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.
As the pandemic drags on, Dr. Naomi Slonim, a Psychologist who works with children and adolescents at MedCan, a private health clinic in Toronto, emphasized the need for households to cope with everyone’s fears and anxiety before trying to move on to normal activities.
“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.
We spoke to Dr. Slonim during the summer about how families can look out for each other. We feel the advice she gives is as relevant now as it was then. 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. Needless to say, the pandemic has disrupted that. 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 has to be able to adapt and change as events dictate. Be spontaneous and break with the routine if it’ll lead to a healthier outlook. Parents must have the same attitude about their jobs and share parenting, schooling and earning a paycheque together equally: Just because your laptop is always within reach doesn’t mean you need to be employee-of-the-month during a pandemic. Letting your work life spill into your home life can hurt the family when everyone needs some stability.
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. What your kid does at school now may be a pale shadow of what a real school year should look like. This is less about demonstrating your child’s potential than about solving everyday problems and getting from moment to moment. A parent should accept this fact, not try and take on the role of the teacher or athletics club, and certainly not push that stress on the kids. 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: As on an airline, you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first in the event of an emergency. 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.
Make money one less worry
The world is demanding enough right now without having additional anxiety about money. 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, ensuring you don’t incur high-interest credit card debt and making sure your Will is up to date. You can even talk to a financial advisor about what kind of financial plans can help make your savings grow.