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How Do Children Experience COVID-19?

An interview with Dr. Chavez Phelps on childhood during the pandemic.

Chavez Phelps, used with permission
Source: Chavez Phelps, used with permission

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone differently depending on geography, age, vocation, etc., but it has affected everyone nonetheless. The question of how it impacts children has been on the forefront of many minds, and it has become apparent that even they have had to adjust and cultivate resilience in the face of a “new normal.”

Chavez Phelps holds a Ph.D. in school psychology and is an assistant professor at Indiana State University. His research interests include child trauma and social justice. Dr. Phelps offers professional development in trauma-informed care, social justice, and advocacy for school districts and state associations across the country. He is a member of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) Government and Professional Advocacy Committee, where he represents the central region of the United States. From 2009 to 2017, he functioned as a school-based practitioner in New Orleans, Louisiana working in nontraditional school settings such as juvenile correctional facilities, adolescent mental health hospitals, alternative high schools, and school-based therapeutic programs. In November, Dr. Phelps and three colleagues have a book being published, titled: Building Great Mental Health Professional-Teacher Teams.

Jamie Aten: How would you personally describe the COVID-19 situation for children?

Chavez Phelps: I believe that children are experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic in a variety of ways. For many children, the pandemic has created a sense of uncertainty and disappointment. They have experienced a range of emotions and feelings, which are normal responses to an abnormal situation. We have to remember those students who depend on schools to receive mental health services; for them, COVID-19 is the lens through which they are processing their trauma history. What about those children for whom the home or community environment is the cause for their overall poor well-being? The financial stress that many families are experiencing can worsen the impact of the pandemic on children. We must also highlight that a number of students have experienced the loss of a loved one because of COVID-19, for which they may need help coping with their grief. For a number of African American children, they have to navigate the impact of the virus and racial injustices that have recently occurred. Thus, this pandemic is the context in which they have to make sense of the racial discrimination that many members of their community have experienced. As children reenter school, they may experience some level of fear or worry. Therefore, a positive and safe school environment will be needed.

JA: What are some ways understanding children's COVID-19 situation can help us live more resiliently?

CP: We cannot practice being resilient if we are not presented with challenging circumstances. Definitely, this pandemic is truly a challenge for all of us. I’ve been amazed by how so many children have moved forward through our current situation. I’ve seen examples of how children have adapted to our “new normal,” which is in contrast to the many of us who do not like change, especially adults. Children are teaching us not to forget to find joy in the small moments and things. During this pandemic, children have been resourceful, especially through technology, in staying connected to their peers. They are teaching us never to forget the importance of maintaining and nurturing our relationships. During a crisis, our relationships and our ability to be grateful for the small joys can sustain us.

JA: What are some ways people can cultivate resilience amidst this pandemic?

CP: First, we really have to establish a sense of normalcy in our routine. This allows us to have some predictability in our day at a time where there is significant uncertainty for many of us. Incorporating mindfulness activities, such as mindful breathing or eating, into our daily schedule is a great way to center ourselves. Also, exercising and eating healthy are great practices for fostering resilience. When we are centered, we create a sense of calmness and security. Visualization helps me maintain hope for my future. In addition, we should create safe spaces to express our emotions with loved ones. Often, we try to deny what we are feeling. It’s okay to feel sadness, anger, or disappointment. We have to learn to be aware of our feelings and emotions without judging them. I planned a trip to South Africa that was cancelled due to the pandemic, and I was not happy about it. I had a right to be disappointed. The most important thing we can do in dealing with our emotions is maintain connections with our loved ones.

JA: Any advice for how we might use what you have learned to support a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation?

CP: If someone has a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation, be a compassionate listener. We must listen to understand their feelings and perspectives. Do not be quick to offer solutions, and do not judge them. However, do not be afraid to ask them how you can support them, so you avoid making assumptions about what they need. Make it a point to check on them through phone calls or video chats. My 87-year-old aunt loves when I call to chat with her. It means so much for her to have our connection because she is unable to leave her home. Once again, relationships are the key.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

CP: I’m in the process of organizing the annual Connecting the Dots Conference at Indiana State University, which will be virtual. The focus of the conference is school-based mental health services. Also, I’m in the process of analyzing data I collected based on a school-based trauma intervention I conducted at an at-risk middle school. I’ve been leading trauma-informed and crisis intervention webinars in the state of Indiana.

References

Phelps, C., & Sperry, L. L. (2020). Children and the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychological Trauma, 12(S1), S73-S75. htpp://dx/.doi:10.1037/tra0000861

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