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Just like us, kids may feel anxious in uncertain times. Here’s practical advice for parents on how to help kids manage stress and ways to keep them busy.
Life has changed dramatically – and quickly – due to COVID-19 (coronavirus) and it’s normal for everyone in the family to feel concerned, even anxious, about the coming months. The World Health Organisation has advised that, on top of recommended hygiene precautions, everyone should be monitoring their mental health.
We asked Rick Russo, a school counsellor who works in Australian high schools, how to help kids manage stress and for tips on navigating this tricky time and identifying signs of anxiety.
The first step is relatively easy – monitor your kids and keep an eye out for behaviours that indicate they may feel stressed. For little ones, that could be excessive clinging to parents, increased tantrums, headaches and stomach-aches. For older kids, Rick says: “They may be isolating themselves and withdrawing from their normal activities. The typical signs of worry are insomnia, irritability, a sore tummy and body shakes.”
It’s natural for parents to want to step in and act as a buffer between their kids and whatever is worrying them. Switching off the TV, closing laptops and avoiding all discussions about coronavirus may seem a logical move, but, according to BeyondBlue, avoiding a problem can actually give kids more to worry about, plus it prohibits them from developing their own coping strategies.
“For parents, being empathetic and not being dismissive is important,” Rick says. “Instead of saying, ‘Everything is going to be OK, don’t worry about it’, you could try, ‘This is a difficult time for us all and we’ve got to work together’. Showing empathy, but also using positive self-talk.”
It also may be a good idea to practise calming techniques together, like deep breathing, meditation, yoga and stretching. If your child is feeling anxious, Rick recommends a strategy he calls JAM, or ‘just a minute’. “It’s a mindfulness activity where you stop, close your eyes and do nothing other than concentrate on your breathing, in through your nose and out through your mouth,” he explains.
“Continue that for a minute and try to put yourself in a good place in your mind; in other words a place you like to go, that makes you happy. It might be your cubby house, it might be your bedroom where your toys are, it could be anywhere. You can put yourself in a good headspace.”
Another way to help kids manage stress while social distancing is to make sure they are still communicating with their friends regularly, even if you’re spending long periods at home in isolation. “You’ve got to keep connected and luckily we can do that now, even when we’re not leaving our house. We can use FaceTime or Skype; we can call people; we can text,” Rick points out.
We know the current situation won’t last forever and that it’s important to let kids be kids. Plan some fun activities at home so they can enjoy themselves and forget about their concerns for a while. “Writing, music, painting, cooking, making things, being creative and engaging in hobbies is a good outlet,” Rick says. The following ideas may come in handy if you’re planning to self-isolate, too.
Feeling strapped for indoor activity ideas? Colouring in is the ultimate arts and crafts exercise and experts say it has therapeutic benefits, too. As they’re quiet and calming, all artistic pursuits can potentially help with feelings of anxiety and stress. Colouring, in particular, is perfect for keeping kids calm as it encourages them to be mindful and focused on the task at hand, shutting off the brain to other, more negative, thoughts. Grab the crayons, markers and colouring pencils, and have a big family colouring session on the lounge room floor.
Now’s the time to dust off the jigsaw puzzles and get to work. Bored with all the puzzles at your place? Try this art project: get the kids to create their own by gluing one of their drawings to an empty cereal box and cutting it up into jigsaw pieces. Older kids might appreciate the challenge of puzzle books packed with sudoku, crosswords and dot-to-dot activities.
Little kids are guaranteed to love this craft idea that includes some science, too. Cover a plastic plate or tray with baking soda and use food colouring to colour some vinegar. Using pipettes or an eyedropper, encourage children to squirt coloured vinegar onto the baking soda and wait for the fizz. The end result? A pretty plate of colourful craters.
Primary schoolers are probably the right age to tackle this Japanese paper-folding craft, although older kids might enjoy the more intricate designs. All you need is paper (duh!) – if supplies are running low, cut wrapping paper or magazine pages into squares.
Origami is an easy paper craft for kids to do at home. It’s relaxing and great for dexterity, plus it can teach kids about symmetry and shapes. There are oodles of tutorials available online – try Origami Club or search YouTube to get started.
Setting up a simple obstacle course only takes a few minutes. Whether you’re staying indoors or setting up outside, an obstacle course is great for keeping kids occupied. Use plastic stepping stones, balance beams and logs, or make do with items from around your home. Leap from cushion to cushion, use a piece of ribbon as a ‘tightrope’, and set up chairs to be crawled under or climbed over. Kids can take turns completing the course and racing against the clock. And as you’re getting their bodies moving, it’s not only fun, but also helps kids manage stress.
Here’s another craft activity you can tailor to suit your kiddo’s skill level. Basic bead stringing is used in most preschools to strengthen little hands and improve fine motor skills. It can help reduce stress and is super fun as well. Stock up on alphabet beads so older kids can create custom jewellery for their friends. Meanwhile, more advanced crafters can try making charms from polymer clay – don’t forget to add little holes for stringing before baking their designs.
Cooking with kids = tons of messy fun. Letting them get stuck in and get their hands dirty is a great distraction for anxious children, and following a recipe and measuring ingredients provides plenty of teaching moments.
Cookies, cakes and muffins are all a cinch to make, or try sausage rolls or pizza scrolls for something savoury. The best bit? Once you’re done, you get to taste their handiwork! Pop on an episode of The Great British Bake Off (the ultimate comfort watch) and sit down together to enjoy the fruits of their labour.