Mental Health Strategies for Children, and Parents, During COVID-19

Social distancing is important but so is interaction, in the safest ways possible, says mental health experts. gavin menu

It’s been over a month since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in New York State, and almost that long since residents across the region were asked to socially isolate, with schools and many local businesses shuttered to prevent the spread of the virus.

With most families sheltered together at home, essential workers forced to leave children with relatives or in day care centers, the challenges of homeschooling and distance learning, the economic hardships of those out of work or just the overall uncertainty that comes with this virus pandemic, it is an undoubtedly stressful time, especially for children.

Dr. Paul Weinhold of Integrated Psychological Resources, with offices in Manhattan, Great Neck and Amagansett, said children will feel the impact of this moment in a variety of ways, depending on their age, but that parents can use a number of tools to ensure their children feel secure and to help them safely connect with their peers. Dr. Weinhold said parents need to practice self-care and model positive behavior and mindfulness for children during an understandably stressful time.

“Mindful means you can redirect yourself into another place — the mind is very powerful in that way — where you can be positive,” Dr. Weinhold said in an interview in late March. “That’s harder than going negative. We have an open invitation to be negative right now every which way we look, but we want to say, ‘I’m sorry. I’m not taking that invitation right now. I’m choosing to go to the beach right now,’ or whatever place can get you into a more positive place.”

Having a plan or schedule for the day is also recommended, including moments children can look forward to, like an end-of-day family movie or board game.

“I advocate that parents set forth a bit of a plan so kids know that it’s not just totally unstructured time — some of it is going to be school work and that will take a priority place in the sequence, but after they complete that, they know they can relax, enjoy a game with a friend or a board game with parents,” said Dr. Weinhold.

Logan Kingston, a licensed psychotherapist based in Sag Harbor, agrees.

“I think because there is so much uncertainty right now, we want to give kids things they can count on, and routine is the number one thing for everyone in the family,” she said. “This way they know what is expected of them on certain days and times, but at the same time, taking breaks is super important.”

Ms. Kingston said creative breaks and fun time as a family throughout the day are important moments children can look forward to as well.

“Making things fun for them — maybe it’s every day at 11:45 a.m. we have a pre-lunch dance party,” she said. “It’s a great idea to get silly right now. I think it is something that’s important because everything is so serious right now, but not everything has to be.”
Dr. Weinhold also advocated for time for families to just be silly together.

“I have some families out there doing a silly dance contest, and it doesn’t have to be that, but something like that, that is physically engaging,” he said. “It’s a reliever for the anxiety that sometimes people don’t even know is inside of them. You can just let go and laugh and be silly or play a goofy game like charades — come up with a family activity you can do based around your schedule.”

Practicing gratitude and mindfulness is another tool Ms. Kingston believes parents and children should practice together.

“One tool incorporated into a lot of mindfulness practices is having a practice where you are grateful — what are the three things you are grateful for this morning? — and maybe at night, what are the three things you are grateful for and talking to them about being thankful. It might help with the little ones in looking at the positives.”

Mantras are also helpful in this way, said Ms. Kingston. One she has used with some of the children she works with is “May my positive attitude help heal the world that’s beautiful.”

“I’m almost trying to make them feel like Care Bears — where they are going to shine this light from their hearts and send their loving energy into the world,” she said. “I love taking these things down to their level, ‘Let’s have a Care Bear moment.’ And maybe as a family you can sit down and have that moment together.”

“I think it is important for the children to have their social connections through whatever safe way you can manage, whether that is through something electronic like FaceTime or Skype,” said Dr. Weinhold.

Increasing access to social interaction, electronically, said Dr. Weinhold, is not something parents should shy away from provided it is done thoughtfully, through safe platforms and in a way parents can monitor their child’s online interaction with their peers.

“It becomes their world right now and we look forward to when it will not be and children can reengage in the direct, playful manner we love, but this will be a very important component in what we are facing today,” he said.

Taking breaks from screen time is equally important, both Dr. Weinhold and Ms. Kingston agreed.

“Limiting access to news and limiting screen time is important,” Ms. Kingston said. “So maybe think back to the things we did for fun before we had screens at our fingertips — maybe build a fort out of the couch cushions and read a book under there as a family, or dress up for dinner just for fun and see what we have in our closets we haven’t worn for several weeks. Just finding little positive ways to make each other smile.”

Safe excursions — to the beach, for example, keeping a safe social distance from others — or for a hike, is also important, said Dr. Weinhold.

“These excursions become an important part of how we deal with not only our anxiety, but also help us keep things positive, which is really the most important thing we can do for our children right now,” he said.

Dr. Weinhold also encourages parents not to give children too much access to the news. “If you do, you want to have a conversation about it so you can put this information in perspective and assuage some of their potential fears and worries about what it might mean.”

“We want to make sure they are not fixating on certain things,” said Ms. Kingston. “We know when they fall and scrape their knee, a child is hurting. But when they are suffering on the inside, it’s harder to see. It’s important to check in with them about how they are feeling each day just to get an emotional conversation going, talking about how this is really different and how we are feeling each day because that can really help them.”