Dr. Margi McCombs: Coronavirus trauma and children – 4 tips to help them navigate the pandemic

Many children are having feelings of loss, fear and helplessness.

Most parents were relieved to discover that children typically don’t experience the key physical symptoms of COVID-19. But living in a world suffering from a pandemic is still impacting their health.  

Studies show that children’s and adolescents’ mental health is suffering, made worse by virtual schooling that has resumed this fall. The absence of their typical support systems like activity groups, friend groups and in-school resources has isolated our children and exacerbated this crisis.  

Many children are also having feelings of loss, fear and helplessness. The trauma our kids have experienced can cause sleep disturbances, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, self-harm and aggressive behaviors.  

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I’ve worked as a teacher, school founder, counselor and author. Still, some of my favorite titles are “mom” and “grandma.” I am so passionate about helping children successfully navigate their early years. When we love the newest additions to our families, we can try to shield our kids from all trouble and sadness. But as the pandemic has shown, these are unavoidable realities of human life.  

The best way we can help our kids is by allowing them to process their feelings and equipping them with tools they can use their entire lives for coping with trauma or disappointment. Here are four tips to help our kids remain resilient during this stressful time:

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Have your child name his or her feelings.  

The simple act of recognizing and naming trauma has been shown to trigger the first stages of recovery. But children may not have words to describe how they feel, and they may even think they are responsible for feeling that way. For example, during COVID-19, a child who is afraid may find it difficult to talk about it, because he or she “feels like a baby.”     

Help them understand that feelings are normal and temporary. From there, a child can come to understand how these feelings may be causing him or her to act out in certain ways. You can have your older child journal about his or her feelings and have younger children draw their feelings. Be specific. For example, you can ask them what thing they have lost (like favorite activities, time with friends, etc.) that have contributed to their feelings.  

Another idea is to create a family “Worry Box,” where everyone can write down their worries and submit them anonymously; then find an appropriate time to sort through those worries together.  

Use real stories.  

The shame and stigma of suffering affects children just as much as adults. When children realize they are not suffering alone – and that the feelings they are experiencing are normal and even common – it eases a lot of the emotional strain of feeling “different” or “broken.” I’ve seen kids totally transformed by being included in conversations with other kids who share their same feelings of loss and grief. Many good, supportive friendships are started this way!  

Small acts of kindness are another way to put your child in control – encourage your child to do one act of kindness for someone else every day.  

When talking to kids about their feelings during this time, parents should use concrete, real-world and personal stories to emphasize the normalcy of those feelings. When children can recognize that people they look up to also suffer from loneliness, they again can feel validated and understood.   

Focus on things they can control.  

Many of us are feeling helpless right now. This is why routines are especially important: they reduce feelings of chaos and helplessness. Staying physically active during this time is something kids can control. In trauma groups, we often talk about how taking care of your body has a proven effect on your spiritual, mental and emotional health. Make a reward chart to incentivize your child to get outside and do something physical every day.  

Small acts of kindness are another way to put your child in control – encourage your child to do one act of kindness for someone else every day.  

Teach your child to slow down.  

Most children are accustomed to being entertained many or all hours of the day. This can teach them to rely on their circumstances and settings for comfort and stability. When attention is constantly being deferred, it can also be hard for children to accomplish tasks like naming their feelings or accepting uncomfortable sensations of loss or sadness.  

In my family, our faith is something we rely on for stability. So, teaching our children to pray is one way we accomplish helping them learn to slow down. For other families, you can try teaching simple kid-friendly meditations or set aside time for self-reflection.  

It’s important, however, in moments of self-focused care like these, that we also take time to ponder what challenges others are facing, which helps put our own struggles into perspective. After considering how others might be feeling, you can encourage your children to send a card to elders in a nursing home, your postman or health care workers.  

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Although I believe these tips are helpful across age groups, it’s important to recognize that teenagers may have different needs. Teenagers may need privacy to process their feelings. They may also need to feel useful — doing things that help their family or others can remind them that they are valuable. 

As our country’s families face uncertainty, loss and missed expectations amid the pandemic – all of which might be heightened during the holidays – we have an opportunity to learn and grow together.  

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Dr. Margi McCombs is the director of children and teen trauma healing for the Trauma Healing Institute at American Bible Society.