Up until mid-March, Daphne Knowlton’s* four-year-old daughter was like many kindergarten-age kids: busy and social, attending school five days a week and swimming lessons on Saturdays. “We were also seeing family and friends multiple times during the week and on the weekends,” says Knowlton.
That’s all changed now thanks to the pandemic, and Knowlton is worried how being isolated from others is having a toll on her only child’s mental health. “She regularly tells us she wants things to go back to normal, or that she misses her friends and family. She is having way more tantrums and is easily frustrated,” she says, adding that it’s also now hard to motivate her to do things she used to like to do.
Katie MacDonald, a therapist in Toronto whose practice includes children, says this type of behaviour in a kid right now is not a surprise. “This has been such a major disruption, everyone’s life has been turned upside down,” she explains. She says this type of sudden change can cause anybody, including kids, to experience feelings that could negatively impact mental health, like anger, frustration, disappointment and sadness. “There’s the boredom factor as well,” she adds.
If your kids are acting out but say they’re doing just fine, know that their actions are more representative of their emotions than their words are. Kids often have difficulty expressing their feelings, says Erin Rajca, a social worker with the Child Development Institute. “They don’t know how to say, ‘I’m feeling lonely.’ Instead, they’re having meltdowns. Or they’re starting to avoid social contacts. Those are very normal responses to types of stress, even if they don’t seem to make a lot of sense to parents,” she says.
If your child’s behaviour suggests they might be struggling, here are some things you can do to help during this time.
Check in with yourself
“Kids use their parents as a barometer for understanding how afraid or how anxious or stressed they should also feel,” explains Rajca. She recommends when you wake up in the morning to think about how you’re feeling that day—maybe you’re overwhelmed because you didn’t sleep well, groceries are low, you have to work and you’re dreading helping your kid with their math work—and then decide what you can realistically achieve that day. This will help keep your stress levels in check and help model to your kid that you can cope.
Connect with your kid
Be sure to touch base at least once a day to see how your kid is feeling. At dinner, for example, you can ask what was one thing that was hard that day, what was a good thing that happened that day, and what’s one thing your kid is grateful for. This is a good chance to normalize any feelings of anxiety or sadness—for example, if your kid is worried their friends will have moved on and won’t want to be friends anymore when they get back to school, tell them other kids are probably feeling this way too.
Don’t jump to problem solving
It can be one of the hardest things, but when your kid is missing their friends, or feeling bored, it’s important to let them sit in those feelings, says MacDonald. “This is easier said than done; our impulse is to problem solve and protect our kids,” she says. Instead, mirror what they are feeling with your tone of voice and facial expression, and state what you think they’re feeling. For example: “I imagine you’re feeling really angry right now.” This will let them know you understand what they’re going through and that validation will make them feel better.
Focus on structure
Kids thrive on consistency, so it’s important to keep some semblance of routine at home. This is, of course, challenging when you’re juggling multiple things like work, e-learning, making meals, etc. Luckily, the schedule doesn’t need to be too rigid, says MacDonald. “I believe in structure, with flexibility,” she explains. That means don’t force your kid to do an art activity if they are not into that day, just because it’s on the schedule. Instead, focus on the basics: Eating meals at consistent times, having a regular bedtime, setting aside some quiet time and getting outside every day.
Be sure to move
Exercise protects against the impacts of negative stress, says Rajca, but it can be a challenge to keep up physical activity when we’re being told to stay home. To make sure your kids get their heart rates up, she recommends things like doing jumping jacks or push ups together, or using apps like GoNoodle.
Don’t avoid worry
We’re living through a time where it makes sense to be anxious, so don’t brush those feelings aside, says Eva Wiseman, a child and youth counsellor in Toronto. For example, if your child voices that they’re afraid their grandparent might die, you might be tempted to say, “Oh, don’t worry about Grandma. She’ll be fine.” Instead, talk about the things you’re doing to keep grandparents safe, like not visiting with them in person.
Keep up social connections
Pre-pandemic, schoola-age kids, and those in daycare, spent the majority of their time with their peers and teachers. “Those connections were removed overnight. Maintaining them is essential,” says Rajca, especially considering kids will eventually need to reintegrate back into school and daycare, which will be easier if they retain familiarity with their peers. Help your kid find new ways to communicate, like using Messenger Kids to chat and play games, or finding an activity, like drawing, that they can do at the same time over a video chat.
Bust the boredom
Boredom is actually great for kids, as that’s when they start getting creative. But without a lot of stimulation, your kid might be starting to feel less motivated and is likely getting tired of their go-to activities. Here’s where you can step in to spice things up: set up a tent in the backyard, go for a family walk in your pajamas, or try out some new cake decorating techniques together.
Monitor screen use
Rajca says she’s heard from many parents in recent weeks who notice their kid’s behaviour taking a turn because of all the time they’re spending on screens. “It’s hard, because screens are an outlet for kids, and often they’re an outlet for parents because it frees them up to do what they need to do.” Rajca says eliminating screen use is not realistic, but it does make sense to monitor it and set time limits so your child “is not feeling overstimulated and walking away from the video game with some negative thoughts and feelings that are resulting in more reactive type behaviours.”
We are living through some pretty tough times right now. But MacDonald says this is actually an opportunity to show our kids that they’re able to cope. “This is kind of like a worse-case scenario, the type of thing people with anxiety often dress rehearse in their minds,” she says. “I’m hopeful that this may be a time that kids can draw upon. They’ll remember when we were all at home and that was so hard, but we were able to do it and figure it out as a family.” If kids are having a tough time, Wiseman suggests changing the conversation to what they can do to connect and help others right now, by say, calling an isolated elderly relative on a regular basis.
If you or your child is really suffering, however, be sure to reach out to your doctor or a mental health professional for support—many are doing virtual visits right now. “Everyone will have a different story coming out of this and some will have a more difficult time than others. Children may emerge from this time dealing with a lot of grief and loss,” says MacDonald, adding that support for kids is essential.
*Name has been changed