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Honesty and compassion are key in guiding kids through the coronavirus

Summit County experts share advice on how to talk to your child about mental health, grief and coronavirus in a time of crisis.

A sign pictured May 8 outside Summit High School in Breckenridge reminds students they are loved.
Photo from Summit Daily archives

FRISCO — Life in a pandemic isn’t easy for anyone, especially parents, who have been hit with the task of guiding their children through a life-altering event.

Many children are used to a regimented schedule of school, homework and extracurriculars. When Summit County schools closed on March 13, all of that was turned on its head.

Now, the county’s youth are dealing with a new normal. They don’t get to see their friends and milestones like graduations and prom have gone virtual. Most of all, they are watching their family, friends and the world deal with a crisis in a very early and formative time in their life.

Between work, playtime, schooling and their own mental wellbeing, many parents are in the midst of an intense balancing act. They are stepping in to support their kids in a way they haven’t before.

Parents aren’t alone however. Summit County school psychologists and therapists in the community have advice for parents on how to talk to their kids about grief, mental health and the stressors surrounding coronavirus.

In general, parents are encouraged to keep in mind that any life-changing event can cause grief, but all humans — including their kids — are resilient and will find ways to cope. Going outside, connecting with others online and finding new ways to bond are encouraged.

Not all kids are the same either. Anita Ferrell, school psychologist at Summit Middle School and Snowy Peaks High School, said some may find themselves thriving in a less social environment where others are missing their friends.

“Like everything in mental health, there’s a spectrum,” Ferrell said. “We’ve seen some students just thriving because maybe they might have had a lot of social anxiety where it was difficult for them to be around large crowds of people. We’ve seen other students really struggling because that social interaction is such a big part of their day-to-day life.”

Ferrell said the school is concerned about students who struggle with depression in particular. So often, depression involves isolation. For those kids, it’s important to keep them connected through school, family activities or social interaction online. Parents shouldn’t worry about reaching out for help when it’s needed. Teachers and counselors are still available for support.

“Any thing that’s day-to-day simple that they can do that gets them out around people can help pull them out of that isolation cycle,” Ferrell said.

Preschoolers

All children feed off their parents’ emotions, but that’s especially true with young children.

When it comes to coping with death or disaster, they have a lot of difficulty understanding the finality of it.

Because of this, the best thing for parents of preschoolers to do is prioritize their own mental health and be honest with their children about what is going on. Ferrell said it may mean seeking support from other adults to cope with their own emotions, so the children don’t take on their parents’ anxiety.

“Anxiety is contagious and children, especially small children, they’re going to be affected more by how you act and how you’re regulating yourself as a parent over what you say to them,” said Adam Flyer, a counsellor out of Fairplay, who works with children and families.

Flyer compared the strategy to oxygen mask instructions on an airplane. Parents should always prioritize their own wellbeing to be able to care for their children.

Ferrell said authenticity is key, but parents should also talk about the resiliency of human beings and the importance of community.

“It’s important for the younger kids, they might not understand but they will feed off our energy a lot,” she said.

To help preschoolers cope with the loss, parents should create a consistent routine to establish safety and predictability.

It’s important to answer questions honestly, let children work through their emotions and give them some sense of control by letting them make choices about what they want to do.

Elementary schoolers

Elementary school students have a better grasp on death and disaster. As they age, they understand the finality of death but they may struggle with the reasoning behind it.

“Between that age and even into middle school we might really see them come up with what might seem like strange ideas for why this happened,” Ferrell said. “That’s really because their thinking is just so concrete still, they can’t really wrap their head around how complex these issues, events and situations are.”

Parents of elementary schoolers should provide activities that allow their kids to be expressive like art, writing and creative play. They should also help them identify activities that they want to do to give them a sense of control.

It’s also important to keep children interested in their schoolwork and continue to achieve the goals they had before the outbreak of the virus.

“We’ve seen that students that have been engaged with doing schoolwork still and doing the online classes with teachers have been doing pretty good,” Ferrell said.

Middle and high schoolers

Middle schoolers and high schoolers are social creatures. The friends they make in school are a huge part of their daily lives.

“It’s such a big component of their lives, especially in middle school and high school, to be with their friend groups. So this has definitely been a challenge,” Ferrell said.

Unlike elementary and preschoolers, they understand the finality of death and they can think abstractly about disaster.

At this age, it’s incredibly important for parents to be open and honest with their teens. Initiating conversations about mental health, grief and anxiety, can help them understand that what they are feeling is normal.

Flyer suggests an activity where parents and their children draw a circle and write what is in their control inside of it. They can then write the things that are out of the control outside of the circle. Parents should then suggest managing the things that are in their control.

“Even if you don’t know what to say to your children, just open it up,” he said. “(Ask them) ‘Do you have any questions?’”

Parents shouldn’t shoot for perfection either, Flyer said.

“Even if the kids say, ‘nope’ and they don’t participate in the conversation, I still think the act of opening up the conversation is very important,” he said. “The kids won’t forget that.”

Parents should also encourage teens to connect with their friends, whether it be online or in person while being physically distant.

“At that age, they’re starting to develop their own identity and more and more autonomy. It’s really important to be that support for them and let them maintain their autonomy around it,” she said.

Ferrell suggested a three-step process for talking to teenagers about loss. First, parents should listen by giving their children space to talk. Then, help the teenagers define and name their concerns and fear. Finally, help them create a solution for what the family will do to move forward.

“The hard thing about it is we don’t necessarily have answers,” Ferrel said. “It’s okay to tell that to our kids. There are things in life that are just hard that we do not have answers for and we wish we did, but that’s also part of being human.”

Overall, parents should bring their children into the situation and help them come up with ways to do their part to help the community.

“Helping them identify their own strengths and the things that they bring to the situation is just as important as identifying to them that they have resources and help,” Ferrell said.

Any parents who are worried about their child’s mental wellbeing should reach out to school psychologists as well as teachers. Building Hope Summit County also provides resources for people of all ages struggling with their mental health.

Mental health resources

Emergency

Nonemergency

Summit School District psychologists


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