Covid-19: A Glaring Opportunity to Teach Children Key Emotional Regulation Skills
The effects of this pandemic have been ubiquitous. There is no line that this virus did not cross when it comes to the societal boundaries that "define" who we are as individuals as well as the collective. We all have felt the effects of this, albeit some more than others. Despite the varying degrees of inconvenience and suffering brought forth by this virus, and despite the ever changing facts that are made available on a daily basis, this one fact has remained true through it all: Covid-19 has effected all of us.
There is very real grief, and devastation that has shrouded many of our lives as a result of Covid but there are also some positives. Covid has brought along many opportunities for us to change our perspectives and how we live our lives-for the better. From my perspective as a child and family therapist, when it comes to the youngest people, there is a glaring opportunity to teach key emotional regulation skills that can be carried forth for a lifetime.
New studies are highlighting the fact that children's mental health has been extremely affected by Covid-19, and in large numbers. Where previously 1 in 5 children had mental health challenges, now more than half do. We can only assume that those numbers will increase as we consider the fact that we are in a pre-traumatized state as we are still actively grappling with Covid-19 and its immediate effects on our daily lives.
When Covid is over, and we attempt to go back to normal, it is likely that we will see trauma reactions indicating the lasting psychological effects of this pandemic experience.
Research shows us that the way we respond to traumatic events in front of our children can set the stage for how severe and lasting the post-traumatic effects are. Take this scenario for example: A father and a son are walking down the street and witness a neighbor get hit and badly injured by a vehicle while crossing the road. The father's reaction in this moment is key and likely influenced by a number of factors. If the father becomes highly emotional and reactive in that moment perhaps the child may feel emotionally unsafe which could lead to a disproportionally intense fear of crossing the street in the future, among other trauma reactions. If the father remains calm, addresses the child in the moment to explain what just happened, and the next steps that will need to be taken to help the neighbor, that child may still have some fear about crossing the road, and may still display some trauma reactions following this event, but perhaps not so severe.
Why? It's because the core of trauma is a feeling of being unsafe in conjunction with feeling a loss of control. Two themes that are inherently present in our modern day Covid19 experience. Parents/primary caregivers are the inherent embodiment of safety in our lives, and thus they have great power in helping to mitigate the effects of trauma.
Here are some Practical Steps to take to help facilitate the acquisition of emotional regulation skills in children
Step one: Take care of yourself. Everything with Covid has been happening at warped speed. The pivot to online learning, working from home, all while managing our own emotions as parents is giving us all some form of psychological whiplash. The key here is to make the time to check in with yourself.
Ask yourself: " How has this experience affected me emotionally?" "What am I feeling right now?" "What feelings am I carrying with me throughout the day?".
Also, be very intentional about making time for healthy self care practices. It's just like what flight attendants say to us when we are on a plane (LOL remember planes?) "please place the mask over your own face before helping others".
Once you are in an emotionally aware and regulated place you are in a great position to help your child to do the same. Notice I said emotionally aware- not emotionally good, or positive place- because let's face it, this is hard and we all have our moments when things aren't great.
Step two: Help your child to recognize, understand, and communicate their feelings.
Since you've already done the work of recognizing and understanding your own emotions, you will be in a great position to help a child to do this by initiating a conversation.
What this means: Begin an ongoing conversation with your child around this whole experience. Tell them how you have felt, and what you are doing to help yourself to get through it.
Step Three: Ask the child to share their thoughts and experiences with you.
What this means: Be intentional and ask the child what this experience has been like for them. Give them the space to express themselves in the best way they can. Make sure you are practicing good listening skills by maintaining eye contact, not interrupting, and sharing with her/him what you heard them say so that they really know that you were listening.
Step Four: Help your child to cope with any negative feelings.
What this means: Have a conversation with your child about what could be helpful to feel better. Maybe they need a day off from virtual learning, more coordinated efforts to spend (socially distant) time with friends, or to spend more time outdoors. In all of my time as a child and family therapist, I have learned many things, including the fact that children know what they want, just as much, if not more so, than adults. They just need to feel heard and validated as they ask for it.
If you have a conversation with your child, or have difficulty with the conversation, but still feel like something may be off, here are some signs that your child may be struggling:
-Changes in sleep- sleeping more or less
-Changes in appetite- eating more or less
-Changes in behavior- becoming more withdrawn or acting "different"
-Anger/Agitation- Very little patience, snapping at others more often
Keep an eye out. If you notice any of these things take action, especially if they persist longer than a week or two. In the era of Covid-19 there is expanded access to mental health services by way of tele-therapy. Therapy is extremely helpful and often necessary to help children with mental health challenges.
In my opinion, the best forms of therapy are those that are helpful in overcoming challenges by facilitating a growth process that enables wide-scale self understanding. This process occurs alongside the introduction and maintenance of appropriate coping skills. Click here: to read my article about how to begin the process of finding an appropriate provider for your child.
Remember, we are here to help you and if you are stuck please reach out to us! If we can't help, we will get you to someone who can!
Be well. Be Happy. Be Safe!
Pinnacle Co-Founder and Chief Clinical Officer Dahyana P. Schlosser, RN, M.Ed. is a Child and Family Therapist and tireless advocate for Children's Mental Health. Her passion for helping others serves at the core of her perspective for spearheading innovative solutions to individual and systemic mental health challenges.