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Keep a Child Thriving During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Help a child maintain his or her mental health during this trying time.

Developmental lags often cause depression and anxiety. The pause from typical life events may eventually have an impact on a child’s mental health. The following suggestions help a parent understand and support a child’s psychosocial development during this time.

For children between the ages of 2 and 7, it is essential to spend time playing with them. Without other children to interact with, a child may play less. Yet, playing, especially pretend play, is often how a child works out deep inner conflict and reduces anxiety. Play also enables a child to expand fine and gross motor skills, develop social skills, and learn.

A parent may be able to provide the most benefit to the child if the parent joins the child while he or she is already playing. Sit near the child and reflect and validate his or her play. “That car is fast.” “The tower is so tall.” “You are so good at brushing your doll’s hair.”

Refrain from leading the play or guiding the play. Reflect and validate the play without interjecting ideas or instructions. By using this technique, the parent is entering the child’s inner world for a few moments. It’s an effective way to get close to a child.

The child may enjoy the validation and attention. After a few moments, the child may invite the parent to be a character in her play: “Daddy, you be the red car.” Accept the invitation and agree. Apply the same principle and allow the child to lead the play.

The child may direct the red car to do something. Follow the child’s lead. If a character (blue car) in the play is in distress, for example, is about to fall off a cliff, the parent needs to empathize with the character in distress: “The blue car must be scared. Do you think the blue car needs my help?” The child may accept the empathy and support and instruct the parent on how to help the blue car. This helps the child.

Children frequently unconsciously project how they feel onto a character in their pretend play scenario. Empathizing with the hurt or scared character allows the parent to provide the child with empathy, connection, and support. This approach also allows the parent to pick up on the themes of the play, which may give the parent insight into what the child is anxious about.

A child between the ages of 7 and 11 may engage less in pretend play. Frequently, these children exist in a more concrete and operational cognitive stage. At this age, the child may be interested in games that help him or her adjust to rules, use logic and reasoning, interact socially, and self-regulate. It is important to cultivate these psychosocial skills because they may allow the child to thrive in a social milieu and maintain positive peer relationships.

A good way to help the child master these developmental skills is to model pro-social skills during the play. For example, a parent may want to refrain from throwing a ping-pong paddle following a loss, or the child may mimic this. Alternatively, if the parent follows the expected rules, wins and loses graciously, and competes in a good-natured manner, the child may more easily master these competencies.

During the play, it may help if the parent empathizes with the child’s feelings and continues to encourage the child. For example, “It’s hard to lose. I get it. But you played hard. That is more important. You’re a good player. Keep at it.”

For a child who is between the ages of 11 and 18, a primary developmental task is creating and maintaining positive peer relationships. This task may be short-circuited if the child is isolated. As a parent, it may be useful to help the child connect with friends using group chats, Face Time, Skype, or Google Duo. Finding fun ways of interacting using technology may be a good idea. Respecting the child’s need to chat and connect with friends is important.

It also may be helpful to begin working on life skills if a child is interested. Teaching the child how to cook, bake, do laundry, create a budget, make a grocery list, balance a checkbook, and other adulting necessitates may be easy to do if stuck at home.

Additional ways to support kids during this time include helping them establish a routine, which may include outside time, schoolwork, reading, meals, exercising, chores, and family activities. Partnering with them to get outside once a day may be necessary. Invite the child to take a walk, play basketball in the driveway, or play with the dogs in the yard.

Schedule and plan nightly family activities. This keeps the child interacting with family members. Ideas include family game night, movie night, craft night, a family dance-off, or bake-off. This allows the child to look forward to events in the near future.

Ordering books that have a protagonist who is the child’s age also supports the child’s mental health. The child may resonate and empathize with the character’s feelings, which helps the child feel less alone with his or her own. The character’s story or experience may be different from the child’s, but the feelings the character expresses during the story, for example, sadness, worry, frustration, fear, or happiness, are feelings the child probably shares. The ability to resonate with a character may also strengthen the child’s capacity for empathy.

It’s a parent’s job to take care of a child’s physical health, but also the child’s spirit. Helping a child continue to thrive during this time is critical. Play, laugh, and love with the child. Seize this tragic circumstance and use it as an opportunity to create closeness in the parent-child relationship.