April 14, 2020

By Debby Machold, MA, MSW, LCSW
Citywide Director of Behavioral Health Services
Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco


When we first heard about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, many wondered how long the crisis would last, if it was really a big deal, and how might it affect us? As the weeks progress, we are learning more about the virus and its impact, including how much we actually don’t know. For example, we don’t know how long the virus will remain prevalent in our community or how long we have to shelter in place. We don’t know how many people will actually become sick … and if it will be us or someone we care about who becomes sick. We don’t know why some people are only mildly affected while other people, some in good health, die so quickly. 

The longer our communities have to practice social distancing from others, and the longer that primary support systems are closed, the more important it will be to help youth feel a sense of comfort and normalcy — and to talk with youth. This is even more important for youth with special needs, who may not express their feelings in traditional ways, but who are nonetheless experiencing feelings in complex and confusing ways. Practice clear communication and patience, especially if your child has a special need. 

As we adjust to a more prolonged period of social distancing, shelter in place, and closed system — including schools, nonprofit service providers, and work — the needs of our youth require ongoing attention. Exposure to traumatic and uncertain events in their world (such as the stressors of the current COVID-19 outbreak) can increase a family’s susceptibility to ongoing stress, burnout, and additional traumatic reactions. These effects then lead to diminished life satisfaction, increased experiences with anxiety or depression, and subsequent physical health concerns. The abrupt, unexpected, and widespread impact of COVID-19 — and the ongoing sense that our own health and welfare and the health and welfare of those we love and count on is out of our control — increases the sense of hopelessness among youth. 

But there is good news. Your comfort, support, and reassurance will continue to help your child feel safe and manage their fears during these tumultuous times. Your ability to provide security, both emotionally and physically, will help guide them through their grief, as they adapt to these new ways of living and interacting. Other ways you can continue to support your child include:

Build a daily schedule with your child. As children engage with virtual learning, having a daily schedule will provide structure and routine which will greatly support their learning. This will also reduce children’s struggles with depression, as the depressed mind tells the individual that there is no point in waking up or getting out of bed. The individual then judges him/herself harshly when they are not able to get out of bed. A schedule helps counteract this and increases feelings of wellness and motivation for other activities. 

Continue attentive listening. By listening well, you are better able to hear your child’s concerns and they will feel more understood, increasing their sense of security. Let your child know it is okay to feel whatever they are feeling. Don’t rush to “fix” the problem or to make them feel better. Learning to sit in discomfort is one of the gifts we give children.

Acknowledge your child’s feelings. We often jump too far ahead and immediately try to make a child or loved one feel better, but this can convey the message that what they are feeling is wrong. Instead of trying to change or “fix” how the child is feeling, practice naming their emotions and acknowledging the strong feelings - like fear, or anger, or confusion. It can be very helpful for a young person to hear “I can see you are frustrated”. 

Practice deep breathing, prayer, meditation, or other relaxation techniques as a family. By building relaxation rituals into every day, you are modeling for your child the importance of relaxation and the power within each of us to improve how our body feels. When feeling anxious, our breathing becomes more shallow and provides less oxygen to the brain, making it more difficult to catch our breath or feel a sense of calm. There are great guidelines online for progressive relaxation, which focuses on mind and body to increase a sense of profound relaxation. Search online for “progressive relaxation scripts.” Here are just some of the options available. You will have to find the ones that feel most natural to you.

Sit back, close your eyes and listen, taking deep breaths as you go. These relaxation sessions can be anywhere between 5 and 30 minutes long. The more routines are built into the family schedule, the deeper sense of support and protection your child will feel.

Practice your own patience and empathy — and consider setting boundaries — if your child seems stuck on one aspect or only one series of questions. For youth with disabilities, their questions may persist longer than their siblings. They may require more time and support than your other children. Consider using language that is more concrete or share visuals to assist with comprehension. You may have to repeat yourself calmly and in a reassuring manner. 

Encourage discussions about the health of family members and any fears your child has about your personal health and well-being. Keeping these questions inside can make the reality seem even larger and more threatening to the child or teen. Children’s fears about your health will intensify, if there have been other losses of loved ones already. 

Touch, hug, and snuggle with your child as much as possible, regardless of age. Children who previously didn’t seem affected may show signs of clinginess or irritability, or start complaining of headaches and stomachaches as a result of the stress they are feeling. Teens are at increased risk of using alcohol or other substances to help cope with their strong feelings from this pandemic, including personal loss and subsequent grief. Teens may want to be around family more often. Or, they may become irritable and withdraw from their traditional social supports. Infants and toddlers may be clingier or more difficult to soothe. If your teen or tween initially pushes you away, consider saying “I just need to give you a hug right now,” or “can I have a hug right now?”

Find hope and focus on what is within our power. Talk to your child about what is already being done to keep everyone safe. If they know the plan and how they are being supported locally and globally, their anxiety will decrease and they can focus on what is within their power. At the appropriate time, encouraging them to volunteer and share hope and optimism with others will continue this process. 

Plan a virtual play group. While having your child socialize in-person with others during this time is discouraged, partnering with other caregivers to virtually host collaborative activities or games each day can help kids reinforce their connections with friends, while providing you with support for engaging and entertaining your child. There are a number of online resources to consult, but consider:

  • Planning a scavenger hunt in each child’s own neighborhood. Compare the results (semi-structured time outside, connecting across distances, having fun together)
  • Hosting a group conversation with your child, his or her friends, and their parents virtually (new ways to connect and remind your child that they are still linked to others)
  • Hosting a cooking contest among family members - everyone gets the same ingredients to create a meal for the family (empowerment, support for others, laughter, and fun)
  • Planting a garden with any leftover produce (life continues)

Read more great tips for parents and other BGCSF stories here! To learn more about Behavioral Health Services at Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco, reach out to bhs@kidsclub.org

Debby Machold is a 27-year behavioral health professional with 15 years experience at Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco.

The artwork used in this post was created by Columbia Park Clubhouse member Nishka, age 9.

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