Kids at home for another three months? Here are some ways to cope
TORONTO -- For many families used to being partially occupied with homeschooling these last two months, the coming summer may prove extra challenging without that structure.
The extended social isolation can be particularly difficult for children, especially the younger ones who do not yet have the skills or the vocabulary to express how they feel, for example, or for families with special needs children who require constant care, but no longer have access to outside help during the pandemic.
“A really important consideration in all of this is the mental health of children. Right now, of course, they’re experiencing the huge impact of social isolation and the pressures that many families are under,” Sara Austin, the founder of Children First Canada, told CTVNews.ca.
And in areas where summer programs are available, there is also the added stress of wondering whether the health measures taken by program co-ordinators will be enough to keep children safe from getting sick. Trying to prepare them for a “new normal” could mean explaining why they might not be able to hug a friend at camp and why activities might have to be conducted at a distance without physical interaction.
It is important to give children more emotional support, help them talk about the stress of their experience, and be extra patient with them -- and with yourselves, said Austin. She said parents should reduce their expectations, expect more pushback, more temper tantrums.
“Kids often have a really hard time processing those big emotions -- even adults have a hard time,” she said, noting that parents, as role models, can learn to co-regulate with their children on how to manage those emotions.
Some things parents can do include having a schedule and sticking to it - this includes spending time together like breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and incorporating a short “recess” into everyone’s afternoon, for example.
Even little bursts of time can be helpful: take just 15 minutes to play outdoors or in the basement, Austin suggested.
“It’s good for kids and adults to have that little mental break and connect.”
There are also programs and resources available for parents looking at ways to keep their kids occupied this summer.
“Backyard Camp” is one example, recently launched by a parent on Facebook. It is a free service for parents and caregivers geared towards pre-school and school-aged children that puts together a daily schedule of activities and incorporates the child’s interests to help structure their day.
Co-founded by Erin Elfassy, parents who sign up receive an email for the week ahead on what they will need, while a schedule that imitates a full day at camp is sent out at the start of each day to guide families.
While some parent participation might be needed, especially for younger children, the goal is to allow kids to be fairly independent, said Elfassy, adding that about 500 parents from Ontario and elsewhere in Canada have signed up so far.
“It came from being a parent myself -- the panic -- that my kids have been in school, and day-to-day, they have activities, they have projects, and all of a sudden, we’re going to have summer, where there’s not going to be that schedule, that routine provided to us,” said Elfassy.
“We can’t be outside with the kids all day, we can’t be watching them all day. They need to have some independent things that they can do.”
Incorporating certain tools like the “zones of regulation” can also be a helpful way to check in with children throughout their day to see how they are doing, Austin said.
The system is taught in many schools and is a cognitive behavioural approach to teaching children how to self-regulate their emotions. The “zones” consist of four colours, blue, green, yellow, and red. The blue zone describes sadness, boredom, or tiredness, for example, or when the mind and body are feeling sluggish. The green zone would indicate feelings such as happiness, calm, or focus. It is the ideal zone for homework and socializing. The yellow zone can indicate stress, frustration, anxiety, confusion, and some loss of control. The red zone indicates intense emotions like anger, panic, aggression, and no control.
Parents can discuss with their children the things they can do when they are in a particular zone -- like taking a deep breath and a break if they are in the yellow zone; going for a walk or talking to an adult when they are in the blue zone.
Ask which colour they feel and integrate that into meal time conversation, Austin suggested. It also helps children -- and parents -- discuss techniques they can try when they see themselves bordering on the yellow zone into the red zone, for example.
Reaching out to mental health professionals is also important for parents who are having a difficult time too, Austin added.
A report from the Washington Post said pediatricians across the United States were sounding the alarm as the stress of unemployment and financial insecurity increased tensions between children and their caregivers, putting them in unsafe situations and ER doctors reporting more severe cases of abuse.
“Right now, there are not many trusted adults outside of the home who have access to children and who could be aware of those risks,” said Austin.
Jack.org, Kids Help Phone, Teenmentalhealth.org, the Canadian Paediatric Society, and the Canadian Association of Social Workers are some of the trusted resources that Austin recommended, but she recognized that access to mental health can be difficult and varies across the country.
“We as parents need to know that we don’t have to solve all these problems alone,” said Austin.
“Parents need a break to be able to keep their tank full and look after kids. If you think your kids are in need of support, reach out.”