Dr. Shilagh Mirgain

Dr. Shilagh Mirgain

COVID-19 has brought sweeping societal and lifestyle changes to everyone. For children, changes at home and school can create feelings of insecurity and anxiety, UW-Health, Madison, Health and Sports Distinguished Psychologist Dr. Shilagh Mirgain said.

Summer break from school, albeit virtual school, is coming, Mirgain said, giving parents and kids time to reconnect, identify signs of stress in children, and use summertime to create an atmosphere that feels like “normal.”

For some children, summer break may bring upset, she said, because COVID-19 will impact what would ordinarily be considered a carefree time for kids.

“Parents can create safety by saying: ‘We have this, we are keeping you and the family safe,’” Mirgain said. She advises parents to “allow play” and “encourage kids to be in the moment.”

‘Unsung heroes’

“Kids are the unsung heroes of this pandemic. They have to adapt at this time when parents are at home, acting as their teachers, and they are not able to see their friends.”

Sorting children into four age categories — toddlers, elementary school-aged, middle school or “tween-aged,” and teenagers – she said: “Each group has unique challenges. Different ages have different ways of understanding what’s going on and there are different coping strategies and kinds of support they need.

As an example, Mirgain said: “Toddlers can’t fully comprehend what COVID-19 is. They may have difficulty managing their emotions and they are turning to adults for care and consistency.

“Toddlers may not be able to make sense of social distancing and washing hands. These are hard concepts for them to grasp.”

While older children can understand, she said, they may become rebellious.

Parents can help alleviate stress in children by serving as role models, she said.

“Kids learn from watching adults both in and outside of the house,” Mirgain said. She advises parents to find strategies to manage their own stress and adopt COVID-19 best practices, such as wearing masks, practicing good hygiene and social distancing, while creating “predictability and consistency.”

“Kids are like sponges. They pick up on whatever a parent is feeling,” Mirgain said. She suggested parents reach out for support.

“Maybe they can schedule a Zoom call for kids with their nieces and nephews, or look for other family members who can call and offer support, she said.

She also suggests that parents stay attuned, through communication and observation, to their children’s emotions, looking for warning signs that they may be struggling.

Resiliency and children

“Children are remarkable when it comes to resilience. There are studies that suggest they only need one adult to believe in them and give them support. Kids go through tremendous challenges and they are able to bounce back,” Mirgain said, adding: “Part of the core of being human is the capacity to connect with kindness and care.

“There is nothing like struggle and strife to strengthen determinations in ourselves. People find a greater capacity within themselves to make a difference. For kids, any adult can be that connection; any adult that cares for them and believes in them.”

Learning to adapt to COVID-19 may bring about in children an “appreciation for the simple things,” making them “more aware of the value of social and in-person connections,” Mirgain said.

Finding common humanity, going through the experience with other kids, helps fortify resilience, she said, adding: “(Kids) can talk about it with their friends and encourage each other with coping strategies.”

Signs of stress

When asked how parents might identify children having difficulty coping with stress, Mirgain said parents should stay in close communication with their children and look for behavioral signs, including changes in behavior.

“You are looking for changes in your child. It’s not just a checklist. You are looking for changes in behavior that persist outside the norm or that are not age-appropriate.

“Like if a 10 year old goes back to sucking his thumb, or is expressing feelings of being encumbered by stress,” Mirgain said.

For younger children, signs of becoming overwhelmed by stress might include: nightmares, fear of the dark, bed-wetting and temper tantrums.

For older children, signs might include: excessive worry, a loss of motivation, indications of emotionally shutting down or emotional volatility, isolation, a lack of willingness to communicate, belligerence, disregard for rules and acting out.

For teenagers signs might include: changes in eating habits such as eating too much, turning to substances, staying up too late, overreliance on a device such as a phone, lying, zoning out, exhibiting or expressing feelings of depression, anxiety or even suicidal thoughts.

While Mirgain noted, especially during this time of pandemic, some stress is “not out of the ordinary,” she said if there are behavioral changes indicating stress is advancing, “it might be right to seek counseling.”

Advanced or heightened stress signs might include: repetitive, negative thoughts that are hard to control, and in younger children, she said, parents should watch for “backsliding,” meaning that changes in behavior seem regressive or less than age-appropriate. Some examples are: a regression from advancements in potty training or a return to the use of baby talk.

Kids need more reassurance and more quality time with parents to feel and experience a solid presence of the parent, Mirgain said. She suggests giving children things to look forward to, such as family rituals, hobbies or outings.

“Early intervention is recommended. A parent can say, ‘I’ve noticed this is going on. Let’s talk,’ and if the behavior escalates, then professional help can be warranted,” Mirgain said.

Proactive steps

Mirgain said parents should expect that their children are experiencing some level of stress.

“There are so many uncertainties, like back to school, we don’t know what that will look like, so you might discuss with your child their feelings about going back to school. You might ask: ‘What have you heard, what are you feeling?’ You can ask open-ended questions, listen to them and validate their experiences, and take their concerns seriously. You can even do some research together and then provide reassurance.

“Perhaps they are worried that they can’t hug grandma or grandpa, and you would be available to listen to their sadness, and then help them explore connecting with grandma and grandpa in a different way. Ask the child to come up with ideas themselves. Help them brainstorm alternatives,” Mirgain said.

“For older children, social distancing is a real hardship. With separation from peers, they might experience more moodiness. Older children need more creative ways to stay connected with peers. They need outlets to occupy their minds through creative expression, Mirgain said.

Parents, too, have stress, she said.

“A single parent with two jobs and three kids at home and homeschooling faces challenges. Give yourself some grace. This is a tough time. Give yourself some compassion and kindness, and know that you are doing your best and it doesn’t have to look perfect.

“Focus on what you can control. Have one-on-one time with each child even if it’s for a half-hour each day,” she said.

Other helpful ideas offered by Mirgain include:

• Find family members who can use platforms like Zoom to help with homework.

• Look for activities children can do on their own.

• Choose quality time over quantity of time spent with your children.

• Be present and stay connected, even if it’s in little ways throughout the day. Text or send a note. Read stories.

• Create something together like a woodworking or baking activity. Foster an interest in your child and then explore it together.

• Build routine and structure, but stay flexible.

• Model self-care: exercise, eat well, relax, spend time outside, and enjoy nature.

• Practice CDC best practices while inside and outside, including: wearing a mask except for children under the age of 2, and staying at a safe distance from others.

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