Overlooked mental health concerns in childhood often escalate into adolescence, and eventually across the lifespan. Left untreated, myriad associated issues such as addiction and incarceration can transpire. Children’s lives have been significantly disrupted by COVID-19 – and with an unclear end in sight, buffering their mental health is a priority. Listed are six protective suggestions:
• Model self-regulation. In a nutshell, self-regulation is control of oneself by oneself. Children’s abilities to regulate their behaviors, emotions and thoughts are significantly influenced by what is modeled by their caregivers. In watching their caregivers, children learn how to respond to questions like “When I’m upset, sad or unfocused, I ______?”
• Make time for “serious” play: Exuberant play without sophisticated contraptions and electronics has immense cathartic power. Play not only supports self-regulation but propels creativity, develops resilience, combats stress and encourages self-control. Examples of “serious” play include sensory-driven, child-directed activities like building forts with big boxes and over-sized pillows or making messy mud pies outdoors in the fresh air.
• Start a self-expressive hobby: Self-expression is an essential element of strong mental health. Due to a limited vocabulary and inability to think abstractly, children often struggle to express their thoughts and feelings. A self-expressive hobby like painting, sculpting or journaling facilitates the release of uncomfortable emotions in a nonthreatening, safe and supportive way.
• Connect, not correct: View children’s behavior as communication of their inner world. When inappropriate behavior surfaces, focus on what is driving it. If a child begins struggling to process “big” feelings, use connection to support the child in learning to self-regulate. Connection may look like a warm embrace with encouraging words in a caring and calming tone.
• Up attachment: Children see their caregivers as a secure base, a haven to which they can teeter back and forth for emotional refueling and protection. During times of stress, it is common for children to become emotionally demanding. Use supportive methods to make them feel more secure, for example, breathing and relaxation exercises, or snuggling and reading a book together.
• Stick to the basics: Children require consistency and structure. Both communicate safety and predictability. Alongside daily routines, an age-appropriate sleep schedule and proper diet are crucial for sound mental health, as well as daily exercise, sunshine, and socializing – via FaceTime or Zoom as restrictions apply.
Although children can never be completely shielded from life’s challenges, caregivers can use unprecedented times like these to make children more resilient and willing to step out into an ever-changing world.
Ariel Liese holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology.