Helping kids cope

Anxiety amongst children has risen since schools were closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a local therapist says. One of the keys to combat fear and nervousness is to establish a routine.


Local News

April 7, 2020 - 10:20 AM

Kari Miller offers tips to parents on helping children cope mentally with the COVID-19 health crisis. Register file photo

The abrupt and early end to the school year because of the coronavirus pandemic isn’t all fun and games for children.

In many ways, it’s just the opposite, an Iola family therapist says.

“I’ve definitely seen an increase in kids being anxious,” said Kari Miller, who operates Blanket Fort Therapy. 

“Kids are adaptable, but what really helps kids is a schedule. Their schedule has been overturned. They have to figure out a new normal, and that makes them anxious.”

Children also pick up on subtle clues from their parents, and parents may subconsciously convey their own anxiety even though they try to hide it.

“Kids soak up that energy. They get that something big is going on,” Miller said. “A family will pass anxiety around like a hot potato.”

Children may worry they will become sick. They may even worry they are going to die, or that a loved one will die.

They may act out with temper tantrums or crying jags. They may hit their siblings. They may need more hugs and emotional reassurance. Older children, especially, may isolate in their bedrooms.

The best advice Miller can offer is to establish some sort of routine, even something simple. 

“Tell them: ‘We’re going to get up and have breakfast, then we’re going to do our school work and then go outside.’”

Children, even teenagers, also need at least a half an hour of exercise each day to improve mood as well as physical health, she said. 

You can break that up into 10- or 15-minute chunks, she said, and make it fun. Take the dog on a walk. Bounce a basketball in the driveway. Jump on the trampoline.

Also, help younger children learn how to describe and communicate about their emotions. Look for resources online to help, or contact professional help like a therapist.

THE STATE’S orders to stay at home mean education must be done at home, too. That presents new challenges for families. Parents may feel pressured to serve as teachers, and that can be overwhelming, Miller said.

“Cut yourself a whole bunch of slack,” Miller encouraged. “This period of time is going to be so small in the course of a child’s school career. If you help them feel safe and loved, they are going to be fine. If they get a little bit of school done while you are at it, that’s fantastic.”

Remember that your child’s teacher is still your best resource, she said. Reach out to teachers for guidance and support. If your child is struggling with math or another class, ask the teacher to modify expectations.

“This is crisis schooling,” Miller said. “In a crisis, we’re just trying to get the very basic, bare-bones education done. We hope everyone survives and hopefully thrives.”

The children, meanwhile, are struggling with issues like missing their teachers and their friends. They miss the routine of eating school lunch and going to recess. 

“Help them find three things every day that they liked about that day,” Miller suggested. “Show them there are still good things going on. Maybe they can eat their breakfast for lunch, or lunch for breakfast. Maybe they get to work on their math in their pajamas. Things like that help shift their way of thinking, so it’s not as scary.”

EVEN WHEN the public health threat passes, families will face yet another transition. A return to classrooms and traditional schooling may not be easy, Miller warned.

“That will be rough for some kids,” she said. “School was a place of safety. That has been ripped away. Teachers and parents are going to have to build trust with children before they can get back to learning.

“This is a population-wide trauma. It’s going to take sensitivity and collective support to get through it.”

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NOT EVERY child comes from a supportive family, though. Some children will be stuck in an abusive or neglectful home without the opportunity to escape to the safety of school or even a friend’s house.

“That is one of the saddest parts of all of this,” Miller said. “It’s important to remember that there are supports and ways for kids to see things that are familiar.”

Children still have opportunities to connect with teachers and others through technology, like video messaging platforms. They can ask to meet with teachers more frequently using those systems. 

They can watch recorded videos of their favorite SAFE BASE teachers, or listen to celebrities or others read a book each night. 

If a child receives therapy services, they can ask for tele-health meetings, using a phone or computer.

“We’ve built those support systems so they can access them when they are having a rough time,” Miller said. 

Relatives, teachers, friends and others may feel powerless if they suspect a child is stuck in an abusive situation, Miller said. She reaches out to those children and families when she can, but Miller knows some situations are beyond her control. She gets through those difficult moments by relying on her faith in God and her belief in the overall goodness of people.

“Sometimes people just get overwhelmed and they don’t do the right things,” she said. 

“I also know I can’t help everyone. I have to accept that, otherwise I would give in to the fear myself and not be of any use to anyone.”

THIS TIME also can be an opportunity for families to come together in positive ways, Miller said.

“We can make some really great memories,” she said.

Try something new. Make a mess. Clean it up. Learn a new skill. Do something creative. Cook a meal together. Learn a dance together and post a video online. Have a shaving cream fight outside. Be silly and have fun.

“Normally, life moves really fast,” Miller said. “This is a time we have to slow down, so we might as well enjoy that part.”

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