Although I am a community urologist, the focus of my academic research, to date, has been on the effects of childhood trauma, or ACEs, on patient and physician wellness.
Trauma has long-term consequences, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is a traumatic experience that affects us all. However, our children are most vulnerable – not to the coronavirus itself – but to the physical and mental health effects of this ongoing toxic stress.
How can we cope and help our children cope? Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Pam Ressler on her podcast about the deleterious effects of toxic stress and some techniques we can use to make ourselves and our children more resilient. I have since put together this list that may help you and your family weather this crisis.
1. Stay connected through technology
While we need to be physical distancing, we still need to remain social. Social connection is bonding during times of disaster. Technology can help us stay in touch with family members as we shelter in place, even though we may miss visiting grandparents over Sunday dinner.
We’re not actually socially distancing, we’re physically distancing, and we’re all in this together. How we include feelings of hopefulness and the idea of connection, is so important.
2. Know when to turn off technology
Turn off social media and screens two hours before bedtime. In addition to avoiding “blue light” that can be disruptive to sleep, the constant barrage of news and notifications is also toxic.
3. Create and maintain routine
Although everyday routines have been upended, try to create a new normal. Children thrive on predictability and structure, especially regular meal times, bath times, and story times. Let children control part of their own schedule.
If you are working from home, create clear guidelines, so children know how and when you can be interrupted. Make sure you take frequent breaks, and maybe even do short calisthenics together. Make time for hugs and kisses.
4. Stress good hygiene and wash hands together
Let your children choose a song for handwashing and put them in charge of the hand sanitizer when you reenter the home. The pepper/soap experiment has been around for decades, but a pre-K teacher gave it new meaning as a way to explain coronavirus to her young students. Of course, it went viral!
5. Get regular exercise and sufficient, restful sleep
Get out into nature, if possible. Take a walk, talk, and play. On Twitter, #chalkthewalk has become a family favorite. Your children may encounter people wearing masks. Use this time to help children process what they have been seeing and hearing. Avoiding these types of discussions can leave children even more frightened. Use the CDC information page to guide discussions. Also follow their lead when they don’t want to talk and revisit the topic another time.
6. Self-care is important, too
Keep a journal, write haiku, create art, or start a new hobby. Personally, I find haiku to be very therapeutic, while many find respite in journaling or art as therapy.
Meditate, alone, with a guided meditation, or with an app, such as HeadSpace. A stressful experience, like this pandemic, can negatively affect the immune system, but a consistent meditation practice can help us better respond to stressful situations.
8. Be a role model for resilience
This crisis gives us an opportunity to model for our children how to deal with adversity. Learning how to be resilient is one of the greatest skills we can give them.
Give this pandemic a name in a way that makes it less frightening and more of a challenge. Answer questions in in an age-appropriate way and validate their feelings. Be honest about your own personal fears, but also be reassuring. Don’t forget to find the silver linings. Be thankful for the added time together, and explain that, together, you can get through this.
Dr. Brian Stork, a general urologist in Muskegon.