It’s fairly common for kids to have separation anxiety when they are entering a new environment, like going to preschool or starting kindergarten or a new first grade,” Dr. Taylor says. “It’s not a disorder until it is prolonged.”

Separation anxiety becomes a disorder when the child cries before going to preschool for more than a week, or throws up, won’t eat, or is inconsolable for an hour. Under these circumstances, parents should be concerned.

Parents who suspect their child has a separation anxiety disorder should talk to their doctor. In the meantime, Dr. Taylor suggests parents try these steps:

  • Talk to the child and prepare her for what’s ahead. Explain what will happen at preschool, how long she will be there, what she will play and when she’ll be picked up to go home.
  • Parents should think about how they react in a situation where their child is looking to them for behavioral cues. Are they showing signs of anxiety or stress? If mom seems panicked or sad when dropping off her toddler at preschool, the child is likely to be scared too. Parents should act calm and be consistent.
  • Avoiding a stressful situation enhances the child’s fear. Parents should employ a systematic approach to desensitizing a child. If preschool causes the separation anxiety, ask the child to imagine he is there, then drive by the school, and next take him there to see it.
  •  Teach kids to engage in positive self-talk to help them cope. Have them say things like, “I can do this” and “I can’t wait to learn.”
  •  Teach your kids some physical things they can do to calm down, like yoga or walking the dog.

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Tips to handle teens’ bad attitudes

A poor attitude is a hallmark of teenagers, a CHOC Children’s pediatric psychologist tells CHOC Radio.

Dr. Mery Taylor recently stopped by Seacrest Studios to talk about why teens often have bad attitudes, and what parents can do to mitigate the effects of a dour disposition.

A teen’s bad attitude can be a product of self-absorption and egocentricity, Dr. Taylor explains. Teenagers are working to determine who they are and what they want to be. Thus, they are often uninterested in performing tasks and duties that will not directly benefit them.

Parents should talk to children about the importance of responsibility, and establish existing privileges as rewards for performing chores and duties, Dr. Taylor says.

Listen to the podcast to learn more.

Click here for more CHOC Radio episodes.