Be mindful of children’s vulnerabilities
Being child centered goes beyond thinking about their age and developmental stage. Parents are the experts on their children and will know about any particular vulnerabilities to the stresses of this serious outbreak. Children who are prone to anxiety or suffer from anxiety disorders may be more prone to silent worry. It is especially important to check in with them often, find out what they know and what they are worried about, and remind them to “never worry alone.” It also is important to continue with any recommended treatment, avoiding accommodation of their anxieties, except when it is required by public health protocols (i.e., staying home from school). Children with developmental disabilities may require additional support to change behaviors (hand washing) and may be more sensitive to changes in routine. And children with learning disabilities or special services in school may require additional support or structure during a prolonged period at home.
Preserve routines and structure
Routines and predictability are important to the sense of stability and well-being of most children (and adults). While disruptions are unavoidable, preserve what routines you can, and establish some new ones. For children who are out of school for several weeks, set up a consistent home routine, with a similar wake-up and bedtime, and a “school schedule.” There may be academic activities like reading or work sheets. If the parents’ work is disrupted, they can homeschool, shoring up weak academic areas or enhancing areas of interest. Be sure to preserve time for physical activity and social connections within this new framework. Social time does not require physical proximity, and can happen by screen or phone. Physical activity should be outside if at all possible. Predictability, preserved expectations (academic and otherwise), physical exercise, social connection, and consistent sleep will go a long way in protecting everyone’s ability to manage the disruptions of this epidemic.
Find opportunity in the disruption
Many families have been on a treadmill of work, school, and activities that have left little unscheduled time or spontaneity. Recommend looking at this disruption as a rare opportunity to slow down, spend time together, listen, learn more about one another, and even to have fun. Families could play board games, card games, watch movies together, or even read aloud. They might discover it is the time to try new hobbies (knitting, learning a new language or instrument), or to teach each other new skills. You might learn something new, or something new about your children. You also will offer a model of finding the opportunity in adversity, and even offer them some wonderful memories from a difficult time.
Take care of the vulnerable and ease others’ hardships
Without a doubt, this will be a difficult time for many people, medically, financially, and emotionally. One powerful strategy to build resilience in our children and strengthen our communities is to think with children about ways to help those who are most at risk or burdened by this challenge. Perhaps they want to make cards or FaceTime calls to older relatives who may be otherwise isolated. They may want to consider ways to support the work of first responders, even just with appreciation. They may want to reach out to elderly neighbors and offer to get groceries or other needed supplies for them. Balancing appropriate self-care with a focus on the needs of those who are more vulnerable or burdened than ourselves is a powerful way to show our children how communities pull together in a challenging time; enhance their feeling of connectedness; and build resilience in them, in our families, and in our communities.
Dr. Swick is physician in chief at Ohana, Center for Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health, Community Hospital of the Monterey (Calif.) Peninsula. Dr. Jellinek is professor emeritus of psychiatry and pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston. Email them at [email protected]