While available evidence indicates that most children are not at higher risk for COVID-19, there are plenty of challenges facing parents and families during the pandemic – from concerns about how to keep children healthy, to helping them stay active and get the social interactions that are part of a healthy and fulfilling life as they grow and develop.
We’ve heard these concerns from many families in our community, and today we’ll share some tips and guidance on how to help your child cope and continue growing – physically, mentally and emotionally – during this public health emergency.
Additionally, we recently hosted a Facebook Live on the topic of emotional and physical health as children and families prepare for back-to-school. Pediatric experts David Rettew, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UVM Larner College of Medicine and Jill Rinehart, MD, program director for the department of pediatrics at UVM Children’s Hospital, discussed the stress and anxiety of returning to school and offered guidance to prepare students and families for this transition.
Health and Safety
One of the most powerful tools all parents have at their disposal is leading by example. You plan a vital role in teaching children everyday preventative actions like handwashing and wearing a mask. If you wash your hands often and wear your mask in public, your children are more likely to do the same. Additionally, explaining what you’re doing and why, in a way your child can understand, can help keep them healthy and stop the virus from spreading to others.
Encouraging your child to play outdoors is great for their physical and mental health. Even if you don’t have a big yard or area where your child can play outdoors, you can make going for a walk or a bike ride a family activity.
Even when indoors, use activity breaks – a stretch break or a dance break are great options – throughout the day to get your children up and moving. The break from whatever they are doing can help them stay focused, and the activity will help them stay healthy.
Staying Socially Connected
Social interaction is an important part of every child’s day, and it’s more difficult than ever due to social distancing guidelines and the need to avoid many gatherings. Still, there are many different ways you can help your child stay socially connected with friends and family.
- Write cards or letters to family members who you may not be able to visit.
- Use technology like phone calls or video chats to reach out to friends and family, or to set up virtual playdates with friends.
Celebrating Big and Small
The pandemic has also dramatically changed the way many families celebrate milestones like birthdays or school graduations. When traditional parties aren’t an option, parents can get creative to ensure their child still feels special on their big day. Some quick ideas that can help you get started on planning your own celebration are:
- Movie Night – let your child pick the movie, pop some popcorn and surprise them with an extended bedtime.
- Backyard camping – If the weather cooperates, pitching a tent in your backyard can feel like a big adventure to your child. You can incorporate a scavenger hunt or other outdoor activity as well.
- Birthday Dinner – Just because you don’t want to visit a restaurant doesn’t mean you can’t get dressed up and turn your dinner table into a fancy dine-in destination. If you break out the special dinnerware and fancy glasses, your child will get an extra thrill and feel all grown up.
- Game Night – An oldie but a goodie: family game nights can feature classic tabletop games or team-based contests like “Minute To Win It” party games that can be adapted for all ages. Let your child pick the game – you can even set a household wager for an added thrill.
Coping with Stress
As parents we are feeling plenty of stress these days, but it’s important to remember that children feel these pressures, too. Not all children respond to stress in the same way, so it’s important to keep an eye out for some common changes that can indicate your child is feeling stress:
- Excessive worry or sadness
- Unhealthy eating habits
- Unhealthy sleeping habits
- Difficulty with attention and/or concentration
- Irritability or “acting our” behaviors in teens
- Unexplained headaches or body pains
- Excessive crying or irritation in younger children
- Returning to behaviors they have outgrown (toileting accidents or bedwetting, for example)
Support Your Child
If your child is struggling with stress, anxiety or fear, it’s important to meet them on their level and support them. Some important ways you can do this are:
- Talk with your child about the pandemic.
- Answer questions and share facts in a way they can understand.
- Reassure your child that they are safe, and let them know that it is ok to be upset.
- Tell them how you deal with your own stress, so they know they’re not alone and can learn from your example.
- Limit their exposure to news coverage and social media discussions about the public health emergency, as children may misinterpret what they hear or be frightened by what they do not understand.
- Maintain regular routines whenever possible.
- Be a role model: take care of yourself by getting plenty of sleep, taking breaks, exercising and eating well, and connecting with your friends and family members.
- Spend meaningful time together doing things like reading, exercising, or playing board games.
Pediatrician Julia Ordonez, MD, and Pediatric Nurse Practitioner Jennifer Shull, NP, are Pediatric Primary Care Providers at UVM Health Network — Alice Hyde Medical Center.