Casa de los Niños: How to help children during uncertain times
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Casa de los Niños: How to help children during uncertain times

The following is the opinion and analysis of the writers:

Mister Rogers said, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary.”

In this time of uncertainty, it can be difficult to reassure children. They have questions about coronavirus, social distancing, or how long they will be out of school. Not knowing can lead to an increase in anxiety .

Children turn to us to help guide them through these times, and while we do not have all of the answers, we can provide comfort and alleviate some of their worries. Whether they are toddlers, tweens or teens, your children have difficult questions. The reality is that we cannot answer all of their questions, and we shouldn’t try to. So, if we do not have all of the answers, then what can we do?

It is important to be honest and accurate. Start with age-appropriate facts and correct any misinformation they may have. Just like the telephone game, misinformation can spread like wildfire, thus inducing more anxiety. Emphasize what safety precautions you are already taking to ensure your family’s safety. This is a great time to remind children to wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (have them sing the ABCs ), as well as to cover their mouths and noses when sneezing or coughing.

If children have specific questions, only answer what you know and assure them that you will provide them with more info once you have it. This can be frustrating, both for you and your children. It is OK to name that frustration. While you may not be able to answer their questions about how long this will last, you can provide comfort and reassurance .

Children need caregivers to validate their feelings. Whether they are scared, worried or angry, their feelings and responses are valid. For younger children, help name their feelings as they may not have the language to express how they are feeling.

Let your child know that it is OK to be upset or scared. Although you can’t make the situation go away, your love and support can help ease anxiety. For older children and teens, encourage them to “be” with their feelings, even if they are uncomfortable. For some, that may mean listening to music, talking to someone they trust, or wanting to be alone.

While face-to-face contact should be limited, there are ways for children and adults to remain connected to their peers and loved ones. Social distancing does not mean social isolation. If you can, schedule virtual play dates for your kids and virtual coffee or tea dates for yourself, have phone or video calls to grandparents and encourage children to write letters or draw pictures to share.

Virtual play dates don’t have to be elaborate, they can be as simple as picking a children’s book on YouTube and having a virtual story time with a friend.

For teens, this may be an especially difficult time to navigate with cancellation of sports, performances or even graduation. Validation of how they may be feeling during this stressful time is key. Limit and monitor their access to the news and social media to help regulate their anxiety.

Encourage them to practice relaxation strategies, such as breathing techniques, to help them feel calmer.

When you fly on an airplane, the flight attendant instructs you to put your oxygen mask on first, before helping others, and as caregivers, you have to do the same in your everyday life. It is OK to take time to yourself to gather your own thoughts, especially prior to talking to your children about how they are feeling. Before we help children coregulate, we need to be able to self-regulate ourselves.

Remember, it is OK to not be OK. If you or your children need support, please ask for it. Casa de los Niños is also here to help, so you are not in this alone.

There are many ways that you can support yourself as well. Take breaks from reading, watching or listening to the news, including social media. To reduce stress and unwind, practice healthy activities that you enjoy.

Take time to connect with others to talk about how you are feeling. While it may be difficult during this unpredictable time, try to stick to a routine, as this will be especially helpful for both yourself and your children.

And remember, be kind to yourself. Together, we will get through this.

Julie Lopez, LMSW, and Nohemi Maciel, LMSW, are behavioral health child and family therapists at Casa de los Niños. For more information, call (520) 624-5600 or visit www.casadelosninos.org.

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