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By: Jan M. Kasofsky, PhD / Access Health Louisiana’s Sr. Vice President of Behavioral Health and Human Services
As 2021 unfolds and we prepare for a continuation of many of the same challenges and uncertainties of 2020, how can parents and caregivers best address the anxiety, fears, trauma and loss that started last March? This article is a reflection on how to give children hope and support in a time of prolonged uncertainty, the time of COVID-19.
I have served as an incident commander here in Louisiana through numerous weather events and declared disasters. I have worked with many outstanding professionals who always kept a focus not only on logistics, but also the emotional turmoil experienced by those most impacted. We always knew that if we supported the caregiver, the children would be okay, and as I think back to these events, the quote comes to mind that, “when mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy”. Although taken from Ron Hall, author of “Same Kind of Different as Me.”, and perhaps a southern colloquialism, its meaning can be generalized to be that all eyes are on the caregiver and a child’s sense of security rests on how stable they perceive their caregiver to be. Their conclusion can either add to or detract from their own resiliency.
Let’s start with asking you, a parent, a caregiver, and most likely an adult about what are you doing for your own self care? Caregivers are notorious for deferring their own care as they strive to make everything just right for others. But remember, those little eyes are watching and drawing conclusions on whether you’re on top of things or “losing it”. You need to take inventory and be honest with yourself. These are unprecedented times so take a deep breath and ask yourself what healthy approaches are you making to take care of yourself? Selfcare is not self-indulgence. Regardless of whether your healthy “go-to” approach is tried and true or if it’s something new that you want to try out, you need it now. Take a safe time-out to recharge; this may be a walk, a visit with friends, family or neighbors on a porch; an escape through reading or watching a live-stream, or movie; or growing or harvesting plants from your garden. It may be an outdoor exercise class, a walk, or a drive; a visit to a local park, garden or museum. If you need time to just be alone at home, let others know you need it and ask them to honor it. Be careful not to increase your alcohol consumption or other negative behaviors such as over-eating that can have negative consequences.
Now let’s talk about the children. You’ll need to set the stage for your child to tell you about their concerns and fears. Make the time for a safe, non-judgmental, conversation with your child. They may need alone time with you to open-up emotionally. Give them permission to talk about feelings, or depending on their age, or preference, they may do best by drawing a picture or using the arts to express themselves. Listen carefully. They may not understand their feelings enough to fully express them, but it’s how they are feeling so don’t interrupt or guide them. Once they are ready to dialogue, you’ll likely hear issues of loss of control and issues of grief or loss. Problem solve with them, if they are able, to identify what will give them a sense of control. Are they looking for a daily routine that supports them academically, or socially; ways to connect with friends from a distance or virtually; do they need more “down time” or more scheduled time; an athletic or creative outlet? You can help them come up with these answers, but you must start with learning about their needs. Just listening and then clarifying or sharing information with them that may be helpful, can make a difference. Joy Osofsky, PhD, the Paul J. Ramsay Endowed Chair of Psychiatry, Barbara Lemann Professor of Child Welfare, from the Departments of Pediatrics and Psychiatry, at the LSU Health Sciences Center, notes that “most children will be resilient and return to typical functioning when they receive consistent support from sensitive and responsive caregivers. What is most helpful is a secure relationship where children feel comfortable and safe expressing their feelings. It is also very important for parents and caregivers to communicate with children that the current difficulties and uncertainties are temporary”.
To help children and adolescents build their self-confidence, ask them to tell you about their past successes and/or how they overcame past setbacks. Reinforcing past successes instills in them a belief in overcoming present and possible future challenges and gives a sense of control. You can use your child’s own words to reinforce how they can set goals, routines, and establish projects that can be successful going forward.
Although there are still many unknowns about COVID-19, answer your child’s questions honestly; you may read or watch media reports together to gain a better understanding, but limit how much time you and they are exposed to ongoing coverage.
If you believe your child needs professional help to sort out the many issues they face, know there are many options in this area. Due to the expansion of teletherapy, this option makes appointments convenient for adults and children. These are unprecedented situations, we, as adults, never had to face as children. If you see your child’s developmental trajectory has reversed or grinded to a halt, their behavior is different or has become problematic or challenging to themselves, others, or you, or if you notice emotional dysregulation, sleeping or eating too much or too little, heightened irritability, or social or emotional withdrawal, it is time for an intervention by a professional. Remember this pandemic is not going away magically and it is the very nature of a prolonged period of uncertainty, to wear parents and children down. Decide to take control positively. If issues in your house can be resolved within your family, or circle of friends, that’s great. But do not procrastinate if professional help is needed to set a positive plan in place for you as the caregiver, or for those who rely on you at home. We are truly all in this together, so let’s make it for the better with resiliency and hope for the new year.
(To read more of Dr. Kasofsky’s columns in the Healthcare Journal of New Orleans, click here.)