Dr. Gabrielle Roberts is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in working with children, adolescents and young adults at Advocate Children's Hospital in Oak Lawn. Previously, she worked in residential treatment and in the child welfare system with youth who had experienced extreme trauma. She is also the parent of a lower school student at Latin.
How can parents encourage children to talk to them about their emotions surrounding school and COVID-19?
First and foremost, check in with your children. If you know your child is already anxious, then I would say check in more frequently. If not, I would say check in from time to time. Ask open ended questions. How are you feeling about the coronavirus? How are you feeling about going to back to school? Listen. That’s most important. Validate their emotions. Let them know that you hear what they’re saying and that you understand it’s important to them. Be careful not to minimize their feelings. As adults, we have the beautiful wisdom of knowing that something your child feels is the end of the world or will forever alter their life is not really the case, but you can honor and validate that’s how they feel right now. Remind them that they can talk to you anytime about anything and that you’re here for them.
How important is it for parents to model the calm behavior asked of their students?
Very… as we're all going through this together. If you want a silver lining for this situation, which you may not, the situation is actually an excellent opportunity to teach your child coping skills. And these are skills that they're going to need for life beyond coronavirus. You can talk to your children about how you cope with stress and model that behavior, but we aren't perfect. We will make mistakes and modeling how we recover when we've failed to cope. How we problem solve when we're visibly anxious and not managing it well is really also an excellent modeling opportunity. So it's a win-win here.
Some students might experience separation anxiety from friends since they might be placed in different cohorts. How can a parent help with that change?
Again, start by listening, validating those feelings. Don't minimize those feelings. It is a big deal, even if, down the line, you know they'll be okay. It feels like a really big deal, especially when it comes to older children and teens, it's a big deal. The same goes for children who are maybe going to be remote and their peers are going to be in school, so help your child problem solve this. I know our children spend a lot of time on screens these days, but that social media connection, especially those apps that enable our children and teens to connect in real time, face-to-face has been really valuable right now for socialization and connection.
Every time I say this, I stutter because I'm usually so anti screen, but I've been promoting this because I think it's really helpful right now when it comes to that face-to-face connection. Also, remind your children and this isn't forever. That's something I find myself saying to myself and also to my daughter a lot. I tell her, “I cannot tell you when this is going to end, but I can promise you it will end.” And that's an important bottom line.
If a classmate contracts COVID-19, how should a parent explain it to their child?
There's not one right answer. But as a general rule, I would start with a less is more approach. So in general, as adults, we tend to give more information than children are usually asking for. And so I would start by keeping it short and simple. Explain what happened and focus on the positive of the situation if you can.
“...David has COVID and is at home where his mom and dad are taking good care of him.” Depending upon the situation, how worried your child is, and is the child at home really sick, or are they hopefully at home and asymptomatic and just hanging out...? If it's the latter case, maybe arranging an opportunity for your child to virtually connect with that child would be a way to help reduce your child's worry. It also might be nice for the child who's stuck at home and disconnected from people too and maybe scared as well.
How do you know when your child should talk to a professional about their anxiety?
First of all, when in doubt, please consult a professional. I, as a professional, tell parents all the time to bring their child for a checkup. We get physical checkups every year, but we don't get mental health checkups every year. And obviously, I'm biased, but I think that's really important. And so I never mind when a parent schedules an appointment just to make sure their child is okay. That's wonderful. And I love telling parents, “Your child is doing great. Call me if you need something.” When your child's anxiety is persistent, they're having a lot of difficulties coping and that anxiety is interfering with their life, their school, home happiness, it's a good time to call a professional.
If a student is experiencing anxiety in the classroom or hallway, what coping skills could they try?
It's good for all children to have some coping skills that they already know and can use if needed. So I would say, first and foremost, these are things to practice beforehand. It's really hard to learn a new skill in the moment when we're really anxious. It's most helpful if children have a toolbox of different skills they can use because what works for me may not work for you. And what works for me on Tuesday might not work for me on Wednesday. So it's good to have a lot of options. Different children will do better with different skills. Some that might be helpful in the classroom or hallway includes knowing that they can go and talk to a teacher and ask for what they need. Do they need space? Do they need support? Knowing who else they can go talk to or ask for–who are the identified people, a counselor, a nurse, maybe there's a certain person in the school who they feel particularly comfortable with.
Deep breathing or belly breathing, it's really easy to learn. It's a really simple distraction.
They can acknowledge that they're having this thought, but pull that thought away and focus on what’s safe around them and what they can do to be safe. So using self-talk to say, “Okay, I'm feeling worried, but let me go through my mental checklist. I'm wearing my mask. I just washed my hands. We're keeping our space. So I think I'm safe.” It's helpful to have a worry plan in advance.
Parents are wearing so many different hats, parent/teacher, employee, child therapist, how can a guardian manage their own wellbeing while helping make sure their child's emotional needs are met?
It is insanity for most of us, if not all of us. Professional me and mom me are definitely two separate entities. And while professional me can sit here and tell you all of these things and make them sound good. Mom me is freaking out all the time, bursting into tears with my friends on the phone, hyperventilating inside. I call my friends who are therapists often and let them talk me down. I say this because I think just exercising self-compassion and recognizing how difficult this is on all of us is just one of the most important things. Like our children, we need good sleep, good diet, exercise, fresh air. We can't sacrifice ourselves for them. We need all of those things too. And the better we take care of ourselves, we're better for them. Exercise the same compassion to yourself that you offer to your children. You're going to have good days and bad days, and try not to beat yourself up. We, especially moms, are so programmed to beat ourselves up. It doesn't help and we don't deserve it. We're all just doing our best.
What resources are out there?
If you go to PBS.org/parents, there's some good information on there, mostly for younger kids, but really I think the tips can be applied broadly as well. They have a section in there just on COVID and going back to school. The American Psychological Association, APA.org, has a lot of good information right now, too. There's a lot of good self-help workbooks for children and teens out there. A couple that I'll mention for children, there's one called “The Worry Workbook for Kids” by Deborah Ledley and Muniya Khanna. There's one out there called “Anxiety Relief for Teens” by Regine Galanti. These are just books that have exercises that your teen or child can do or you can do with them to help teach coping skills for anxiety. Also, reaching out to the school counselor is an excellent, excellent idea and a wonderful resource. They can help support your child in school and connect you with outside resources.