Little kids, big feelings: Seeing the pandemic as an opportunity to teach kids lifelong skills

click to enlarge Illustration by Riley Helal.
Illustration by Riley Helal.

By Tara Roberts

For Inland 360

In the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Moscow mother Shishona Turner’s 6-year-old son was excited to be home for an extended Spring Break. By week three, he was missing his friends. He clung to his mom for a while, but perked up when summer weather hit, heading outside for playdates and backyard campouts.

A few weeks ago, Turner started homeschooling him and his older brother, and a new wave of emotional changes hit.

“He’s stuck to my side again like glue,” Turner said. “He’s expressing his anxiety.”

It’s been nearly 29 weeks since school and day care closures swept across the nation in response to the pandemic. The start of the new school year hasn’t exactly brought a return to routine, with mask mandates in classrooms, social distancing rules in hallways, temperature checks at day care doors and a multitude of other changes.

It’s no surprise many children are feeling stressed right now, said Brenda Boyd, an assistant professor of human development at Washington State University. The pandemic is stressful for everyone, and strange new expectations compound those feelings for kids.

“If you’re seeing signs of stress in your child, it doesn't mean you’re doing something wrong,” Boyd said. “It means they’re aware of the world around them.”

Noticing a Change

Every person expresses stress and anxiety differently, but the best way to spot a potential problem is to note changes in a child’s behavior — just like Turner’s son’s renewed clinginess.

“The kind of mantra that I teach to my students is that behavior is communication,” Boyd said. “When children’s behavior changes, that’s a pretty good indicator for parents that something is going on.”

Unusual clinginess or teariness might be signs of stress in a preschooler or young elementary schooler, Boyd said. A child who typically responds well to caregivers’ requests might become unwilling to comply.

Older school-age children might be moody or experience sadness beyond their norm. They may complain of stomachaches or headaches. Adolescents, for whom pulling away from parents is typical, might also be especially angry or moody for no reason or resist attending school, Boyd said.

Difficulty sleeping or changes in bedtime habits can be a sign of stress at any age. Kristine Petterson, a sleep and mindful parenting specialist based in Moscow, said sleep issues also can amplify kids’ emotional struggles .

“I feel like this quarantine has created some poor habits for sleep, so many kids may be tired in addition to picking up on the worry or stress,” Petterson said. (See end of story for more on helping kids improve their sleep.)

click to enlarge Illustration by Riley Helal for Inland 360.
Illustration by Riley Helal for Inland 360.

Boyd and Petterson emphasized the importance of recognizing stress responses as normal, and not shaming or punishing kids who are struggling. They warned parents should not assume they know what a child is worrying about.

“The best approach is to try to understand what the child is really experiencing, and that can take some time and some patience,” Boyd said.

Petterson said caregivers should get curious and pay attention to what happens before, during and after an episode of unwanted behavior — a term she prefers to “bad” or “negative.” Once they identify triggers, they can ask clearer questions about the underlying problem.

Supporting strategies

The next step Petterson recommends is child-led problem solving. Parents can empathize and validate a child’s feelings without trying to fix everything.

“We talk a lot about just letting them feel their big feelings, being calm and supportive and asking a lot of questions,” Petterson said.

Heather Havey, director of the WSU Children’s Center, said helping children develop a “toolkit” for dealing with stress during this exceptionally stressful time will benefit them throughout their lives.

“I think they’ll have more resiliency,” she said. “I think it’s going to give children a chance to think, ‘I don’t always know the outcome. Things can change, but I can be adaptable, and I can be part of the change, I can be part of the process.’”

Havey said adults can help kids add to their toolkits by modeling strategies for coping with stress, whether that’s breathing exercises, taking time to play, or simply admitting that life can be tough right now but we can work together to find ways to cope. Even a crying infant can benefit from a caregiver modeling calm.

“Just hold them and audibly breathe deeply,” Havey said. “Do it out loud — they feel your body and they sense you calming down, swaying. Give them those mindfulness tips that plant a seed in their brain.”

Routine also is reassuring for children, Boyd said. During times of transition, families should continue regular mealtimes, movie or game nights, or other traditions.

Above all, the experts agreed, children need to hear that the adults in their lives love them and will care for them, even in an unprecedented time.

Petterson’s favorite key phrase: “Lots of things are changing, but not my love for you.”

Reaching Out

Sometimes, children need additional help dealing with stress. Boyd encouraged caregivers to talk to their child’s regular physician if they want a referral for a counselor or psychologist, and said new telehealth options can make finding a specialist easier than usual.

For Turner’s older son, who had a history of anxiety before the pandemic, seeing a counselor has been an important outlet. Turner encouraged parents to reach out to counselors for their children and themselves.

Technology also has helped the Turner kids. Turner’s older son recently started using Mightier, a game-based system that helps children identify physiological stress responses and teaches them techniques to calm themselves.

Both Turner’s sons love Moshi, an app that uses music, meditations and other mindfulness techniques to help children wind down at bedtime.

Technology has helped Turner, too. She said Facebook gives her a space to connect to other parents and share struggles. She’s found that other local parents are always willing to share resources and ideas.

“Because we have a really caring community on the Palouse, we’re helping each other through it as best we can,” she said. “(In) our community, if you say ‘help,’ people are going to help you.”

Caregivers all are under tremendous pressure, especially as school is starting, Boyd said — and they can help their kids by helping each other.

“Not competing with each other, not expecting your children to compete with each other, and just being supportive of each other is a big thing,” she said. “Whether that’s in a couple or parents in a neighborhood or in a school system … I think we just really need to support each other right now.”

Illustration by Riley Helal for Inland 360.
Illustration by Riley Helal for Inland 360.

Better bedtime routines for better sleep

For many families, bedtimes and sleep routines have been lost in the fog of the pandemic. But the science is clear: Kids need sleep, and eight hours usually isn’t enough.

According to American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommendations endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, teens need 8 to 10 hours of sleep, kids aged 6 to 12 need 9 to 12 hours of sleep, and preschoolers, toddlers and infants need even more.

Kristine Petterson, a sleep and mindful parenting specialist from Moscow, generally recommends 12 hours for kids aged 2-and-a-half through around 10.

She recognizes that parents and caregivers often feel overwhelmed and anxious about bedtime, so she encourages them to plan a routine that involves special time to connect with their kids.

Petterson suggests calming contact, like a back rub or foot rub, for smaller children who crave physical connection and need to rest their bodies and minds — not to mention their talkative mouths.

She also encourages parents to read to their kids of all ages at bedtime, even letting babies as young as 4 months old pick out books.

“The most important thing for parents to do is to have a bedtime routine that they enjoy — and their kids will enjoy it way better,” Petterson said.

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