How to help children cope amid COVID-19 and beyond - opinion

Resilience hinges on feeling recognized, emotionally supported, and provided with a degree of safety and predictability through routine and consistency.

Children begin school in Jerusalem on November 1, 2020 after a lockdown. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Children begin school in Jerusalem on November 1, 2020 after a lockdown.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
“You look like Donald Duck on the moon,” my brother said to me. I was eight years old, wearing a gas mask. My family was living in Israel for the year; my father’s work sabbatical was timed perfectly with Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile attacks in 1990.
Whenever the siren would go off we would head to our makeshift sealed bomb shelters until given the all clear. Gas masked, with all room openings covered in plastic sheeting and duct tape, we would wait for the Scud missiles to (hopefully) pass overhead.
I can still hear that siren when an ambulance passes. I can still vividly picture the bucket we used as a toilet in the corner of the 6x10 ft. room. These memories exist alongside other snapshot recollections: my grandfather brushing my sister’s long curls; my father reading a newspaper; my mother fixing the tape and plastic that covered the windows and doors (doing what she knew to keep us safe); and playing hundreds of rounds of Go Fish with my little brother.
I have thought quite a bit about my early childhood experience and the protective factors that helped me integrate my memories as “scary but not overwhelming.”
Of course, war is different from a pandemic, but both scenarios cause us to vacillate through an emotional roller coaster – falling rapidly at alarming speed and then coming up for air (and back around again), bracing ourselves for the next drop.
What I know as a professional is that a key component to resilience during times of uncertainty, fear and helplessness, hinges on feeling recognized, emotionally supported, and provided with a degree of safety and predictability through routine and consistency. Early research has shown the social emotional and mental health impact of the pandemic on children and adolescents. This research speaks to the importance of access to mental health support for youth as well as increased social, communal and political supports. Above all else however, for children it is the relationship with safe person(s) in their life that fosters resilience in times of crisis and trauma. Below are four practical steps that serve as a reminder of how we as parents can support our children (and ourselves!) during this time.
1. Communicate honestly
We want to help our children understand – in a developmentally appropriate way- the reasons for the changes they are experiencing. When we speak to our children simply we are able to model healthy coping in light of stressful circumstances. For example, answering questions like what social bubbles mean, why people are (still) wearing masks, school protocols, or why they cannot hug a loved one, can help children develop resilience.
Honest communication is predicated on recognition of the child’s mind. It is sensitively responding to the questions that are asked, directing the conversation in a way that is truthful and appropriate, and providing reassurance such as behavioral ways to cope with whatever is concerning. In doing so, we model the strength of the human spirit – the capacity to make meaning and move through feelings while holding hope (regardless of circumstance).
2. Sensitive responding through holding and containing
“Holding emotions” means being present – with compassion and without trying to fix, change or influence, while “containing” refers to tolerating feelings (our own and our children’s) that allow us to provide holding.
In a scenario where our child feels sad about changes in school plans, holding and containing would involve recognizing the big feeling moment as a moment for our empathy and sensitivity rather than a need for us to absolve their feeling or a personal attack or accusation on our parenting capacity. In holding space, we communicate that coping with feelings is not turning off or denying emotion but rather permitting the feeling- whatever it is- and empowering ourselves to find a way to be with that feeling (from crying to laughing to distraction) until it moves through us.
A note on regressions and big feelings during this time: young children may struggle to find the words to share how they are feeling or identify the source of their worry. As result, they often show their feelings through an increase in clinging behaviors, aggression, acting out, frequent crying, difficulty staying still, repetitive play, or regression in learned behaviors. These behavioral forms of “acting out” are normal. In fact, these moments are pivotal points of entry when we can help our children learn adaptive coping- beginning with permission to feel all feelings.
3. Manage expectations of yourself and have self-compassion
Now more than ever, taking care of our children requires taking care of ourselves first. I often say – not only do we need to know which balls are plastic and which are glass (Nora Jones) but we need to credit ourselves as the crystal bowl that holds all the balls.
Donald Winnicott coined the term “Good Enough Mother” (in 1960) and introduced the important role of frustration and ruptures (or “mistakes”) in everyday parenting. He explained that through these good enough moments, children learn to separate between reality and fantasy, to develop increased frustration tolerance, more realistic expectations of others and most importantly they come to appreciate that we can be connected even when our minds are separate, and that relationships can withstand anger and conflict.
“Good Enough Parenting” allows space for an essential dose of self-compassion as we parents navigate this pandemic alongside our children. It serves as a reminder to take care of our own needs in order to continue to hold our children. We can only tolerate their big feelings when we have compassion for, process, and cope with our own feelings.
4. Special time, routine and ritual
Children extract an overall impression of safety from moment-to-moment interactions with their parents which incorporate ritual and routine. Following your child’s lead for a designated period of one-on-one “special time” helps build trust and connection between the two of you. These moments of connection rely heavily on quality not quantity (think 5-15 minutes). Your only job is to (temporarily!) put away other distractions and follow your child’s lead - whether that means building forts, painting, a board game, or playing with sticks. Think of it as time for mutual delight and enjoyment without expectation or goals. Alongside special time is the importance of routines and predictability. Sheltering in our homes breaks a lot of normal routines, so it’s important to find opportunities to reestablish some rituals. Combining routine and special time together can provide an active way of coping when things otherwise feel unknown or untethered.
Canvassing social media, it would seem that there is an increased pressure on parents to know and do all things – pandemic edition. The result is a distorted paradoxical increase in the perfectionist ideals that have existed for generations for parents. The reality is, though, there are no Martha Stewart, Marie Kondo (God bless her folding), Pinterest-worthy survival solutions for this time. Even without tricks or hacks, we have the power to communicate honestly, respond sensitively, have self-compassion and create ritual and routine for our families. While we do all of that, we lean into the moments of joy – like those found in a game of Go Fish – you might be surprised how memorable those moments will be!■
Dr. Tanya Cotler is a practicing clinical psychologist in Toronto, sought-after speaker and author of a forthcoming book on attachment and emotion regulation, as well as an e-book for children and their families about how to support children’s mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic