It continues to be a confusing world for anyone these days but school-age children and teens may be having the hardest time making sense of what’s happening as the reverberations of the COVID-19 pandemic continue for the long haul. While every province may be experiencing different levels of isolation, for many kids, a potentially deadly sickness, routines overturned, and the loss of activities and contacts with relatives and friends may have unsettled them far beyond what Canadian children are used to.
We spoke to Dr. Naomi Slonim, a psychologist who works with children and adolescents at MedCan, a private health clinic in Toronto, during the summer about how families can look out for each other. We feel the advice she gave is as relevant now as it was then.
“Everyone’s number one priority every minute is to have a low level of stress, for you and your children. You have to ensure your child is coping first before you make them do homework,” she says.
She offers these ideas for parents, to help ensure kids are doing the best they can under some trying circumstances.
Look out for signs of unhappiness
Slonim says children can have difficulty expressing their fears, and one sign that a child may be feeling anxious could be unusual behaviour. Bursts of anger over “stupid” homework or sleep difficulties may be the outward signs that a child may be fearful or frustrated. Slonim says this is normal given the uncertainty around us, but if it gets out of control, a parent may want to contact their school guidance counsellors, doctor or the local mental health hotlines. Parents have the role of being a reassuring presence in a child’s life and providing age-appropriate information on the pandemic and its ramifications. But given the uncertainty about this situation and the many mixed messages everyone is receiving, Slonim says it’s OK to not have all the answers. Parents can tell children that they too are frustrated, that they don’t know when things will be normal again, but that everyone is working hard to keep everyone safe and happy.
Keep a routine and keep it flexible
Slonim says everyone, but especially children, need a degree of routine that stabilizes their lives and reinforces the notion that their homes and families are safe. She says regular times for bedtime, waking up, homework, play and family time bring everyone back as close to normal as can be. But she also says that, given the unprecedented times we are in, everyone should be prepared to adapt and change as events dictate. Be spontaneous and break with the routine if it’ll lead to a healthier outlook.
Reset expectations of parenting
Everyone should be happy being just an “OK” parent during this time period. Slonim says there’s a lot of societal pressure — with or without a pandemic — to be a super parent these days. Throw out unrealistic ideas about what kids and parents can productively achieve in their new routines. How your child performs at school now may be a pale shadow of what a real school year should look like. The notion that everyone has to thrive and overcome the challenges thrown at them currently can be harmful, says Slonim. Helping your kids deal with self-isolation, the economic fallout of the pandemic and all the uncertainties hanging in the air is pressure enough, she says. Pushing yourself and your kids may cause burnout. If your kid’s way of dealing with stress is some extra time watching Paw Patrol or playing Minecraft, let it slide.
Take a break, stay in the present and be mindful
Slonim says parents can’t be afraid to get some rest and relaxation, as far as circumstances allow, away from their spouse, job and kids. A parent dealing with anxiety and fatigue won’t be much help to their kids when they need it. Likewise, proper sleep, diet and exercise can do wonders for your outlook and can leave you invigorated for the challenges of the day. It also sets a good example to your kids by showing them the need to recognize everyone gets stressed (even moms and dads) and by illustrating how to proactively deal with the problem. Finding time and a place away from family life in these circumstances is a challenge but a couple walks around the block with your favorite music or a few minutes of mindfulness practice each day using one of many free apps are some ways of staying grounded in the moment. Spouses should give each other time off so that each can take a breather and, if possible, single parents may be able to plan with other family members to take the kids.
Humans are social creatures and we must connect with others for our mental health, says Slonim. That means isolating together may have been hard on families in ways that are not easily recognizable — who knew anyone would miss riding public transit? Although parents and kids are spending more time together than ever — which can be a mixed bag of joy and frustration — what you get out of family life is different from what people get out of interacting with co-workers, teachers and friends. Slonim says teens may be the hardest hit by the trials of self-isolation because as they mature, they gradually grow out from their parents’ shadows: Forcing teens to spend time apart from their friends can impact their self-confidence and developing identity. If your teen has begun regressing into a younger kid, it may be because they don’t have their friends around to keep those mature behaviours growing. It’s harder now for people to connect but it can be done remotely: Encourage teens to connect safely with their friends by phone or text and ask grandparents to do the bedroom routine remotely with smaller kids. Everyone needs to know there’s still a world out there beyond their four walls.
While family life is demanding enough these days, no one wants money issues to add any additional anxiety to any situation. That means talking to your banker if there are cash-flow problems caused by the pandemic and researching Canada’s COVID-19 Economic Response Plan to see what support may be available. If your money situation isn’t in crisis, take the time to go through your personal finances and determine if you are on track for your goals. A partial checklist might include, planning an emergency fund in case income is disrupted and ensuring you don’t incur high-interest credit card debt. You can use a tool like TD’s MySpend to help manage your money and even talk to a financial advisor about what kind of financial plans can help make your savings grow.