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Kids Feel Pandemic Stress Too. Here's How To Help Them Thrive

Spending quality time with kids and listening deeply to them is one way to help them tame anxiety. Here Mariano Noesi and Maryam Jernigan-Noesi play with their 4-year-old son Carter.  Jernigan-Noesi is a child psychologist.
Lynsey Weatherspoon for NPR
Spending quality time with kids and listening deeply to them is one way to help them tame anxiety. Here Mariano Noesi and Maryam Jernigan-Noesi play with their 4-year-old son Carter. Jernigan-Noesi is a child psychologist.

As the pandemic continues, children are still mostly at home. Summer activities are canceled or up in the air, and many children are suffering confusion and stress. Parents may be stressed themselves, but there are ways to help kids feel better.

During the first few weeks of staying at home, Maryam Jernigan-Noesi's 4-year-old son Carter was excited. His working parents were around him most of the day, and it seemed like a big extended weekend. But after a few weeks, she says, things changed.

"In terms of getting dressed and brushing teeth and that type of routine, he was a little slower to do that... testing the limits with mom and dad," she recalls.

Carter was used to a two-hour nap at school. But now at home, he didn't want to nap. And at night, it was hard for him to get to sleep. "So in some cases, he was in bed just wiggling and twisting and turning," Jernigan-Noesi says. He would tell his parents he wasn't sleepy and couldn't fall asleep.

As a child psychologist,Jernigan-Noesi knows that when children are emotionally distressed, they may revert to behaviors from earlier childhood. Those who are potty-trained may have accidents and wet the bed. Others may start thumb sucking again. "So, Carter, for example, who hasn't been rocked to sleep in a while, wanted to sit in my lap and be rocked in the chair that I used to breastfeed him in and rock him to sleep when he was much younger," she says.

A number of Jernigan-Noesi's friends tell her their children, 8, 9 and even older are suddenly clingy, following parents around the house, asking them to sit in the bathroom while baths are taken and teeth are brushed. "It's almost as if they did not want to do anything independently, which was uncharacteristic," she says. "These were developmental milestones they had met years before this time." She adds she has also begun to see this issue reported in psychology literature.

During these stressful times, children may also experience behavior changes like moodiness, anger and even tantrums, according to child psychologistMary Alvord who studies trauma and resilience. She says anxiety can cause stomach aches and headaches, especially among older children.

What parents need to be on the lookout for, says Alvord are behavior changes that affect day-to-day functioning. This includes things like eating, sleeping and interactions with friends. If parents notice such major changes in day-to-day functioning, they might want to consult with a therapist, she says. Otherwise, here are some idea to try yourself at home.

Model calm

So what are parents to do? The first step in helping your child, she says: Look inward.

That's because, she says, children and teens pick up the level of stress in their parents. "They don't always understand what's going on, but they can feel the tension." So, the more calm a parent can be, the more they're reassuring their child, she says.

Of course, staying calm clearly isn't always easy and often requires a conscious effort. Create a mini break for yourself to reset your own stress levels.

"It might mean you go into the bathroom and lock the door for 10 minutes if you need to just kind of chill out and have your own space," she suggests."It may mean you go for a fast walk to reduce any tension that you have."

Focus on what's working

Another way to help: Shift focus from your child's worrisome behavior, says Alvord. Instead pay attention to what's going right and reinforce it.

Try saying things like, "you look really upset, but you talked about it, you stayed calm, you used an 'indoor voice', and you asked what you needed." She says it's important to teach kids, even at a young age, to figure out what they want and to assert themselves.

Create soothing spaces

Some parents have found it helpful to help their children create soothing spaces just for them, places they can go when they need to feel better. Barnet Pavao-Zuckerman lives in Silver Spring Maryland and has two children, Evelyn, 10, and a son Sagan, 7. Not long after the pandemic began, Evelyn built a fort for herself "a little cozy corner in her room that's totally enclosed with a Harry Potter cape and a Portuguese flag and some other fabric," says Pavao-Zuckerman. "When she's just feeling anxious or upset, she goes and sits in that little corner."

The cat sleeps in Evelyn's fort too. Under normal circumstances, Pavao-Zuckerman says she would have insisted Evelyn dismantle the fort so the area could be cleaned and vacuumed. "But under the circumstances today, it's totally fine; she needs that sort of cozy space where she feels safe, and to me, it seems like a pretty healthy way of dealing with stress and anxiety."

Indeed, it is a healthy option agrees Alvord, who says it's often as simple as that. "Kids have always liked being in their treehouses, their own little area where they can put their things," and feel safe.

Support kids' friendships

Connections to friends are important for kids' psychological development, Alvord says, especially for teens. "Are they losing friends or are they disconnected?" she says. "Because while we need to physically distance, we need to make sure we're all socially connected." says Alvord.

There are ways for kids to maintain friendships even with all the necessary precautions to avoid transmission. Alvord advises parents to encourage their children to connect whether it be physical distanced activities or online activities like video cuts, texting, phone calls and social media.

"I've noticed kids sitting outside on blankets, like one family on one blanket and another family on another blanket," she says. They can keep their distance, but still engage in group activities like blowing bubbles at each other. And, of course, if they're not six feet apart everyone should be wearing a mask. For older kids, Alvord says physical distancing walks and bike riding can be an opportunity both for physical exercise and for emotional bonding.

Encourage hobbies

With so many things that are beyond our control right now, Alvord suggests parents try discussing "some things their children can, in fact, control. For example, how they spend their time, what hobbies they engage in and enjoy, how they interact with family and friends, even what they can do to "stay safe."

"We want a proactive orientation," she says. "We don't want our kids to feel like victims." Kids can be encouraged to "play their guitar more, learn a new hobby, spend more time talking with their friends."

Have open and honest conversations

When children are clearly sad or upset, the best gift parents can give them is time, says psychiatristJoshua Morganstein, who chairs a committee on the psychiatric dimensions of disaster for the American Psychiatric Association. "Sit with them and give them time, time to wait and listen to what they have to say." He says this lets the child know that, number one, they are "worth waiting for" and that you will try to understand what they're going through.

And be honest, he says, when talking with your child no matter what their age. That might mean admitting you don't know the answer to a question about the pandemic, and offering to look it up together. This models the attitude you want them to develop as they grow older, he says.

"Do I want them to make things up or pretend that they don't feel concerned about something? Or do I want them to go get some information, or to ask someone who maybe knows more about it? A trusted source, for example," he says.

Build a hopeful vision of the future

Being honest and direct is actually a way of teaching your child to feel hopeful, he says. "Hope isn't about pretending that everything's OK; it's about recognizing that things can be very, very difficult and that in the midst of all of that, we can still find ways to grow as individuals and as a family and to strengthen our connection with each other and with the people we care about."

Learning these things, he says can help "sustain a vision of a more hopeful future."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Award-winning journalist Patti Neighmond is NPR's health policy correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.