Supporting your Children’s Social, Emotional, and Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Guest Author, Pamela McVeagh-Lally
As the spread of COVID-19 causes more and more school closures across the United States, we, parents and caregivers, are faced with the daunting reality of needing to stay at home with our children for weeks and possibly months. While educators are working hard to prepare take home packets and online resources to support our children’s continued academic learning while schools are closed, intentionally supporting our children’s emotional well-being during these unpredictable and stressful times is our job.
With relentless, confusing media coverage about COVID-19 and discussion about it in our everyday conversations, it is important that we talk to our children about the virus and reassure them that, as disrupting as it may be, schools are closing to help to keep us all healthy and safe. Our role as adults is to offer accurate, age-appropriate information while gently correcting any misunderstandings they may have. Giving your undivided attention and really listening to and empathizing with their fears (while managing and not projecting our own), while being clear about how best to stay safe is essential. And this won’t be a one time conversation. As the situation changes, we’ll need to continue our proactive, honest conversations with our children aimed at keeping them informed but not overwhelmed. National Association of School Psychologists and Child Mind Institute have great resources to guide you.
Setting Up for Success While At Home Together
Other than frequently and empathetically checking in with your kids, what else can you do to support their well-being and maintain a sense of normalcy while they’re out of school (and while you’re attempting to work from home)? Here is a list of ideas to consider for your family:
- Stick to a consistent routine daily. Set expectations about getting up, getting dressed, and eating breakfast. (Many schools are finding ways to set up food programs during closures.)
- Limit endless snacking. (We know this will be a tricky one for some of us who have stockpiled granola bars!)
- Create a schedule for each day with your children to break up the time. Include “class time” when they complete school work, dedicated time for play, physical exercise, and emotional and mental health activities (see “Coping Kit“ below for ideas). Though there’s no need for a rigid agenda, all family members can be soothed by a predictable structure.
- Put a limit on social media. Encourage staying connected to friends but not obsessively reading news or discussing the virus online.
- Don’t have the TV on in the background all day. The worry for children will escalate if they repeatedly hear and view adults panicking or reports of deaths.
- For children without their own phones, set up a FaceTime playdate with a friend and let them chat using your phone.
- Dedicate time every afternoon to organizing and cleaning up to keep chaos and germs at bay.
- Talk about and plan for ways in which you’ll deal with family arguments or sibling rivalry. Check out the Family Peace Rose for more.
- Make dinner together.
- Go old school! Have story time, play a board game, or try to learn a new language together during evening family time.
Create a Family “Coping Kit” To Deal with Anxiety
It is expected that we will experience anxiety during times of uncertainty and stress. One way you can help your child address their anxiety is through building a simple “Coping Kit.” A “Coping Kit” includes practical strategies that empower children to manage difficult feelings productively. Depending on your child’s age and needs, their “Coping Kit” could include:
- This simple feelings wheel to accurately name and acknowledge emotions they may be experiencing. Remember, there are no “bad” emotions–it’s ok for them to feel whatever they feel and your job is to help them use strategies to cope.
- Calming breathing techniques and mindfulness activities to reduce stress;
- Yoga or other movement and stretching activities;
- Relaxation techniques like guided imagery or progressive muscle relaxation;
- Fun indoor physical activities and games;
- A private journal or sketchbook where they can express their emotions through writing or drawing;
- For older children, find a social cause to learn more about together and support remotely. Or cultivate compassion by encouraging them to reach out via phone or text to potentially isolated elderly family members, neighbors, or their peers who are home unsupervised; and
- Practical strategies to help maintain their physical health including: 1. Picking out a fidget bracelet, button, or other small wearable item (that can be disinfected daily) to redirect the urge to touch their face. 2. Choosing part of a song they love that is at least 20 seconds long to sing while washing their hands
Finally, children take their emotional cues from us. Being honest about our fears is important to model but we should express our feelings appropriately. How can we find ways to regain calm, and also model and verbalize compassion for others? How can we notice when our stress level is rising to stop, breathe, and use our own coping strategies before responding to our children? Plan ahead for those big feelings and you’ll proceed with confidence that you are ready to handle the stress.
There is no way around it. This moment requires us to dig deep and take deliberate action to make sure we stay mentally healthy for our kids. Even small acts of care for ourselves are important like watching a TV show that makes you laugh, taking two minutes each day to write down something you’re grateful for, or talking honestly and privately about how you feel with a friend.
Though we may be practicing social distancing, remember to stay in touch with other parents and caregivers to share ideas, seek support, and stay connected!
About the Author:
Pamela McVeagh-Lally is a founding partner of the SEL Consulting Collaborative and a philanthropic and non-profit education consultant, dedicated to helping all children thrive through building the field of social and emotional learning (SEL) and advancing the effectiveness and impact of SEL-focused organizations. Her clients include school districts, state departments of education, grantmaking foundations, multinational education non-profits and start up social and emotional learning organizations. She lives in Ohio with her husband and two children.
*Our hearts go out to the many families who cannot afford to take time off work and are facing major childcare and/or financial dilemmas.
* CPCK Note: Many thanks to author Pamela McVeagh-Lally for quickly and expertly writing this helpful article to support parents and families during a particularly stressful time!