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Healing the Heart During COVID-19

5 tips to help children and adults move through the pandemic.

Book Brush
Source: Book Brush

"In September 2017, I led a workshop for educators in Houston, TX, less than a month after Hurricane Harvey. The devastation was palpable—not just because of the roads and highways that were under construction. Or the dampness that seemed to permeate everything. It was the feelings of fear, panic, and shock that were most startling to me. Everywhere I went, people looked shell-shocked. They were functioning, sort of. But there was an emptiness in their eyes. It was that look that made me stop and change the presentation I was giving to include the impact of trauma and toxic stress on the brain." — Introduction, pg 1, Healing the Heart: Helping Your Child Thrive After Trauma, Fonseca (Prufrock Press, March 2020)

I had no idea when I sent in the final version of my new release, Healing the Heart , we would be living in unprecedented times when a pandemic spread like wildfire around the globe. I just knew I needed to write a book about trauma that included everything from acute trauma to complex developmental trauma and toxic stress. I wanted to give parents and educators something they could use to help our children move beyond life-altering events and develop resilience.

As we enter a new phase of the pandemic, with my state and others issuing stay-at-home orders, easy-to-use strategies are even more critical. The five tips below include the most important things to focus on to help both adults and children—now and after this crisis has passed:

1. Understand stress, including toxic stress. Children and adults are on edge. Normal is gone, and everyone is trying to adjust to something new. This significant change may be causing substantial levels of stress for adults and kids alike.

Take some time to help children understand their stress response. Does it create a short temper? Are their behaviors more volatile? Do they have more of an urge to be with parents or other caregivers? All of these are normal reactions to stress and anxiety. Teach children ways to cope.

Quick Tip: TED Talks like " How To Make Stress Your Friend " can be helpful with older kids.

2. Create a sense of safety and belonging. It is vital that children feel connected and safe right now. If you have internet access, arrange virtual playdates or meals. These can create social connections without violating social distancing needs.

Answer your child's questions without scaring them. Be honest, but gentle as you answer their questions. Create routines and schedules to help establish safety. Limit media like the news and other pandemic-related programming in favor of social connection activities.

Quick Tip: Unable to celebrate a birthday or similar event right now? Do a virtual party. Social distancing is really physical distancing. Maintain or increase social connections.

3. Support the development of self-awareness and emotion regulation skills. Families have many opportunities to grow and develop awareness and regulation skills. Use this time to create or strengthen mindfulness practices.

Create emotion wheels to help build emotional literacy. Watch movies and read books together—talk about the emotions the characters experience. The greater one's emotional literacy, the more self-awareness and self-regulation can be enhanced.

Quick Tip: Watch the movie Inside Out together (or check out the YouTube clips) and talk about the roles of various emotions.

4. Focus on building resiliency. Surviving and thriving through a worldwide crisis taxes our resiliency skills. Take time to focus on ways to develop and strengthen emotional processing, empathy and compassion, coping strategies, and gratitude. The more these skills are developed, now and after the crisis has passed, the more negative impacts are buffered.

It is important to check-in with yourself throughout this time to make sure you are OK also. Take time for self-care. Teach your children about self-care as well. As all of you practice ways to take care of your emotional health, you will also develop resilience. Focus on connections throughout the process. And remember—go easy on yourself. This is a challenging time. It's OK just to "feel" every now and then.

Quick Tip: Start a daily gratitude practice as a family. Focusing on the things you are grateful for can positively impact your thinking and your mood.

5. Look for opportunities to choose optimism. Optimism is a choice. Although it is very challenging to remain optimistic in times like these, each time we choose an optimistic perspective, we are enhancing our resilience. Focusing on gratitude and forgiveness, looking for the positive, and finding opportunities to laugh and smile are all ways to experience a more optimistic perspective.

Quick Tip: Pay attention to your thoughts. Each time you catch yourself engaging in negative thinking, actively try to reframe the negatives into positives. The more often you do it, the more you begin to shift your thinking over the long run.

We are living in tumultuous times. Take time to focus on the ways you can help each other and your children move through the traumas of the moment and develop the skills needed to rise through the crisis.


For more strategies to help you move through the current crisis, consider the following articles: