CHILDREN’S STRESS AND COVID-19: How to help our children manage the tough time in quarantine

Olga G. Yeritsidou, B.A., M.A.

Tanya Maria Geritsidou, B.A., M.A.

In our previous article we had discussed how we can and should organize our children’s daily routine inside the house during the duration of the quarantine.

Research shows that structure during the day gives a sense of control and safety to children, something that is a resilience factor for their mental and physical health: that is, as long as we keep demonstrating to our children that while routine has changed, it has not been abandoned in its essence (there are still lessons, there are still chores, there is still entertainment and family life, etc), we keep reinforcing tangibly that things are under control and they shouldn’t worry.

However, it might not be enough for two basic reasons.

Primarily, because there are individuals in their lives that they are suddenly not allowed to go near, to hug or play with as they did before, and actually under pain of serious illness or even death.

Secondarily, because even if that isn’t the case directly (e.g. because there are no grandparents in isolation or they aren’t used to socializing in the flesh with their friends), the constant bombarding of stimuli, news and instructions on the coronavirus keeps reminding them and underlining daily for them that there is a real danger of death, with the higher danger being for the age groups in which their parents, uncles or even themselves are.

Even if our children don’t watch TV or the news, they are still exposed at random moments to such stimulation through the radio, the internet, social media and even their own school or other sources of information available in the country. Lastly, even if we somehow managed (which would actually end up having the reverse effect) to completely shield our child from all that stimulation, in the end he/she would be exposed to it through the discussions of the adults within the house, the new routines and rules aside.

We see therefore that there is no chance for our child not to have been somehow informed about the existence of a pandemic that has disrupted his/her life with the threat of serious illness or death. Such a threat is extremely high for our children, even if they deny it.

Research has shown that the manner in which children experience, handle and manifest feelings of stress and fear differs significantly from that of adults.

Thus, despite the existence of daily structure, our child may present with behaviors such as: dysthymia, irritation and irritability, intolerance, bursts of anger, bursts of crying or temper tantrums, lack of cooperation and resistance when we ask him/her to do things, resistance to study or engage in some activities, complaints that he/she is ‘bored’, focus and absorption with just one activity to the point that the child self-isolates from the environment, bursts of rage if we try to push our child to engage in more things than just one (e.g. with more things than video games or endless hours of watching TV), lack of concentration or attention deficit, sluggishness or overstimulation, sleepiness or insomnia, very long hours of sleep, great and sudden change in the child’s eating habits (i.e. suddenly will eat a lot more than usual or a lot less or not at all), etc.

Of course, such behaviors might be due to other pre-existing conditions that might be exacerbated and ‘show’ more in behavior during the confinement of quarantine. That’s why it’s good, if we have the capacity, to always been in communication with the specialist that personally knows of our child psychologically, so that we might have greater and more accurate knowledge of what is going on and how to deal with it.

But some basic approaches, especially now during the time of crisis, we must be prepared to apply ourselves. Below are some simple and easy steps so that in any case, we will help our child manage the extra stress to which he/she is exposed:

1.      We discuss with our child and make sure to decode the highly emotionally charged stimuli into others, of lower emotional charge. For example, for coronavirus reports from Italy showing rows upon rows of caskets, and sensationalist lines of the type “the dead are so many they can’t bury them? Or “they are dying in the street”, etc,

a.      We first asks our child what he/she has understood from what he/she heard, and we pay attention to the answer. His/her reaction may not be socially proper (e.g. laughter, an attempt to ridicule), might be inordinate (e.g. weeping, sudden anger, desperation, etc), or might be an attempt to avoid answering or flee. Our child might also report or show us that he/she feels absolutely nothing about the news and isn’t interested in the subject.

b.      Instead of reacting in kind or emotionally, we keep our calmness in every case and ask our child why he/she feels like this (or doesn’t feel anything, as claimed), and pay attention to the answer. That is because no matter what the manner of answering is, therein lies the truth of how our child is feeling, which he/she might demonstrate emotionally or with his/her behavior in reacting.

c.      Whatever our child’s answer, we explain that we have to discuss this stuff because the nature of humans is such (and therefore our child’s as well) that even when they don’t understand it or can’t or won’t admit it, they can’t remain neutral or apathetic before the concept of death and the threat of death. In this manner, we will show our child that in essence, no matter what his/her reaction is, it is explainable within the limits of human nature. That alone can begin alleviating some of the child’s dress, because even if the reaction is intense, our child will now know that it’s fine to have it and ‘acceptable’ to experience it.

d.      Having reached that point, we must assure our child that we are taking all appropriate health safety measures that are designed to guard from this kind of threat, and that’s why the chances that what is reported on TV and elsewhere happens to us are minimized (careful, however! We never tell our child there’s no chance it might happen).

e.      When our child asks as what will happen if, despite everything, the time has come to talk to him/her about how the percentage of people that die from this disease is very small, and usually they are already weakened organisms. That is, that the chances are on our side that we will survive it.

f.       If we are emotionally ready, and only if we are, we can breach discussion on the worst case scenario, that is the case of death from covid-19 within our family. But that requires special handling which we will generally talk about in a future article. We recommend that specialized instructions are taken first for your own specific family’s parameters from specialists before you attempt it. The usual thing, and the safest, in this case is to tell our child that the chances of this occurring from the disease are so low that there’s no need to discuss it provided all the safety rules are kept. But we promise our child that if we ever see that there are high chances of it occurring, we will let our child know without delay. Therefore, our child doesn’t need to worry about or think about something like that. It goes without say that we will keep this promise, if and when it’s necessary.

2.      We monitor and mention to our child that it is normal to want to talk again and again about such matters, and that he/she needs to do it whenever he/she needs it. We reassure our child that we will be there to listen and talk about it.

3.      We don’t hide our own emotions from our child. If we are afraid, we say so. If we are angry, we admit to it, too. In this way we demonstrate to our child how we are managing things. That is very important because we always serve as the example our child will imitate. Even if our child is the ‘classic’ recalcitrant adolescent, that fact remains.

These are the three basic stress management steps we must always keep in mind, just like we have antiseptic on hand.

Of course, as we have already mentioned, we must not forget that these are general strategies that will always become a lot more efficient if the mental health specialist we trust helps us customize them even further to our own personal needs and parameters.

In any case, we must remember that demystifying and defining a threat, no matter how big, in terms that give us a sense of control and capacity to defend ourselves from it, and approaches that help us feel we can handle all or most of the aspects of this threat shield and protect our mental health. And that holds even more for our children.