Ask the expert: Dr. Jillian Roberts on how to support your children’s mental health during isolation

This post marks a new blog series in which our CEO Veronica Carroll interviews experts across Vancouver Island and the surrounding islands on issues affecting children’s health.

To kick off the series, Veronica reached out to Dr. Jillian Roberts, a Victoria-based child psychologist with more than 22 years of experience. Dr. Roberts is a professor at the University of Victoria in Educational Psychology, runs a clinical practice, and is the founder of Family Sparks, a company providing mental health support to benefit businesses, their employees, and their families.

They discussed strategies parents can use to help their children amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, how parents can support their own wellbeing, and age-appropriate tips on how to communicate with their children about the current situation.

How can parents help their children cope with the heightened anxiety they may be feeling in this unprecedented time?

In the absence of a regular routine, I’m recommending that families try to keep a schedule in place as much as possible. If you’re homeschooling, guide your child through heavy subjects like math and reading in the morning. In the afternoon, move into inquiry-based learning and allow your child to select a topic of interest to research online. You can connect virtually with your child’s classmates to have them learn together.

For an engaging project, you can teach your child to use PowerPoint and have them create a presentation about a topic of interest. Connect with someone in your life who is isolated right now, like an aunt or a grandma, and have your child share their learnings. My seven-year-old son and I are working on a PowerPoint on Komodo dragons, which he is going to present virtually to a close family friend who is alone at home.

At the same time, I am encouraging parents to give themselves permission to loosen up. These are extraordinary times and it is okay for your children’s routine to look different than normal. Typically, I would recommend parents limit their children’s screen time to half an hour per day – that would not necessarily be a good thing right now. It would be incredibly challenging for children to have nothing to do, and for parents to feel like they have to constantly entertain their children. Make sure that they know this is not a normal situation, and typical screen time limits will continue when their regular routine resumes.

If you have an important conference call, for example, don’t hesitate to ask your child to go online while you are working. From zoo animal cameras, to science channels on YouTube, to high-quality math instruction, there are many entertaining and educational resources available online, many of which I share with my community on my Facebook page and website.

Whenever possible, allow your child to make choices in their life to give them a sense of agency. Whether it’s as simple as picking between two shirts to wear that day, which school lesson they would like to learn first, or their outdoor activity of choice, giving them the ability to have some autonomy over their day can be beneficial.

Do you have advice on how parents can support themselves right now?

To maintain a sense of normalcy, I’m encouraging parents to try to clean one part of their house every day, eat one nutritious meal every day, reach out to someone every day for social connection, and to get outside every day. If you can accomplish those basic things right now, you are a rock star.

All you need to focus on is today, and the items that you need to accomplish in the next 24 hours. It is a waste of energy to focus on hypothetical worries. If you conserve your mental energy now by only focusing on today, you’ll have greater capacity to problem solve when the time comes.

It can be helpful to visualize that you’re standing in a stream and your worries are water rushing towards you. Imagine the water approaching, acknowledging it when it reaches you, but then choose to let the water flow past you. It’s difficult, but with practice, you’ll be able to let your worries roll over you and be released.

It’s been said that we’re collectively grieving the loss of our normal routines. How can we reframe self-isolation and physical distancing?

I’ve been saying to children that they aren’t stuck at home, they are safe at home. You can share with your children that they’re at home to keep them safe. Encourage them to focus on the positive that they are warm, fed, and with the people they love.

How should parents communicate about the situation differently depending on their children’s age?

If your children are five or younger, you don’t need to say very much about the situation. They will only worry if you worry. Focus on making each day with them as fun as it can be and think of it as an opportunity to spend more time with your little ones.

You can finally take the time to have those longer pancake breakfasts together, bring them outside to look at the springtime flowers, and get to know your kids better. Sensory play is important for young children, so include long bath times with bubbles, finger painting, and making play-dough creations into your days.

If your children are elementary school-aged, it’s important to use concrete language. For example, you can explain that the virus can hop from one person to another if we don’t wash our hands well; the reason why we’re staying home is because the virus can’t hop between homes.

Share the amount of time this may last, such as that this won’t be only two or three sleeps. Make sure that you’re ending all pandemic-related conversations on a positive note, for example, isn’t it wonderful that we get to be together?

If your children are older, this is the time to have a thoughtful conversation with them. You can discuss the virus’ origins – that we believe it started from the market and trade of exotic animals, and that it affects people differently depending on their age.

Encourage them to become problem solvers and to think through how they can be a positive force in your community. They might come up with putting a thank you note to health care workers on your front lawn or reaching out to neighbours to make sure they have adequate supplies. This will give them a sense of agency in a situation over which they have little control.

What do you recommend to parents whose children are fearful for the safety of their loved ones?

If your children are worried about a family member, encourage them to reach out to that person. Have your child pick up the phone and speak to that grandma, aunt, or cousin. My children have been playing charades with their aunt through Zoom. Try to maintain those family connections using technology.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention that I haven’t asked?

As much as you can, try not to pass the anxiety baton on to your child. No matter how significant your worries are, try to process them out of earshot of your child because children don’t have the capacity to contextualize the current situation.

Make sure that your interactions with your children are patient, gentle, and flexible. If you feel the urge to raise your voice, train yourself to speak in a whisper. Create routines at home that are high-warmth and high-structure.

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