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Is COVID-19 stressing out your kids? An expert shares some insights

Natalie Kemp, chair of the University of Mount Olive Psychology Department, offers some tips for how to help kids reduce their stress levels.

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Sarah Lindenfeld Hall, Go Ask Mom editor,
Bryan Mims, WRAL reporter
As they juggled working from home or a job loss with online learning for their kids, high stress levels among parents was the "new normal," according to survey from the American Psychological Association. And those stress levels can filter down to kids, experts say.
"Thanks to COVID-19, we are living in unprecedented times," writes Natalie Kemp, chair of the University of Mount Olive Psychology Department, in an article titled "Is COVID-19 stressing out your kids? "We don’t have a plan, and we don’t know what to expect. Every few weeks, the plans and rules change, and no one really knows what to expect. As adults it can be quite overwhelming and frustrating, but for children it can be absolutely confusing and scary."

Stress, of course, is a natural response to threats. "When we are faced with uncertainty and disappointments, our stress responses are physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral," she writes.

But there are reasons — and ways — to reduce our stress levels even during this unpredictable time. Kemp offers some tips:

Look for physical symptoms of stress in children.

"A child may seem lethargic and not want to get out of bed," Kemp writes. "Since so many of their activities have been postponed or canceled they may not be motivated to get going in the mornings if they don’t see anything to look forward to. They may complain about always being tired and having frequent headaches or stomach aches. On the opposite end, some children may seem quite anxious and jittery. They may report having trouble sleeping. Appetites may be off as some may even continually ask for food just because they are bored."

"I think as it goes on, it's beginning to cause a lot of fatigue, just a lot of impatience," said child psychologist, Dr. Carrie Anne Dittner.

How to help:

"For all of these concerns, making a schedule is helpful so that children will have a general idea of what to expect," Kemp writes. "Of course, we can’t plan too far in advance at this time, but picking a time to sit down as a family and talk about what the week will look like and if there are any events to look forward to is helpful. For example, playgrounds may be closed, but families can bring their bikes to a park and ride together, have a picnic lunch or go to a pond and feed the fish. Regular physical exercise is important and parents should model that for their children and try to do it with them. Having a set routine and time for going to bed and waking up will help with consistency as well."

"Let's figure out how we can be helpful around the house, how we can have some quiet time, how we can stimulate our brain a little bit," said Dittner.

Check in when emotions run high.

"Emotional and cognitive symptoms of stress are those overwhelming feelings of lack of control, being pessimistic, and constant worrying that leads people to become frustrated, lonely, and grumpy with one another," Kemp writes. "Children may start fighting with their siblings or whining at every request. Because they no longer have a routine or schedule to follow, they become forgetful and disorganized. Their rooms may be even messier than normal and they just can’t seem to focus on anything. They may see their situation as hopeless and talk in very negative terms."

How to help:

"Adults have an opportunity to show them hope for their future and provide positive interactions when they can," Kemp writes. "If at all possible, minimize the amount of news or negative spins on the current state of the world as much as possible. For example, if a child hears that deaths are rising at an alarming rate, they may really be afraid that their loved ones are going to die and leave them alone. Reassure them and take the opportunity to point out any positives and reframe the situation. If a parent has had hours cut at work, explain how that parent is now able to be home more to spend time with the children instead of being away. Acknowledge that it can be scary at times, but that things will work out. Do not dismiss or make fun of their fears, as they may not be willing to express themselves anymore."

Dittner added, "If they look at you and they know that their feelings are ok, safe and valid, they'll be ok."

Find other outlets.

"Behavioral symptoms may be expressed through physical aggression, avoiding any responsibilities, restlessness, or even nervous habits like nail biting," she writes. "Children may be mad about not seeing their friends or school events and athletics being canceled."

How to help:

"Parents need to find other outlets for physical behaviors," Kemp writes. "For example, pools in many communities are still open, even if there is a limit of how many people can be in them. Parents can coordinate play dates that incorporate social distancing so that children can still socialize and be safe. Reinforce positive behaviors and encourage pro-social behaviors like helping others or taking responsibility for a chore in the home."

Kemp encourages parents to be a positive model for their kids. Offer them hope for their future, she writes.

"Things may not look the same as they once did, but that does not mean that it will always be stressful or bad—just different," she writes. "Let’s find a way to embrace the differences for a healthier future."


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