How to restore a child’s sense of safety following a rough 2020
Three-fourths of parents claim at least one event in this past year has impacted their children's sense of safety, whether it be COVID-19, political unrest or something else. This, according to a survey from Safety.com.
Dr. Steven Tobias, family psychologist and director of The Center for Child and Family Development in Morristown, said parents need to cope with the stress and anxiety of everything going on themselves because kids will model that behavior. Whatever the parent can do to make themselves feel better, that's going to help the child feel better.
Control the messaging
Tobias said it's difficult to avoid what kids will be exposed to, especially when they're surrounded by friends, the internet and school. But parents need to be engaged.
Parents should deliberately talk to their kids about 2020 issues. Tobias said some parents may be hesitant to do this because they don't want to bring something up that's going to make their child worry.
Asking a child about these issues is not going to make them all-of-a-sudden worry about them. If anything, asking the questions will either invite conversation or it will be a non-issue, he said.
Teach and correct misinformation
Find out what the kids have been exposed to, what they've heard, what they think and how they feel about these things. Empathize with their thoughts and feelings because parents should never tell kids how to feel, said Tobias.
Be sure to correct any misinformation. Tobias said parents should talk to kids about their beliefs and values, what they perceive to be true and not true and to offer reassurance.
Problem-solve with the child in terms of how to deal with stress that they're experiencing or how to develop a greater sense of safety, he said. Empower kids to take responsibility. For example, with COVID, stress how important it is for them to wear masks, wash hands and social distance, said Tobias.
Look for changes in behavior
Any kind of change in a child's behavior, such as changes in eating and sleeping habits, change in social interests and activities, usually indicate there is something wrong, he said.
What can be confusing for parents is that kids will often externalize their fears and anxiety. They'll act out and become more confrontational. Sometimes at the root of that, it really can be the fear the child has, but they just can't express it directly. So they externalize it with inappropriate behavior. Tobias said it's important that parents don't handle this as a discipline issue. A parent punishes the kid, the kid becomes even more frustrated and acts out more. Then there's more punishment and frustration. It just becomes a vicious cycle.
Tobias said he sees the situation over the past year with children playing out in one of two ways. He said kids who were vulnerable or had anxiety, depression and emotional difficulties prior to 2020, all the additional stress of the past year is going to exacerbate these difficulties. Those are the ones that need to be tended to and monitored a lot more often, he added.
Then there's the other group: kids who were doing OK prior to the pandemic. Tobias wants to reassure parents that these kids are going to become resilient because challenges like COVID-19 and everything that goes with it, builds resilience.
"We can't protect our kids from everything, but nor do we want to protect them from everything because it's by exposure to these things, it's by learning how to cope with it and seeing how they can get through it that's really what's going to help them deal with the challenges that they're going to face in the future. They're going to come through this actually even stronger," Tobias said.