Four weeks into school closures, parents and kids are struggling with disrupted routines, financial stress, and health concerns, and there are no easy answers.
“We are all in uncharted territory,” said Leah Booth, a speech-language pathologist at the Yale Child Study Center. “There is no blueprint for what families are experiencing right now.”
While the initial weeks of no school may have felt like an extended spring break, said Booth, it’s become clear we are in for a marathon, not a sprint.
“Part of what families might be struggling with is the idea of letting things go,” she said, pointing out that many schools and organized children’s activities are offering remote ways to engage. “Many of us had this ‘Go, go, go’ schedule with sports and school, and it all came to a full stop. I think there are many families out there who are still frantically trying to keep all these same balls in the air.”
If it works to engage remotely with all those activities, that’s great, said Dr. David Grodberg, medical director of the Yale Child Study Center Outpatient Clinic. “But if there are a lot of barriers to maintaining that intensity,” he said, “I worry about the resulting stress on the family.”
“If you find yourself fighting with a third grader over math facts, maybe you opt to snuggle or read a book,” Booth suggested. “My hope is that parents can let go of the guilt of not creating a fourth-grade classroom in their living room.”
Talking With Kids
All of the mental health professionals contacted for this article advise being honest with kids. Casey Hammond is a licensed clinical social worker in Orleans.
“Speaking in hushed tones, acting secretive, not sharing information — kids are attuned to that,” she said. Instead, invite questions. “Ask them, ‘What are you hearing? What are you worried about?’ In most cases it won’t be as big as we think, and it will get bigger the more secretive and panicked we act.”
Dr. Grodberg advised balancing honesty with the child’s age and maturity, what psychologists call “developmentally appropriate transparency.”
“Parents can convey calm without trying to protect children from reality,” he said.
Jonathan Runge, a clinical psychologist who practices in Provincetown and Boston, offered an example: “Say something like, ‘For a little while,’ — provide a realistic time frame — ‘we are going to have to make some sacrifices, just so that there is enough not only for us but for everyone, including your friends. But won’t it be fun to plant and tend a vegetable garden!’ ”
Don’t over-explain. “Sometimes parents’ own anxieties result in them offering more or different information from what the child is asking,” Booth said. “Try to simply answer the question you’re asked.”
Statewide, an estimated 17 percent of schoolchildren are on individualized education plans. “These are students with developmental delays, autism spectrum disorder, behavioral, or emotional problems,” said Dr. Grodberg. In many cases these kids are getting what they need through their schools; suddenly, these services have been interrupted, placing a huge burden on families.
“There’s a growing demand for telehealth services for kids who both have chronic, long-standing behavioral health needs, and kids who are now developing difficulties coping,” said Dr. Grodberg.
The good news, said Newton psychotherapist Stuart Simon, is that research shows that teletherapy, or virtual online therapy, is almost if not equally as effective as face-to-face counseling. Simon, who works with Wellfleet’s Gestalt International Study Center, added that, while in the past therapists and insurance companies have had privacy concerns about virtual counseling, in this time of disconnect and crisis, “Most folks I know are saying, ‘Let’s just get the help out to people.’ ”
Physical activity is crucial for keeping kids and adults mentally healthy, said Dr. Grodberg. Getting outside as a family most days for a walk or a bike ride is one of the best ways to keep everyone in good spirits.
Hammond also recommended calming anxiety with what’s known as Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) tapping. Tapping on acupressure points is said to help eliminate the stress response, or “fight or flight” reaction.
“It’s really simple,” said Hammond. “We tap on the same spots acupuncturists would stick a needle into.”
“This is such a novel circumstance,” said Booth. “The truth is that we don’t know the long-term impact.” The best thing parents and families can do, she advised, is to keep learning day by day and do their best to manage in the moment.
One silver lining of this experience for both kids and adults, said Simon, is awareness of our shared humanity.
“I’m 69 years old,” he said, “and this is the first time in my life when everyone in the world is experiencing the same thing at once. This creates a different kind of connection. I hope that doesn’t fade.”