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Supporting kids through uncertainty

Helping kids cope through the COVID-19 pandemic – and the uncertainty it brings for caregivers and kids alike – is no small task.

“Recognizing that it’s a tough time for everyone and that we are all in this together, it’s OK to not be OK sometimes,” says Dr. Alexa Bagnell, chief of psychiatry at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax.

As the adage goes, you need to take care of yourself before you can help someone else, and this is no exception. Parents need to be able care for themselves as best as possible. “We tend to neglect our own self-care,” Dr. Bagnell says. “Kids will look to their parents to see how they’re coping.”

Adolescents may be feeling a sense of loss – unable to finish out the school year, reduced connections with their friends in the usual way, or in some cases, missed traditional graduations and summer jobs. The uncertainty of the coming months and what school will look like in the fall is an added stress.

Dr. Bagnell counsels parents to reinforce positive feelings. “Tell your kids they have done an amazing job and worked hard to follow recommendations. They helped control the virus and made sacrifices with their life to make the world better. Each person has an important role and they are doing an important job.”

Kids are social beings, and the sudden and sustained restrictions placed on everyone by public health has affected them in particular. It’s critical for young people to express their feelings. “Talk about feelings but don’t dwell solely on the negative,” says Dr. Bagnell. “Give kids a chance to talk about their losses and find ways as a parent to recognize it.”

“With change and uncertainty around us, focus on things you can control. Try to set up one small thing a day that you’ve accomplished that will make you feel good. This could be as simple as helping someone out, creating artwork or making a meal.”

Our stress levels rise when we don’t feel in control, making it harder to cope. “Helping kids with routine is more important than ever,” says Dr. Bagnell. “For example, let kids have a summer sleep routine where they can sleep in a little bit longer but encourage them to be up most of the day and around people. Its key for their mental well-being. Sleeping, eating well and exercising can make a big difference.”

Kids need to connect with their friends. “There’s lots of cool creative ways that kids can get together. Following public health guidelines, encourage them to come up with ways to be social. Parents could host a small gathering in their backyard and monitor the distance between kids,” Dr. Bagnell says.

For some children and adolescents, dealing with a parent’s return to work can cause stress. Dr. Bagnell suggests reminding kids that safety precautions have been put in place and that they wouldn’t send them back to work if it wasn’t safe.

“Young kids need to hear it simply: our safety precautions are to keep us all safe. I will do all the safe things we’re practising at home, like washing my hands and wearing a mask when required.”

Another way to make the transition less abrupt is to spend more time outside of the house. “If both parents have been home throughout the quarantine, create more time where one parent isn’t there. Pre-emptively create a schedule and put it on the calendar so kids know what to expect.”

Most importantly, open up a dialog with your kids and don’t assume what they’re feeling. “Ask them what they are fearful of. They might have a very specific worry about loss or about a family member – it can totally different than what we think.”

Dr. Bagnell wants families to know that there are free mental resources available for kids and teens. “When you are worried about your children’s mental health, you don’t need to worry alone. Reach out, talk with your doctor or someone you can trust. There’s great resources available.”

For crisis situations call the Mobile Crisis Line: 1-888-429-8167

To be paired with mental health resources in your community, youth and families can self-refer to the province-wide line: 1-855-922-1122

To talk with someone right away you can call the 24-7 Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 or call 911 if it is an emergency.