Open discussion helpful for kids during pandemic

By MARTHA RASCHE
Special to The Herald

Over the past few weeks, Abby Cadabby has learned how to give herself a hug.

Elmo has learned to keep washing his hands until he has sung Happy Birthday all the way through two times.

And Oscar the Grouch hasn’t minded self-isolation at all. “Scram!” he says in a YouTube message to anyone who will listen. “I don’t want to see your smilin’ face,” he yells in another.

Across the land, youngsters are getting help from their favorite “Sesame Street” characters in making sense of the coronavirus pandemic and the changes it has wrought. Oscar doesn’t much care, but the other puppets seem to know that their little friends might be feeling upset and confused right now.

Those feelings are normal, and it is important for the parents of those little ones to listen to them and to help the children feel safe despite them.

“This is a good time to really be concentrating on building resilience,” said Meara Grannan, senior vice president of LifeSpring Health Systems Metro Division. With an office in Jeffersonville, she oversees child and family services in the 11 counties that LifeSpring serves, including Dubois County.

With a few pointers, parents can help children “feel more comfortable about their own feelings, their frustration, their own anxiety” about the uncertainty we all are experiencing, Grannan said.

For a healthy start, adult role models ought to monitor their own words and actions.

Parents should “measure what we’re saying and stay calm and help model staying calm to deal with the situation,” Grannan said. “We need to encourage our children to share what it is that they’re feeling and help them talk about that.”

Keep the communication age-appropriate, and avoid words that can be terrifying to a child, including “panicked” and “horrible” and “dying.”

For the smallest of children, those 5 and younger, counselors recommend adults follow the children’s cues and let them guide the conversations. If they ask a question, answer truthfully but in a comforting way, with support and encouragement.

Vicki Painter, LCSW, an outpatient therapist at Memorial Counseling Center in Jasper, shared an example: “If a 5-year-old asks me, ‘Can people die of coronavirus?’ I would be truthful with them — but I would also be reassuring: that we are doing things to help, by washing our hands after we go out, or that’s why we’re staying at home, to try to minimize our exposure to other people and to try to keep other people safe.”

Grannan had a few more suggestions for keeping the focus on the positive: Reassure the child that doctors and nurses are taking care of people who end up getting sick, and Mom and Dad are making sure the family has what it needs at home.

After listening to how the child is feeling, and what exactly is bothering him, the next step in building resiliency is to let him know that those feelings are normal and it is OK to feel that way. Show empathy.

“Everybody, including adults, we’re all experiencing a lot of loss right now,” Painter said. “The collective loss of a lot of different things — work, family time with extended family members, not being able to engage in sports or activities with other people — is something that’s really extraordinary right now. Allow kids to express that loss.”

It is not unusual for children as well as adults who experience loss to express it in anger or depression, among other emotions.

Then, encourage the child to speak about how he could deal with those feelings in a healthy, positive way.

If the upset comes from missing friends — now we are including older, elementary-school-age children, for whom the novelty of being away from school has worn off and the absence of classmates and teachers might be setting in — for example, asking “What could we do about that?” might be all it takes to start generating solutions.

With an adult’s help if necessary, perhaps a phone call or virtual meet-up could take place. Maybe letters, stories or drawings could be mailed back and forth. Maybe a child could make a chalk drawing on another’s sidewalk.

Those kinds of things, Grannan said, “would help with that connection piece that they’re missing not being able to see each other at school.”

She suggested that as parents can find most teachers’ email addresses through online school directories, consider allowing the child to ask questions in an email and look forward to the teacher’s response.

Looking forward — that is another key for helping children through this time.

Painter suggested asking a child who is struggling: “What is something that we can look forward to as a family as we spend more time together?”

“Listen for what the positives could be in this situation as well,” she said.

Parents should think of these talks with their children not as one-time occurrences but as an ongoing conversation, as things constantly change and feelings come and go in waves.

Depending on the age of the child, he might be comfortable expressing his feelings through coloring, drawing pictures or journaling.

Another note about older children is that they are “going to be a little bit more questioning, like, ‘Are we indeed safe?’” Painter said. That calls for more in-depth conversations with them than with preschoolers, and having accurate, credible information to share. She suggests finding answers directly from sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other medical websites, not television soft news programs.

“Just having open discussion about what is going on would be helpful for kids,” she said. “They like to know what’s going on, and it gives them a sense of empowerment, knowing.”

If you or your child needs help, call Memorial Hospital’s 24-hour Help Line at 812-827-6222 or LifeSpring’s 24-hour crisis line at 812-482-4020.

Martha Rasche is a member of the Dubois County Public Health Partnership Mental Health Committee and the local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. With funding from the health partnership, she writes about topics related to mental health. Read her blogs at TheseAreOurStories.com. Email her at mtrasche@twc.com.




A few more tips for parents

As spring fever sets in on top of already disrupted schedules, classroom teachers can tell you that keeping routines for children will become even more important. The scheduling can be “loose,” such as this hour being for getting up, dressing and eating breakfast and this hour being when we start e-learning for the day.

With weeks of e-learning still ahead, consider having a rewards system in place. Even if a reward is small, like sitting down and reading a book with the child after homework is done or playing a game with the family once all have completed their homework, counselors say this will prove really helpful as e-learning continues.

Screen time is automatically increased at this time because of e-learning, but now isn’t the time to be lax and develop an anything-goes attitude. Counselors remind you to continue to be aware of what your children are listening to, watching and doing online.

None of us needs to be a one-person show. Endless information and activity ideas for helping your children through this time is available online. Here are some websites recommended by area counselors:

Naeyc.org, sponsored by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Kidshealth.org. Here, one of the featured articles related to the coronavirus is “How to Talk to Your Child.”

Pbs.org/parents/learn-grow, which offers age-by-age tips and activities for emotions and self-awareness as well as academic subjects including literacy, math and science.




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