When talking about school closings and coronavirus with kids, we want to focus on safety — make sure kids know that they are safe — physically, mentally and emotionally — body, mind, spirit. Make sure they know they were not, and are not in danger, and that schools are closing in order to keep germs from spreading. Keep information and details factual, age appropriate and simple. For example, “The coronavirus is spreading in the U.S. We have good advice from doctors to stay healthy, heal if we get sick, and help others stay healthy. One way, is our school and many others will be closed for weeks.” More than anything kids, need to know that they are safe and that the adults in the community are doing everything they can to keep everyone safe and healthy. There will be a lot of rumors going around and in this age of technology, our kids will hear those things. Assure them that our health officials will give us accurate information and that we can trust in them to keep us safe.

However, we also want to tell them that it’s normal to have worries, especially when things are different and feel “weird.” We sometimes use a name to call worries such as “worrybug” or “worrymonster” or let your kids name their worries, it can be “Bob” “Sally” or anything they would like but it gives an easy name that you both can refer to when worries seem to be creeping in. When the worrymonster does come around, one easy thing that kids can do to is to practice taking deep breaths. Sometimes we call this square breathing, they can picture a square in their mind or draw it on paper. On one side of the square they can breathe in while counting to four, they then hold it along the top for four, breathe out for four counts down the third side, and then rest for four along the bottom of the square.

We’re all overrun by hearing about and talking about coronavirus … kids are no exception. Consider how much you’re talking about your own worries, kids are home now and overhear everything parents say. When we’re on our phones talking about the situation with friends, kids are hearing (and maybe not fully understanding) the conversation. If we’re talking about it at the dinner table with our spouse, they’re listening. Limit how often you’re talking about things. I would encourage parents to let kids know they can always come to them with their questions. But if it seems to be overwhelming their time and thoughts, consider setting a time each day when as a family you will talk about and answer questions or give updates and limit questions to that time. Maybe keep a notebook or piece of paper where they can write questions between those times if they pop up.

BE FLEXIBLE. When we’re worried about changing circumstances and things that are out of our control, its natural to want to find ways to be back in control. We may have feelings and want to plan, organize and control as much as we can in our lives. Pay attention to when you’re doing this and recognize that this is a response to the fear that we’re feeling in other parts of our lives. The situation in our community, state and nation is changing daily, sometimes hourly. It’s going to make us all feel better to recognize that planning days and weeks ahead might not be possible and remaining rigid to what we hope or want to happen will only make us all stress more. Be as flexible as possible and realize that its not in any of our control at this point. Be kind to others and recognize that others may be feeling this way as well. Try to be understanding and flexible with others. Modeling this for our kids is one of the best things that we can teach and pass on during this time.

FOR PARENTS, this unplanned time at home can feel frustrating, inconvenient and even terrifying. Many are worried about what they will do to occupy their kids time and make sure that they are safe, healthy, learning, growing and happy. Many are worried about childcare availability or trying to work at home while also having the kids at home. My advice to parents right now is to allow yourself some slack. It’s okay to not have a perfect plan in place. It’s okay for things to not go as planned even if you do. Focus on the “good enough” rule and you will be okay. Keeping kids safe and healthy is our priority during this time. If there are days when e-learning is just not going to happen and not in the best interest of your family, give yourself permission to take a break and do it another day. If there are days when you are able to spend time outdoors and doing fun family activities, great. If there are other days when kids have been glued to tv or video games for way too long, that’s okay too. Give yourself permission to do your best and that “good enough” is okay.

SCHEDULES – You know your family best — how they do with structure vs. unstructured time — the environment they need for play and remote learning. There is no right or wrong answer about how to structure your day. My advice is to give yourself time to figure it out. You know yourself too. You can get on Facebook and see what everyone else is doing, and feel energized and motivated, or overwhelmed and not good enough pretty quickly. Do what’s good for you! Some of us will be maintaining a regular schedule due to work schedules and childcare. Other kids will be home and not knowing what to set up the days to look like. These first days of being home, let the kids sleep in, talk with them about what they’d like to do over the days and weeks ahead (this doesn’t mean you are promising to do it). As they get bored and run out of ways they want to spend their time, they’ll let you know that they need you to help set a schedule. They may let you know in sometimes not so great ways through their behaviors — be ready with structured activities. You may need to experiment with a schedule for your day. Don’t force all of your structured activities at the beginning, or by the time they’re bored, you’ll be burnt out, tired, and out of ideas. It’s ok if your kids get bored. Research shows boredom is the motivating force for incredibly creative ideas and projects. If you know your family will do best with a schedule, here is a simple one that will do the job of letting your kids relax into a flow, but slow and flexible enough to allow for relaxation and creativity.

Wake up, care for our bodies and our home: Hygiene, breakfast, make the bed, play with pets (walk them, feed them), choose a part of bedroom to care for whether by decorating, dusting, sweeping, etc.)

Mid-Morning activities: Outdoor play/reading/building (Legos, blocks, random household items)

Lunch and care for our bodies and home: hygiene activities like wiping down surfaces, Spring cleaning activity (windows in their room, de-clutter their closet)

Afternoon: Rest with a kids news app/audiobook/music and play

Evening: Dinner, family activity, care for bodies and home (clean up)

GET OUTDOORS! Sunshine and fresh air will maybe do more to help right now than anything else we can do. When kids are starting to be bored, act up, or the worrymonster is growing, these are great times to put on your shoes and go for a quick walk or scavenger hunt outside. Collect items to make a collage, shoot baskets in the driveway, or just race each other down the block and back. Spending even 10-15 minutes outside in fresh air can make a huge difference in mood and behaviors.

SLEEP. The overwhelming majority of kids in our community are pretty chronically sleep deprived. We don’t get enough sleep. American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 9 to 12 hours per night for elementary aged children and 8 to 10 hours for teenagers. In addition, teenagers’ natural sleep cycle tends to begin later at night and its natural for them to sleep in later in the mornings. These needs aren’t always able to be met during the school year due to early school start times and extracurricular activities and homework. So let’s take advantage of this time to catch up on sleep when possible!

LAUGH AND PLAY. Lots of research shows the benefit of laughter and play in stress reduction and boosting immunity. We don’t just want to avoid germs. We need to be strengthening our immune systems to resist and recover from exposure to coronavirus. Find age-appropriate bloopers, Disney short films and family videos. Be goofy with your kids — bust out your funny accent, play dressup — you in their clothes and them in yours! You can totally let your kids lead here — they are prone to silliness and laughter!

BE KIND. When our own worries and anxieties take a foothold, one of the best “treatments” can be to look outside of ourselves and focus on what we can do for someone else. Help your kids to find ways that they can make life easier or happier for someone else. Make cards and send them to a nursing home for those that can’t have visitors right now. Deliver cookies to a neighbor that’s stuck home alone. Reach out by phone to a grandparent or relative that they haven’t talked to in awhile. Talking about ways that you can offer to do things for others can give kids a sense of control over the situation and what they can do to improve it for someone else.

Nicole Trier is co-owner of Choices & Changes, a counseling service in Columbia City.

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