My kids are in mourning. They miss spontaneous playdates with friends. They miss their out-of-state grandparents’ summer visit. They miss their freedom. And because they don’t have the emotional maturity to articulate those feelings, they bubble over in uncharacteristic and inconsolable bouts of tears, random questions that give me glimpses into their psyches and many, many sleepless nights. I thought I was doing everything right for them during the pandemic and subsequent lockdown. And now, I’m worried.
I spoke with Micaela Materne, a child development specialist, who says, “Kids are really good barometers of our emotions even if they’re underlying or unspoken. Children pick up on parents’ fear, anger or stress. And that’s going to stress them out. So they’re digesting a lot of emotions, but they don’t know how to get rid of them or express them.” Luckily, parents and caregivers can help kids exorcise those bad feelings. Materne continues, “I think for a lot of families, keeping kids home feels safest. But kids need an outlet for their emotions. They need to be able to burn their energy off on a bike ride or a run or whatever is therapeutic for that particular child.”
Julia Steiny, founder of the Youth Restoration Project says, “Kids are really lonely at this point. We know that the negative health effects of loneliness in adults is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. But you can’t measure it in kids that way because is manifests differently.” Steiny suggests that parents gather kids into closed pods and then hang back to let them take the lead in exploring nature. They’ll discover social and emotional skills in the process and learn to cope with adversity and experiment with resilience. “Parents shouldn’t keep kids from experiencing that,” she says.
Materne also respects kids’ resilience, but cautions parents to be prepared to support them when they are not. “Kids need this bubble around them that allows them to fall almost flat on their faces, but there’s a hand to prop them back up before it gets really ugly.”
Karin Wetherill, co-director of the Rhode Island Healthy Schools coalition agrees with the importance of getting outside. “One blessing of this happening during the spring and summer is that we can get outdoors. Physical activity can boost your mood and lower stress.” Providence parks opened all of their playgrounds to the public in July and stations play ambassadors at the playgrounds from noon to 5pm, Monday through Friday, to greet visitors, ensure social distancing, provide masks and hand sanitizer, clean the playgrounds twice a day and educate visitors about safety guidelines. “They want to make sure families have access [to playgrounds] as safely as possible,” Wetherill says.
Licensed mental health counselor and registered play therapist Gabrielle Dworkin says that in her practice, she’s seeing a lot of kids with anxiety. “There’s also some depression,” she says. “Kids are sad about school and not seeing their friends. They’re sad about transitions as they enter new grade levels without saying goodbye to teachers. Many of them are grieving a loss.” Dworkin encourages as much safe interaction as possible. “I encourage Facetime. I encourage talking to friends on the phone.” She also mentions ways caregivers can bring forms of play therapy home. “Children express themselves through play,” she says. “They can use dolls, art, puppets or music. Whatever you can do to help the child express how they’re feeling because they don’t have the words to say, ‘I’m sad.'”
Materne echoes this sentiment. “Play needs to be a prioritized outlet. It’s how children can play out their fears and work through them, and also how they can find pleasure, comfort, relaxation and joy.” And she encourages caregivers to also find some time for play. “It shows our kids we practice what we preach.”