Helping kids face change and uncertainty

In this article:

  • COVID-19 disrupts the daily routines and relationships of many children as they attempt to create “a new normal” during a pandemic.

  • A child psychiatrist from Swedish offers insights and answers to questions many parents have about teaching their child resilience during times of upheaval and uncertainty

  • Communication, connections and creative problem solving can help parents adapt and, in turn, model healthy coping skills for their kids.

[4 MIN READ]

Kids today face situations every day that most of us never could have imagined before COVID-19. Mask or no mask? Is my school open or closed this week? Will I be getting the vaccine? If I get it, will it make me sick? Will not getting one make me sicker? Is it OK to hug my grandma? Will anything ever be the same as it once was?

We talked to Elsa Haloman, M.D., a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist at Swedish to get her insights into these common concerns. She answered questions many parents have and offered strategies and tips to help children and adolescents adapt and grow—even in uncertain times.

“I have heard the ways that the current and ever-changing situation has been affecting children, teens and their caregivers,” says Dr. Haloman. “The pandemic forced us to shift the way we managed school, activities, work, health and family life.”

Has the pandemic’s constant change seriously impacted kids?

Dr. Haloman: For many children, the pandemic has been a time of anxiety and fear. Others have grieved losses, which may include loss of loved ones or the connection to them. Youth have been impacted by the loss of their typical routines and opportunities for socialization. They have been trying to make sense of the world around them, and their place in it.

I often hear about feelings of isolation or loneliness. Those things that provided many children with a sense of identity and confidence may no longer be available, or they may be quite different.

I have been surprised at the creativity people have shown in trying to increase connection in ways we might have never considered before. Nuclear families have had to get used to a shift in their day-to-day lives together. Each member is affected uniquely and may be managing their feelings in different ways. In some moments, families may struggle to get along, communicate or support one another. At other times, there may be a heightened sense of connection and bonding. 

How can parents model resiliency?

Dr. Haloman: Children are astute observers of the world around them. They can be keenly aware of parental reactions and behaviors. It is important for parents to be aware of this and respond accordingly.

It is normal to have a broad array of feelings, including, at times, negative ones. There may be times that we respond to situations or express our feelings in ways that are less constructive. We are human. All of us have moments in which we realize we could have responded differently to a particular stressor.

It can help to be honest and talk about this. Learning appropriate ways to cope with strong or distressing feelings and practicing them together may help. Some adults may even decide to seek out their own professional supports. As adults adapt to the changes around them, kids will learn that they also have the ability to recover and rebound from difficult times, even when the process may not be straightforward or easy.

Another important factor to consider is our sense of connection to each other, which can boost our resilience. I often suggest that families take some time off together without expectations or distractions and be in the moment together doing something calming or enjoyable. Day-to-day life can distract us from these opportunities, but taking the time to disconnect can energize us to move forward through tough times.

How can parents help their children accept change?

Dr. Haloman: An important starting point is empathy. We all have had a mix of feelings and emotions, and they are all valid. Parents can offer a listening ear and acknowledge that change can be difficult. Simple and honest explanations about why the change is happening and what can be expected will promote understanding and increase comfort with the idea of change.

In times where a sense of control is lost, it can help to offer choices or alternatives when it is possible to do so. A bit of encouragement and praise for a job well done can go a long way.

Children will thrive when they know that their caregivers will be by their side in times when the world around them feels less predictable.

What is a growth mindset and why is it important right now?

Dr. Haloman: The growth mindset concept comes from research about people’s beliefs and conceptions about themselves. It refers to an openness to growth through effort. The type of mindset one has can have effects on their levels of motivation and effort, especially with difficult tasks or during a challenging time.

A fixed mindset might lead someone to make assumptions about themselves, such as, “I have anxiety and can’t speak publicly in class.” Someone with this mindset may reduce their participation or avoid a class or project altogether. This has been a common concern.

Whereas, with a growth mindset, someone in that same situation may instead think, “Since I feel anxious presenting in class, I will practice ahead of time to see if this helps.”

A growth mindset can be empowering. It allows us to forgive ourselves for the times when we fell short or made mistakes during the natural learning process. It also helps us feel proud about the risks we have taken, the effort we have put forth and the new insights we have about ourselves.

How else can parents help themselves and their kids during this time?

Dr. Haloman: These have been unprecedented times. We have learned so much about the human spirit, our resiliency and ability to manage drastic change. It has not always been pretty. While some days may seem particularly difficult, there are also days in which we maintain our hope, and perhaps, feel some pride in how we have tolerated or dealt with the challenges presented to us.

The circumstances in the world around us can rapidly shift and although it may seem counterintuitive, the inevitability of change can offer us hope. We can move forward and experience personal growth from those moments in which we may not have performed our best, responded in just the right way or made the best choice. Reflecting on this with our children is a lesson in resiliency.

Enduring distance and isolation reinforced for many people how important it can be to feel a sense of connection to our families, friends and communities. Putting effort into maintaining these relationships can be fulfilling and uplifting.

In my work with families, I discuss the ways in which each member contributes to the collective functioning of the family unit. When one member is struggling, there are ripple effects.

Sometimes parents and caregivers neglect their own needs. I encourage them to seek support when they need it. Prioritizing their mental health will have direct effects on their ability to face the challenges ahead and to model healthy coping to their children.

A note on sleep

Dr. Haloman notes that well-rested children and teens are more alert, attentive, and less irritable. Addressing sleep issues can have a positive impact on school performance and in kids struggling with anxiety and depression. With more children at home, fewer activities and less external structuring of daily patterns and routines, more youth than ever are coming to clinics with sleep difficulties.

October 10 is World Mental Health Day

Over the last year and a half many people have struggled to manage mental health challenges brought on by the pandemic. World Mental Health Day is October 10. This year’s theme is “Mental Health in an Unequal World.” Activities and topics highlight the inequality many people experience when attempting to access mental health services.

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Find a doctor

If you are feeling overwhelmed and the effects of long-term stress on your health, talk to your doctor. Use our provider directory to find the right doctor for you. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can also access a full range of healthcare services. 

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Related resources

The hard, hidden work of COVID recovery: A report for our community

The pandemic changed how mental health is discussed and treated

What we can learn from the resilience of older adults

Stress and the heart: What you need to know

This is your body and brain on coronavirus quarantine

Is moral fatigue making you tired?

CDC on stress and coping during COVID-19

Yoga for heart health

How meditation can address women’s health issues

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Children's Health Team is focused on providing insights and clinically-backed advice to help parents take care of their children. From tips on raising respectful boys and girls to immunizations for babies to planning for the teen years, our clinical experts offer an informed perspective to help you and your kids live healthy lives.

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