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Vital Signs: How parents and caregivers can support children in times of adversity

Vital Signs: How parents and caregivers can support children in times of adversity

As the first month of virtual school for many comes to a close, families continue to experience increased stress when it comes to navigating the uncertainty of daily life during the coronavirus pandemic.

According to a recent study from the American Psychological Association, parents and caregivers are experiencing higher levels of stress than adults without children.

When caregivers are stressed, it affects the entire family. Children absorb the emotions of adults around them and can become anxious, fearful or reactive as a result.

While we do not have answers about vaccines, returning to school or when our lives will be “normal” again, we can take steps to manage our emotional stress levels and stay safe and connected to our children during these uncertain times.

• Manage your own stress. Take some time each day to ask yourself what you need to manage your stress. Maybe it’s a 5-minute walk outside, a quick yoga video, or texting with a close friend. Research shows that both exercise and emotional support lower stress levels significantly. Meeting with a counselor can provide long-term mental health benefits; when that’s not possible, apps such as Moodfit or Headspace offer in-the-moment coping strategies.

• Take your cue from your kids. Instead of assuming you know what your child is worried about, focus on what they are asking. Giving more information than needed likely may overwhelm and create more anxiety.

• Validate feelings. Just like adults, children are experiencing a variety of emotions. Instead of promising that things will get better, say things like, “You’re really sad about missing your friends” or “You’re really frustrated that you can’t play basketball this year.” Naming the feeling often helps lower the emotional response. Talk about how feelings come and go, and that there is no right or wrong way to feel right now.

• Stick to routines and add new rituals. Age-appropriate routines around bedtime, screen time and mealtimes go a long way in helping children feel safe, while also reducing meltdowns. This is also the time to add new rituals, such as morning walks or bike rides, walking or driving to school to get lunch, a weekly lunchtime Zoom meeting between your child’s friends, or a family movie or game night. These special moments create bonds that will extend beyond the pandemic.

 Take breaks together. Make it a point to step away from screens as often as possible. When your child has breaks during the day, sit on the floor and stretch together, have a snack or step outside. This is a chance to reconnect and is a reminder to your children that you are there for them.

• Celebrate often. Made it through the class meeting? That’s a victory. Virtual learning is difficult, and it is important to recognize the effort your child is putting in, regardless of the results. One local family cheers for its second-grade daughter when she breaks for lunch to recognize her hard work. Pats on the back and high-fives through the day help kids feel seen and acknowledged.

While it is easy to focus on all of the things we don’t know about our future, we can make a different choice. By choosing to focus on what we know — that our children need us, as adults, to help them feel safe and connected — we have an opportunity to teach children that they are resilient and can make it through difficult, uncertain times.

Region Ten offers mental health support for parents, caregivers, and children. Call (434) 972-1800 for more information.

Jen Senator is a resident in counseling and student assistance specialist for Region Ten Community Services Board.

VITAL SIGNS This column, which promotes community health, is sponsored by Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, Region Ten Community Services Board, Thomas Jefferson Health District and the University of Virginia Heath System.

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