You’re stressed.  What about your kids?

This year has brought a tremendous amount of stress. Parents have had to become teachers. Everyone has had to figure out how to work differently. Masks and hand sanitizer are as indispensable as the cell phone and keys every time we leave the house.

But what about kids?  Are they oblivious to the iron grip COVID seems to have on our world? Or are they struggling with their own fears and worries? Kim Fenbert, DNP, CPNP, certified nurse practitioner with NOCHS’ pediatric practice, answers your questions about how the pandemic could be impacting your children.

Can kids feel stress?

Yes! Don’t assume that stress is something only adults can experience. Kids can definitely feel stress, especially as they continue to wonder about what’s going to happen this fall. Children as young as four or five are showing classic stress symptoms. The older the child, the more capable he or she is of feeling anxious and worried. We’re seeing a lot of stress-related symptoms in the children who come to our pediatric practice.

What could kids be worried about?

Children rely on the adults in their lives to provide love, security, safety and more. They also rely on routine to give structure and meaning to life. So they’re worried about whether or not they will go back to school this fall. Many of them are old enough to overhear the conversations about money, and they worry about whether or not they will have a house to live in or food to eat. Kids wonder if it’s safe to go see friends or visit relatives. Some of them even feel guilty…as though the fact that a parent must stay home when they’re out of school is somehow their fault. Every time a routine is thrown off track, kids can feel stress.

What are some of the symptoms that might indicate my child is stressed?

Childhood behavior is usually pretty consistent. So a change in behavior or energy is the biggest clue that something is wrong. You might notice that your child has suddenly developed separation anxiety, has new fears about animals or is afraid of going to someone’s house. Maybe your kids are having more nightmares, eating less, or complaining about frequent headaches or stomachaches. Perhaps they have less energy, are not enjoying things they usually love, or having a hard time paying attention. And most worrisome…maybe they are talking about self-harm or expressing feelings of guilt that mom or dad have to stay home to care for them. Take a few moments to evaluate your child’s behaviors and energy over the last few weeks. If you’re noticing any of these warning signs, it’s time to take action.

What can parents do to help?

You can take several positive steps to help your children cope. First, and most importantly, control the amount of COVID-related information that your children absorb. If your dinner-table conversation always includes the latest dire news, your kids will hear it. If your phone calls always seem to come back to the pandemic, realize that your kids are listening. If your TV is on a lot, pay attention to how much pandemic talk is coming across the airwaves. As adults, we need to be conscious of and manage the amount of airtime we give to COVID in front of our children. Second, talk to your kids.  Ask them how they are feeling, and let them know it’s normal to feel anxious. Reassure them that we will figure this out, and we will get through it.  It is far better to acknowledge and discuss feelings than to let them stay buried. And third, focus on healthy behaviors. Get the kids outside and engage in physical activity. Go have some fun!  And make sure your children are eating well and getting enough sleep. These sound like trite solutions, but they are essential ingredients of a healthy coping mechanism.

What if things seem to be getting worse?

It’s tempting to ignore the red flags because there’s so much stress for you, too.  But don’t do it! Reach out for help. Your pediatrician’s office is a great place to start. Most offices, including NOCHS, offer telehealth appointments during which you can talk to your provider about your child’s behavior. If things have become serious, it might be time to reach out to a counselor.

What about my older kids…what resources are available for my teenager?

Teens have their own worries and stresses at this point. Many of the things that bring structure to their lives, such as work, school, friends and thoughts of college, are all upside down. Teens need the same things from you that younger kids do: a listening ear and reassurance.

Are counseling services available specifically around COVID?

Yes, Mosaic Counseling in Grand Haven is offering several groups. The Virtual Parent Support Group helps parents cope with their own stress as well as that of their children. The Virtual Teen COVID-19 Coping Group is specifically set up to help teens process their emotions around the pandemic. You can learn more at the Mosaic Counseling website.

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