When your role in healthcare is to perform work involving the safety of human lives, you are considered essential. Healthcare professionals just like you are continuously in the news surrounded by feel-good stories, fearful stories, and everything in-between. As healthcare workers serving on the frontlines of COVID-19, how do you bring your best self to work without leaving your family in a constant state of worry?
Much of what we hear in the news or read in the media eludes to “scary times,” “unprecedented times,” and a “new normal” with masks, social distancing, and limited gatherings. Most of us have not lived through a pandemic and navigating this shift will take intentional action and adjustment in our everyday lives.
Taking care of our mental health will be critical as we get through the good days together and lift each other up during hard ones. To gain some perspective, we enlisted the help of an expert, Rebecca Kline Toy, LCMFT, clinical director of Lotus Clinic Outpatient Services at KidsTLC, a Kansas City area non-profit organization that specializes in providing services and resources to children and families who have experienced the challenges of mental and behavioral health, developmental trauma and autism.
For years, anxiety has been on the rise for children and teens, and this pandemic has presented new challenges for families. It can be especially draining for children, seeing their parents-- the center of their world, go to their “scary” healthcare job each day. What’s even harder is that they are often too young to process their emotions and fully understand their complicated feelings. As parents and families face new stressors trying to juggle it all, children can unknowingly feel shame, guilt, or fault for the things they cannot control.
“Years as a therapist has shown me how children and teens often blame themselves for things they had no control over and carry that secret shame for years. Don’t let your child feel like they carry the burden of this pandemic,” Kline Toy said.
The good news is, there are strategies that you can employ with your family to ease their anxieties and restore some familiarity to pre-COVID times. Here are five tips to help your children feel supported as we all adjust to new routines that have been a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. Communicate as openly as possible.
This includes communicating your schedule, when you will have breaks and times when you can’t be interrupted. Take time to show interest in your children’s days, ask them how they are doing, and give them ideas. Kline Toy reminds us, “The most important thing is to be careful how you talk about your changed parenting responsibilities and the stress while around your children. It’s not the children’s fault that they don’t leave for school and that our work has changed.”
2. Try to establish a routine you can stick to.
You may or may not be the primary caregiver of your children during this time. When you work in healthcare, exposure to the virus can mean bouts of self-quarantine. No matter who is in charge, a regular schedule is helpful. This doesn’t mean planning each minute of each day, but it does mean providing consistency with flexibility. “We all operate best with regular sleep and meal schedules, some physical activity, and time to play. Keeping these key pieces of a routine gives children predictability, increases feelings of safety and stability, and also teaches self-care skills,” says Kline Toy.
3. Answer tough questions with age-appropriate honesty and sensitivity.
We all want to protect our children and shield them from things that might seem scary or uncertain. Still, it is healthy to acknowledge difficult feelings such as worry, frustration, and sadness. It’s also okay to share with them that you don’t have all the answers.
Kline Toy shares this tip, “A good rule of thumb: if you haven’t wrapped your own mind around how to handle something yet, your children don’t need all of those details. What children always need is to know is that they are safe and that you as a family are all in this together.”
4. Start teaching coping skills now.
Coping will look different for each child, as they are unique individuals. One common category of coping is to build healthy distractions and hobbies, and another is about mindfulness. Many of these can be done together as a family. You can incorporate physical activity by going on a walk, exploring nature, or playing games outside like kickball or basketball. Encouraging creativity or learning new skills can also help create a sense of purpose or mastery.
“As therapists, we also look at mindfulness, or helping people connect to the ‘right now,’” says Kline Toy. “Great options for kids include sensory soothing, using our five senses to relax our bodies and nervous systems. Experimenting with candle smells, cuddling in fuzzy blankets, putting our fingers and toes in sand, listening for birds, singing songs, finger-painting, and cooking yummy or new things.”
No matter what you do, it is important to connect these activities to mindful coping. Help your family find something fun or comforting when unpleasant emotions begin to surface and keep talking.
5. Stay connected.
It might take some extra planning but finding ways to enjoy quality time with friends and loved ones can be important to your happiness. We are lucky that in this day and age, quality time can even be virtual. Many tools like, Zoom, FaceTime or Skype, can help bridge the gap when family members cannot physically be together.
As we are all adjusting to our reality and dealing with the highs and lows, take time also to find the silver linings. Learn new things, try new things, and lean on each other.
Kline suggests, “Younger kids can do smaller tasks, and your older kids can get a sense of pride with being trusted with new responsibilities. This can be a lovely moment for everyone, and it helps to keep your child’s age and unique attention span in mind for realistic engagement expectations.”