How to help children who miss their friends amid COVID-19

By Dr. Tiffany Torigoe-Lai, pediatric psychologist at CHOC Children’s

As parents, many of us are coping with the loss of something within our daily lives because of COVID-19, whether it is the loss of a vacation, watching the opening baseball game of the season, or the loss of a job.

Children and adolescents are also coping with various losses within their lives. With the transition to distance learning, many children and adolescents are now coping with the loss of typical school days, celebrating important milestones and achievements like graduation ceremonies, as well as daily social interactions with friends and peers.

One common way children and adolescents cope with changes or challenges within their lives is through social supports from friends and peers. Much of this typically happens seamlessly and without planning, through regular interactions on the playground, between classes in the halls, out on the soccer field, or even during classes through short interchanges with their desk mate. However, in the current climate, children and adolescents are more isolated from one another and may be missing close physical and emotional connection to others their age. Here are a few ways that you can help your children who miss their friends amid the COVID-19 pandemic:

Ask open end-ended questions about your child’s friendships, such as why they miss their friends, what do they miss about their friends, and what makes a good friend. This will help them reflect on what they’re feeling. Acknowledge their feelings by saying something like, “I hear that you really miss your friends.” Also let them know how you feel, too. You won’t be putting any thoughts into their head. Most likely they’ve already been thinking or feeling this way and you’ve just made it OK for them to express their grief. Many children and adolescents may be grieving the loss of that connectedness to others. Holding in intense emotions can lead to further issues, such as behavioral outbursts, low mood and withdrawal from others. So, by helping them express their emotions and not trying to “fix it” for them, you are helping them to cope with the pain or grief that they are feeling.

Encourage them to share how they’re feeling with their friends. People tend to withhold and/or further isolate themselves when they are experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression, particularly during times when they need social support the most. By encouraging your child to express their feelings to their friends, you are also helping other children and adolescents in need of social connection. At the same time, expressing emotions to friends helps your child to develop prosocial skills. Prosocial skills are social behaviors that help promote empathy and kindness toward others and they are essential to social-emotional development. Prosocial behaviors have been associated with positive self-concept, positive peer relationships, increased peer acceptance and decreased behavioral issues. You might suggest that their friends likely feel the same and might welcome the chance to talk. Suggest they start by saying something like, “I wonder if you’re feeling that it’s really sad to miss graduation; I’m feeling that way!”

Help them establish new ways to continue social interactions. Set up weekly play dates or game nights through video conferencing apps. Don’t wait to do family and friend get-togethers until after COVID-19 passes. Continue regular family and school-based celebrations, such as birthday parties or silly hair day, through virtual means. Encourage your child to write letters or mail art to their friends. Typical social interactions for older children and adolescents are not often manufactured or mediated by parents; however, during this time, you may need to take a more active and encouraging role to guide your child to find new ways to interact with their friends. Understand that many children are still interacting socially with friends while engaged in online gaming. Talk to them about online safety and your rules about limits to online usage to help set your child’s expectations.

We are all finding creative ways to physically distance ourselves without socially distancing and to manage all of the difficult emotions this time brings. You can help your children navigate these difficult times and they may surprise you with some creative ideas themselves.

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Helping kids cope with COVID-19 stress

By Dr. Tiffany Torigoe-Lai, pediatric psychologist at CHOC Children’s

Many parents are feeling the strains of the COVID-19 pandemic, many children may be feeling COVID-19 stress, too. Children can display stress in different ways, such as wanting to be alone, needing more attention, moodiness, inflexibility and increased distractibility. The good news is that there are many things you can do as a parent to help support your child during this time.

Here are some guidelines as to how best to support your child in coping with COVID-19 stress:

Start a conversation with your child

  • Find what they know. It may not always be apparent, but those little eyes and ears are constantly soaking up bits and pieces of information around them. Saying something as simple as, “What have you heard about the coronavirus?” or “What questions do you have about the coronavirus?” shows children and adolescents that it’s OK to talk about the coronavirus and it’s not so scary that even the grownups don’t want to talk about it.
  • Share information using developmentally appropriate language. Focus on answering your children’s questions, but do not provide more details than they are asking about. Focus on providing messages to help your children feel safe, such as “We’re doing all we can to stay safe,” but be truthful. This will help maintain that you are a reliable source of information for your child.
  • It’s OK if you don’t know the answer. Children ask some tough questions! Use those moments as an opportunity to show your child how to find the answer together. Ensure you are getting information from reputable sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other government or state websites. If you can’t find an answer to their question, it’s OK to let them know that you don’t have the answer but will let them know as soon as you find out.
  • Let children talk about their fears. It’s natural for children to worry, so let them know that it’s OK to come to you when they have those feelings. This builds trust and a sense of safety. Be careful not to invalidate their worries or fears. Instead of saying, “Don’t worry about it,” acknowledge their feelings by saying something like, “I can tell you’re really worried about what could happen.”
  • Show them what they can do! Stress and anxiety can stem from feeling helpless and out of control, so reminding children of what they CAN do at this time to stay safe can help ease their worries. Remind them how they can stay safe and healthy through frequent hand-washing and social distancing. Empowering your children to help others in the world, for example, by donating to a food bank or writing letters to healthcare workers or first responders, shows them that they can help, too!

