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Kids Mental Health in a Time of COVID-19

Insights from a School Board Leader and Mother

“When 'I' is replaced by 'We', even illness becomes wellness.”

- unknown

When did you first hear about the shut down for COVID-19? How did you get the news – and how did you tell your children?

Does it matter? Absolutely

This moment in time is in some ways a ‘flashbulb moment’ where people will remember very clearly the changes and differences that occurred because of this pandemic with almost picture-like clarity. How we talk to children about Covid-19 and what we do to support them returning to normal activities can greatly increase their resiliency. I am a Social Worker and a Mental Health and Addictions Leader at an Ontario school board but my most important job is being a mother to my three children. We're all going through covid-19 together.

There's hope! Children are resilient. My children are resilient. The students at the school board where I'm the mental health lead are resilient.

My proudest professional moment was when I got to create a video for the graduating class who couldn't attend an in-person ceremony for their Grade 7 graduation. Despite all of the adults having a very great sense of loss for these children, the youths themselves were amazing. They didn't ask “why us?” or even complain; these young students really seemed to understand the importance of staying home, and especially of keeping the elderly safe. So my message to this class was that I really believe that they had everything they needed for high school because they already had the most important skills. By their actions through this challenging time in history, they were already thinking of others, caring for the most vulnerable, and being leaders for the community. When you think about it, all our children are leaders of the future. Aren't those the kind of leaders we really want?

We have gone through and will continue to go through, so many unknowns with Covid-19, but one thing is for sure: it will end. When we can take meaning from traumatic events, and find valuable silver linings that fill us with purpose, we and our children can be protected from some of the stress and hardship that we endure. For example, this year has not been what I had hoped for my children. In our area, children stayed home from school at the beginning of the pandemic. My oldest son had to help babysit while I worked from home, having the privilege of having a job – which is not the experience of many at this time. At 11 years old, babysitting two children all day while your mother runs in and out to help out is a lot of work, but it had to be done. There was no-one else that could do it. As a parent, I can handle this in two ways. I could decry it, telling him how unfair it is that he had to do all of this extra work, or I could praise him for the maturity he's gaining, notice how much older he is now and how hard he works while I mention how well these traits will serve him in the future. It's the same event, and both sentiments are true, but with one my son stands a little taller, is able to make meaning out of what we have been through, and feels like he is in control of helping during this stressful time. He has a role and he is good at it.

These are the types of sentiments that are going to allow our children to flourish during this time period. There are many things that cannot be controlled, but luckily we do get to help shape how our children perceive the events that unfold.

I am not sure what you told your children at the beginning of the pandemic but our family worked hard to be truthful and hopeful. Staying home from school is a destabilizing event. In our house, we told the children how much we wanted to stay home with them and how they were being heroes for other people in the community by staying home. Inwardly, we were feeling uncertain and vulnerable about what would happen next. Outwardly, we focused on hope.

How do we reframe these times to best support our children? How do we focus on strength, growth and resilience – and most importantly, help our children to be mentally strong – a skill that can last a lifetime?

A starting point is to take stock of what you think might be most difficult for your children. It may be wearing masks everywhere, it may be using an online platform where the learning is much more distant, it may be not seeing older relatives. A sample from a classroom I was recently in listed the following changes as especially top of mind:

  • No family gatherings
  • No playdates
  • No birthday parties

I think that we all feel this acutely. Once you have an understanding of what it is that your children find most difficult, take this opportunity to critically examine what you know. Is there another way to look at it, or is there a way to mitigate that feeling of loss? Come up with a few easy solutions for some of these ideas. Once you have a clear plan, start the conversation with your child. Focus on their growth and maturity during this time. Let them know how they have helped. Praise how they are thinking of others, and finally, ask about loss. What do they really miss? Sit with that and let them stomp around on the floor for a time – it is frustrating! It is upsetting!

This is important. Once your children have identified a concern and sat with that emotion for a time, now is an opportunity for learning problem-solving. Ask how they would like to solve this problem of feeling frustrated? What would their plan be to feel better about it? Think of ways to support your children’s learning and support in times of stress.

Written by Rebecca Paulsen, MSW, RSW

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