Geisinger pediatrician Dr. William Gianfagna recently answered questions regarding children and the pandemic and how to deal as they return to school:
Q: In your experience, how have kids been dealing with the pandemic? Do you think they have a lot of stress that they can't quite express or describe?
A: “Always ask your child or adolescent ‘What do you know about the virus?’ or ‘What have you seen on the internet or from friends talking about the virus?’ or ‘What worries you the most about the virus?’ This will give you an idea of where your child stands or what concerns they have. Let them know how you feel, too, and what you are doing to be safe and to keep them safe.
Children adapt easily in most cases, however parents should always monitor and keep a tab on how they are feeling. Prioritizing making your child feel heard, safe and loved right now can really go a long way. Accidents at night or during the daytime, changes in appetite and sleep habits, whining, demands for more hugs and clinginess are all behaviors your child might display when things don’t seem right or okay to them. Reminding your child that you’re there to protect them and showing them things they can do to help — like handwashing — can help provide the reassurance they need.
Some students will need more help than others. A child may be in a household that experienced economic devastation; they may have lost a family member to COVID-19; or they may have added layers of stress related to issues around social unrests. Anxiety and depression also can manifest as aggression, irritability, avoidance or shutting down at home. Reach out to a school counselor or outside mental health provider if your child is unusually clingy or fearful, requires excessive reassurance, complains of headaches or other physical symptoms, exhibits major changes in sleeping or eating habits or loses interest in activities they used to enjoy.”
Q: How can exercise or sports help kids at this time? I know many adults deal with stress through exercise - can it help kids as well?
A: “Exercise or any type of ‘physical activation’ as it is called, is so important for mental health that our psychologists use it as one of the primary treatments for patients who are depressed or anxious. One need not be an Olympic athlete to derive its benefits. This is important for you and your kids. Whether it be an at-home fitness class or a daily walk around the neighborhood, it can do wonders for our bodies and minds. In fact, spending time outside has been shown to lower stress and regulate body rhythms. A well-balanced diet is key for maintaining energy levels and helping our immune systems stay in tip-top shape.”
Q: If sports get put on hold, how can kids stay physical or how can they continue to get exercise they need?
A: “If you’re stuck in your house, take time to move around a little. There are plenty of free exercise videos you can do right at home and free trials to apps you can download to your phone.
Ask your doctor first if you have any questions about your ability to exercise safely and consider low impact forms of exercises. Exercise of any kind helps boost and support the immune system. It’s also a great tool for managing anxiety and stress and will help you pass time throughout the day.
Mindfulness, which can be defined as present moment awareness, has been growing in popularity more and more each year, and now is a great time to try it out for older children. Just five minutes of meditation each day can help them reset their mind and perspective. Meditation and breathing exercises can help to slow heart rate down and clear the mind. When practiced regularly, it can buffer the effects of stress, which helps support immune system."
Q: From what you have heard, are there many kids worried about going back to school? I feel the very young ones just know they will be going back to school in different ways. Some parents may have difficulty explaining the circumstances to them.
A: “Kids are worried, but parents are in stress because the decision making is in their hands. Be the best parent you can be right now — not the ‘perfect’ parent. These are unusual times and now, more than ever, it’s important to be gentle with yourself.
Try to let go of the ‘ideal’ you think you should be and, instead, focus on just being there for your child. Partner with the school to meet kids’ needs. Monitor school communications as plans evolve. You want to prepare your child for what school will look like, what’s going to happen and how they can get support. If you’ve chosen remote learning, again partner with the school. Go back and ask the school if they have any advice. Talk with your children about their needs — and responsibilities. Distance learning amplifies all the worries parents have about screen time. How much time should children be spending in front of their laptops now? A lot of parents want to know: Are you doing homework or are you playing games? Divide time for work and play – children need socializing – work with a group of friends and organize get togethers in small groups while practicing guidelines.”
Q: What do doctors/experts have to say about how to help kids process the worry about going back to school?
A: “Just about everyone has some anxiety about this virus. I tell younger children and teens that anxiety is a ‘ voice’ inside you that can play tricks on your body, that is the voice of anxiety can make you feel shaky, or sweat more, or make it hard for you to breath at times, or make you feel like your heart is beating faster than it should. The good news is that there are ways to learn how to make that voice much quieter by focusing on something pleasurable or by deep breathing or visualizing a calm and peaceful place. This takes practice when you are NOT anxious. There are some helpful apps like Mind Shift, COVID Coach and Calm which are free and provide different types of practice sessions for kids and adults. Of course, a child psychologist or pediatrician can help parents and children to use these techniques.
CDC and AAP (at healthychildren.org) has created recommendations to help adults have conversations with children about COVID-19 and ways they can avoid getting and spreading the disease.
Children may worry about themselves, their family, and friends getting ill with COVID-19. Parents, family members, school staff, and other trusted adults can play an important role in helping children make sense of what they hear in a way that is honest, accurate, and minimizes anxiety or fear.