Establish daily routines can help ease COVID-19 stress:

  • Set up a daily schedule similar to their school days. Schedules help ease stress by providing children with a roadmap of what to expect and what is expected of them during their day. This also helps give them a sense of control, particularly during a time of uncertainty. Developing a schedule at home that is similar to one of their school days will help with adjusting to the transition of learning at home as well as returning to school in the future. Learn more about the importance of setting up structure and routine for kids during this time.
  • Maintain typical sleeping and eating routines. When children and adolescents are at home all day, it can be easy for them to feel like they are on summer vacation. Bedtimes are often shifted to much later in the evenings, which can make it harder for parents to implement typical routines during the daytime. Additionally, an overly tired or hungry child can become more easily overwhelmed, which could lead to emotional meltdowns. Establishing regular snack and mealtimes as well as routine sleep and wake times will help decrease physical and emotional stress on your child.
  • Get your children’s input. Work with your children to find out what they would like to do in their day and integrate those (realistic) activities into their schedule. This will help with transitions, particularly between preferred and less preferred activities. Here’s a list of activity ideas for kids during this time.
  • Make time for play! Playtime is crucial to a child’s development, so ensure you also make time to play with your child as part of their daily routine. That special time, even if it’s for 15 minutes, will help to strengthen your bond with your child and will help them feel loved and safe, which ultimately will help them cope with stress.
  • Find ways for continued active social interactions with family and friends. It’s important for children to stay socially connected to their family and friends while practicing social distancing, as socialization can be a source of support and coping. Ensure that social interactions through online methods, whether via video chat or online gaming, are part of your child’s daily routine. These active interactions tend to work better to reduce stress and worry. Find creative alternative ways to continue to celebrate important traditions, holidays and milestones in their lives. If your child feels disappointed about canceled events, here’s tips for talking about it.
  • Get physical! Exercise and physical movement are also important parts of a child’s daily routine. Research has shown that engaging in physical activities can help combat the effects of stress. With the limitations of social distancing, you’ll have to find inventive ways to get their bodies moving, such as morning stretches, online exercise videos, dance parties, and/or walks around the block.

Take care of yourself to ease COVID-19 stress:

  • Find your own supports. One of the best ways to help your children cope with stress is to ensure that you as a parent are also mindful of your own mental health needs. Remember, children are always watching and learning from adults, so they are taking their cues from you as to how to respond to this stressful situation. If you are stressed and anxious, they can sense that too. Talk to a trusted friend or family member about how you are feeling or reach out to a mental health provider if needed.
  • Take a break. With your child home with you all day, you constantly wear multiple hats as a parent, teacher, chef, cleaner, etc. It’s exhausting! It’s OK to take a break and take some space to cool down. Not only does it provide a time and space for you to relax when you are feeling overwhelmed, but it also models good coping for your children when they are over stimulated or stressed.
  • Limit you and your children’s exposure to the news and social media. While it’s important to stay abreast of the changes happening in response to COVID-19, frequent exposure to news coverage can increase your own anxiety as well asyour children’s anxiety. It’s best to take periodic breaks from the news and social media and to limit your children’s exposure to news media al We know that stress and worry increase the more time people spend with the news and social media during stressful times. Instead, take time to engage in relaxing or fun activities when you’re starting to feel stressed.
  • Here’s more tips for how parents can deal with COVID-19 stress.

When to seek more help for COVID-19 stress:

Drastic changes in a child’s mood, eating, and/or sleeping patterns, increased irritability or tantrums, decreased interest in socializing with friends or family members, decreased enjoyment in preferred activities, and/or increased questioning or seeking of parental reassurance may be signs that more help is needed. If you have concerns about your child’s behaviors, you should contact your primary care physician or a mental health professional for further consultation. Many providers are offering telehealth appointments during this time.

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