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The Invisible Children of the Pandemic

The Covid-19 virus has impacted America on many fronts.  As of today, the U.S. has lost well over 100,000 people to the virus, and the economy has taken a significant hit as well.  Many small business owners have lost their businesses entirely due to the shut-down.  What may be less obvious to mainstream society is the profound effects the stay-at-home orders have had on our nation’s children.  While some children have benefited from the extra time at home with their parents, other children who were already struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression have experienced major setbacks.  As a counselor who works exclusively with children, I have seen firsthand how the quarantine orders have shaped the experiences of this already vulnerable population. 

One of my clients, Jonathan, originally entered therapy because his parents had noticed that he frequently became distressed and overwhelmed by simple tasks.  It took him hours to complete one assignment because he would crumple up his paper if he made one small handwriting mistake.  While putting ornaments on the holiday tree last Christmas, Jonathan could not enjoy himself because he was so stressed about the “perfect” placement of each ornament.  This happy family activity came to a halt when Jonathan began hyperventilating and went into a full-blown panic attack.  Another client named Cindy entered therapy because her parents were going through a divorce, and Cindy had recently become reclusive and sullen, never wanting to leave her bedroom for any reason.  A third child named Jeremy began play therapy because he had frequent tantrums and was aggressive toward the other children at his daycare.  It had gotten so bad that the daycare told Jeremy’s parents that if his behavior did not improve soon, he would no longer be welcome to attend that daycare. 

A calming, helpful presence in Jonathan’s life had always been his grandparents with whom he would spend time (pre-pandemic) several times a week.  In recent months, he has seen his grandparents only one time, from a distance while wearing masks and standing six feet apart in his grandparents’ driveway.  Jonathan has become so anxious about “the virus” that he could not enjoy this one visit; he kept telling his parents, “We’re going to get them sick!  We need to hurry up and go back home where we are safe!”  Even in the midst of her parents’ tumultuous divorce, Cindy found solace and joy in her weekly piano lessons.  She enjoyed the way her piano teacher made her feel special and smart, and her teacher also made corny jokes that put a smile on Cindy’s face every time.  In the past few months, however, Cindy was enrolled in home-based schooling (like so many other children across the U.S.), and her piano lessons had ceased entirely.  Her parents said that Cindy now rarely leaves her bedroom; she cries frequently and gets even more upset if either parent suggests that she put on some “real clothes” instead of pajamas to go outside and get some fresh air, or at least come hang out in the living room or back deck.  She cried out to them, “What’s the point??”  Jeremy’s parents are thrilled that they are no longer subjected to daily complaints from the daycare workers (since he has been at home in recent months), but they are concerned that Jeremy’s behavior has gotten even worse during that time.  He used to be aggressive toward only his peers, but now he hits and kicks his mother during his tantrums.  His parents have no idea what to do with him at this point. 

These are just three examples of children who were already facing challenges prior to the pandemic and societal shut-down in which schools, lessons, sport teams, restaurants, stores, and other entities were closed down.  Most children, even those who are having some difficulties in their lives, have some activities that support their positive mental health.  These are the activities that help someone who is feeling depressed, for example, from becoming utterly desolate and potentially suicidal.  With the stay-at-home orders, support systems and natural means of coping were, in many cases, suddenly gone.  For Jonathan it was spending time with his grandparents; for Cindy it was her piano lessons and having the routine of going to school which naturally challenged her inclination to stay in her bedroom, nursing her depression.  Jeremy, who was already emotionally and behaviorally dysregulated, felt even more out of control when everything in his life changed overnight. 

As society begins to reopen again, it is important for parents and other adults to recognize how difficult the past few months have been for the many children who are like Jonathan, Cindy and Jeremy.  They need to feel understood and be given some time to “find their feet” again, so to speak.  Now more than ever, parents need to spend focused, undivided time with their children. 

One option is to build into your schedule 15 or 30 minutes during which your child can play in almost any way he or she chooses while you watch and pay attention to every detail.  For an older child, this can be called “your activity time” or “free time” instead of “play time.”  Put away all electronics including your cell phone and allow your child to “be in charge” during this time, making all the decisions about how that special time will look.  Your child may color for a few minutes and then say, “Now we’re going to play Uno!”  After the two of you play Uno for ten minutes (and even if you are in the middle of a game), your child might say, “Now I’m going to blow up a balloon,” or “Okay, it’s time to play with the dinosaurs!”  The best response from the parent at this point would be, “You get to decide, because this is YOUR activity (or play) time!” 

Maybe your child will play by himself, or maybe she will invite you to be an active part of the play (“You’re the patient, and I’m the doctor!”).  Either way, be present in every moment of your child’s play.  Notice his or her choices, encourage your child, demonstrate genuine interest and enthusiasm the entire time.  For that short period of time, keep 100% of your focus on your child and nothing else, and you will be amazed by how your child responds!

Note: Names and identifying information in the examples above have been changed in the effort to preserve client confidentiality. Keep in mind that while your goal is allow your child the freedom to lead during special play times, it is just as important that parents communicate clear and consistent limits. If you would like further guidance on how to conduct highly transformative and bonding play times with your child, you may want to enroll in the Child Parent Relationship Therapy (CPRT) course that I offer (based on the work of Garry Landreth).  This course not only teaches parents how to respond in strategic ways during special play times, but also gives parents some highly effective parenting techniques that can be used to manage even the most challenging of parenting dilemmas.  You can find out more about this parent training here