These are crazy, unprecedented times. None of us have ever dealt with something like this on this scale, and it has been affecting children and adults alike. Many Indian American parents are finding themselves dealing with a child who has been having a hard time recently, which is further worsened by the closure of school and missing their teachers and friends, or may be because of inability to go out and do the activities they usually like to do. This is especially hitting hard to the Indian American community, as many families do not have a strong support system in the United States.
If your child has been acting out since the COVID lockdown, here are 5 things that you can do to help your child cope with these uncertain times.
Talk to your child about what’s on their mind. Children often ask simple but profound questions like, “Will you/I/we die from coronavirus?” “I’m having a headache, could this be coronavirus?” It is not always easy to have all the answer to their questions. Validate their concern and answer clearly and honestly. For example, “I know you’re afraid of dying from coronavirus, but I think we’re going to do just fine.” You can also share the data that the rates of infection/death are very low in children. If you don’t have an answer or at least a good answer (e.g., if you’re really sick), tell them that you’ll find out the answer from someone who knows more about this and get back to them.
Children have a lot of thoughts and worries, but they often lack the platform to express them and instead act out with aggression or other behaviors. Instead, help them share these feelings either through creative play (perhaps using dolls or action figures), writing a letter to a friend/grandparent, doing a video chat with a friend, or drawing one’s feelings. I often volunteer to sit with them and draw my feelings while they draw theirs, so they feel a sense of “togetherness” while sharing their feelings. They can also do these virtually with their grandparents or cousins back home.
Consider engaging them in an art project, building a Lego structure, or another creative project that can keep them busy. This will help kids channel their anxiety into worrying about the project rather than the world. In a safe social distancing way, consider going out for a bike ride, a walk in the woods or next to a water body. Talk to them about various plants, animals, birds and insects. Use this time to teach them something new and interesting. You can check out several resources online. Audible is offering several free audiobooks online at https://stories.audible.com/discovery.
Thinking and worrying about being sick or their parents getting sick can be very overwhelming to some children. Consider engaging them in relaxation exercises like breathing and muscle relaxation exercises.
Calm Breathing Exercise: There are various ways to teach breathing exercise to children. One of my favorite ways is what we call ‘flower breathing’. Ask your child to breathe in as deeply and as slowly as they can, as if they are taking in all the fragrance of their favorite flower. Now ask them to breathe out just as slowly as they breathed in. Continue to do so for 2-3 minutes and do this up to 5 times a day. Try to increase the amount of each exercise to 10-15 minutes if possible. This exercise is especially helpful for kids who tend to hyperventilate when anxious.
Muscle Relaxation Exercise: This is another easy yet effective method to calm the body and mind. Starting with your eyebrows – try to raise them to see how they feel as tense and them relax them gently for 30 seconds. Now move down to cheek, neck, shoulder and other muscle groups and spend 30-60 seconds on each. After some practice, this exercise can also be paired with deep breathing exercises for quicker and more effective results.
You can also engage them in yoga or meditation.
There are several reasons to consider consultation with a professional. Some of them are: symptoms of aggression (hitting a sibling, hurting animals or destroying property), depression (thoughts of suicide or self-harm, feeling hopeless or worthless, excessive irritability or sadness, etc.) or severe anxiety (panic attacks, aches and pains for no reason, worrying excessively, etc.).
Many parents are anxious about visiting healthcare providers during the COVID pandemic, however, currently, it is fairly easy to consult a professional online. Most mental health consultations do not require a referral from a primary care provider, but you may still request one for ease of finding a professional. Your insurance company’s website and www.psychologytoday.com may provide you with a list of therapists and psychiatrists in your state or region. Several healthcare websites and therapy apps also offer these services. Typically, the earlier you begin treatment, the easier it is to address their concerns.
(The author is an Indian American child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist practicing in Davis, California.)