How can I help children who now feel isolated?
In the summer, when it became clear that my 10-year-old son's school district was going to offer both face-to-face and virtual options to return to school in the fall, his mother and I wanted to make him feel that he played a part in whatever decision he made.
My son is shy and introverted, but he has a small group of friends with whom he has grown up since kindergarten. He has missed them tremendously since March, and his only non-virtual access to those friendships would be to go back to private lessons. Still, he eventually said he felt more comfortable staying at home.
And for the most part, he's been resilient and adapted to such a dramatic change. He gets up early and starts assignments at the same time every day. His grades are good, and he's motivated himself. He remembers when his Zoom measurements are, and has a good adult support system. But sometimes he just needs a friend who is not his parent.
As much as I wish I could, I can't go outside and play sports with the ridiculous amounts of energy he and his friends have always been able to muster. I'm pathetically awkward with video games and I can't solve problems as effectively as he has problems connecting with his friends for online games.
Our main concern with online school was how he would respond academically and adapt to the fact that he should be more self-managing than in a traditional classroom. But that was the easy part. Trying to navigate and supplement his emotional needs proved more challenging.
Start talking, and keep talking
For help, I contacted Dr. Hannah Schacter, a developmental psychologist at Wayne State University in Detroit, who studies how adolescent social relationships affect their mental and physical health. She said that what we are experiencing right now is not uncommon.
"One of the favorite things children and adolescents do to go to school is interact with their peers, both inside and outside the classroom," Schacter said. "The shift to predominantly online learning has empowered children to engage in those informal school interactions that make them feel good, such as having lunch with their friends in the cafeteria, sports games, after-school clubs and sharing funny stories in their lockers as time passes".
She also notes that those emotional needs shouldn't be seen in isolation from learning, they're called "intricately intertwined, inseparable priorities".
Dr. Hilary Marusak is a developmental neuroscientist at Wayne State who studies brain development in children and adolescents, and the effects of stress and trauma on the brain. She notes that most children do have fears about social detachment and life during the pandemic. She and Schacter both say that a simple way for parents and caregivers to control the mental and emotional health of children is by simply asking them questions.
"Some children may be afraid to lose friends, miss important celebrations such as birthdays, vacations or graduations, and perform poorly at school," Marusak said. "You may never know if you don't ask, and many parents may not know. Children may experience the fear differently than adults and are less able to express what they feel".
Fear and depression, she said, can manifest in children in many different ways. For example, they may feel certain physical symptoms, such as abdominal pain.
"Children can also avoid talking about certain things or no longer want to do things they used to enjoy doing," Marusak said. "This is especially trying for more shy children or older teenagers, who can keep things close to the chest.
Even if children don't want to talk, Schacter notes that routinely asking questions about their feelings at least keeps a door open so they know they can talk about things like feeling isolated or lonely with parents, school staff, or other trusted adults.
Presence is the key
The reality of life for everyone in quarantine is that new stress factors are rampant. For parents who are already juggling full-time jobs and other responsibilities pre-pandemic, the added requirements to adequately support children who are in virtual school academically and emotionally immense new challenges that can feel overwhelming. But there is a bit of good news: just being present is often the most reassuring thing parents can do.
"There is a lot of pressure on parents and caregivers to juggle all these roles, while maintaining their own physical and mental health," Marusak said. "This must be enlightening for parents to know. Parents can actually do a lot to help buffer their child's fears and worries by just being there. We know from decades of research that the presence of a warm, comforting parent can buffer the negative effects of stress on children.
Just making sure a child is safe may seem simple, but it can actually be quite powerful.
"Parents should strive to be a stable source of support for your child, and a safe place where he or she can talk openly about what they think or feel at any time," Marusak said. "Make time to listen to your child and don't dismiss any of their emotions; recognize that this is a stressful time.
Confirm their feelings and their need for autonomy
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer counselors to talk to children about the coronavirus. In these conversations, parents may not be able to play the exact role of a friend or peer, but they can perform some of the same functions. Character notes that listening, validating and empathizing is the key.
"Instead of minimizing or trivializing children's stress, it's important that parents confirm their children's feelings and take their perspective," she said. "Especially for adolescents, it is also important that parents give their child space. Adolescence is typically a time of exploration and increasing parental independence, and these developmental milestones are much more difficult to achieve when quarantined at home. Respect for space and teenagers' desire for autonomy, while an open attitude to communication can also help build trust".
Was this article helpful?51 Posted by: 👨 Diane H. Wright