Although we are still in the midst of a global pandemic, summer is in full swing. For many families in Northern Virginia, it has marked a return to social life for kids of all ages, through outlets like summer camp (both in online and in-person formats), preschool and even play dates.
No matter what it looks like, it’s expected that many children are going to face some anxieties about reuniting with their friends, and also about doing it in the safest way possible. So, you may be asking: Is my child ready to interact with friends again? How can I help prepare him? And, if your family is maintaining social distancing through the summer, how will that affect your kids social abilities in the long run?
In these unprecedented times, we’ve chatted with Gabrielle Anderson, LMFT, RPT-S, of the Family Therapy Center of Northern Virginia, LLC, to get the answers. Here, Anderson shares her take on the emotions your child is probably having right now, how your child might react in a social environment after quarantining, and also what activities you can practice as a family to make the transition a little easier. Highlights from our conversation below.
In your professional opinion, what effects can a three-month quarantine have mentally and emotionally on young children?
The effects of a three-month quarantine depend largely on what the child’s life during quarantine has been like, as well as the emotional assets that are available to that child in the home. For some children, being home is an emotionally and physically safe place to be, and for others it is not. No two families’ experiences are the same, therefore no two children’s experiences are the same. Asking children what the quarantine has been like for them will give parents a more tailored look.
Activity: Ask your child to draw a picture of a “day in the life of quarantine.” Watch them draw the picture. Take note of what they are spending time on and what they are quickly glossing over. Ask open-ended questions like, “Tell me about your picture,” or “I noticed you erased your original idea. Tell me about this,” and “What is everyone in this picture feeling?” Art is a great way for children to access their emotions in a safe way and it gives parents a platform on which to verbally explore the topics. It becomes less about analyzing the picture and more about using art as a vehicle for communication.
Do you expect there to be behavioral changes or long-term developmental effects for young kids going through the pandemic right now?
Every child responds differently to stressful events. Some children internalize—worry thoughts, anxiety, shutdown—and others externalize their feelings—disruptive behavior, screaming, aggression. When parents can get to the root of the emotion and can offer an outlet, they have a better gauge of how to help. Teaching children how to handle emotion in the moment can help the behavior and dysregulated emotion not become a chronic problem.
Activity: Get a handful of popsicle sticks, a cup and two different-colored markers. Together as a family, brainstorm activities that can help the child refocus the emotions. With one colored marker, write a calm and quiet activity on each popsicle stick, such as “read a book,” “take a bubble bath,” “take a deep breath,” etc. Then with the other colored marker write active things that can help, like “ride my bike,” “jump on the trampoline,” “play hide and seek with my brother,” etc. When the child’s emotions need a refocus, encourage your child to pull an idea from the cup and do that activity.
How do you expect children to react when returning to social life, whether that be in small groups with family friends or at day care?
How children react to re-engaging in the real world actually depends on a few factors. What has the quarantine been like for them? How fearful do they feel about the virus? How fearful and anxious are the adults in their world about reintegrating into the community? What is the child’s baseline anxiety level?
Children learn from the adults in their world and will often follow the lead of what parents believe and how parents feel. Parents and children co-regulate together, meaning a parent’s emotional state directly affects their children. This being said, if a child is already anxious and already struggles to regulate emotion and everyday fears, reintegrating may be more challenging for this child.
Parents can help by noticing how their own reactions affect their children both negatively and positively, leading them to take mindful steps to help their children regulate the emotion. This could be by turning off the news when children are nearby, asking them how they are feeling and modeling good self-care.
How can parents help their kids mitigate these fears, and be open to social gatherings?
Play is an important factor in a child’s everyday life. It is how children communicate and explore their world, but it is also how children work out life’s problems. When parents help their children explore the scary things creatively, it can help them approach their fears but from a safe, fun distance. One medium to use for this is Play-Doh.
Activity: As a family, brainstorm the various feelings that might come up as you begin to venture back into the community. List these emotions on paper for each family member to choose a different emotion. Next, form the Play-Doh into balls and each family member creates an emoji for his/her feeling. Toothpicks are great to help add in eyebrows, facial expressions and wrinkles. Using googly eyes or cutting out eyes on construction paper can help add dimension and help capture the emotions too. Parents can stop here or families can create an imaginative story with their characters going to a place outside of their home. Acting out a scenario helps children safely experience the event on an imaginary level, which can transfer into helping them feel more confident and prepared in the actual event.
How can parents help their children become more comfortable with the presence of others?
Children with limited exposure outside of their home during quarantine might be afraid of the newer things in the environment and may feel frightened to wear a mask or see masks on others. Helping expose the child to masks in a playful way can help encourage bravery and confidence.
Activity: Purchase disposable masks that children can use to design a mask for their favorite stuffed animal or doll. Encourage them to use markers, glitter, gems and other favorite crafting materials to create their ideal designs on the mask. Children can use the masks during imaginary play, can create matching masks for themselves, create masks for loved ones, etc. The goal of this task is to approach something scary through creativity and play. Maybe the stuffed animal never leaves the house, or maybe it comes with the child to the outside event. Either way, the child is using the art and play as a means to work out present-life struggles in a fun, imaginative way. What better way to expose themselves to a somewhat-scary stimuli than with play?
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