Their Tears and Fears. Masks and More: How to Really Help Your Child Thrive in the New Normal
How to help your child thrive in the new normal
If anyone had told you last year to prepare for life as you know it to change to an almost unrecognizable form, what would you have said? Done? How would you have explained it to your children? Would you have? You would have had the gift of time to plan a way to cope and form a new life.
We did not have that luxury of time, maybe a few months but the time we had was filled with such intensity, anxiety, and uncertainty that we found ourselves in a sort of, “survival mode” instead of a preparation mode. Schools, stores, and restaurants closed and the quarantine began.
We became homeschool teachers and therapists to our special needs children, while somehow keeping one eye on the ever-important need to “flatten the curve.” We waited, worked, and tried to keep our children calm…. and then, slowly, it was time to “open up” the world.
For many of us, this is an anxiety-provoking concept. But, for our special needs children, who work so hard to manage life, the thought of re-learning the world in its “new normal” state can be overwhelming. Sanitizing, social distancing, masks, and then to add to the picture, the world’s protests, and issues.
The “new normal” is the term used. But it is anything but normal. And how do we help our special needs children navigate it? How do we help ourselves to be the best we can be for our children? Our stress and anxiety can quickly become theirs. I brought these concerns and others to some professionals in different areas to get their advice, and hopefully, their words and advice will be ones you can use as you navigate now and in the future.
I thought a “question and answer” format would help get everyone’s points well understood. Here we go…
Q: The world is changing so quickly around us, if your child watches television, is on the Internet, or any social media, the world’s protests, and emotions are forefronts in the news. If your child has questions or you need to help them understand the riots or protests, how do you begin? I posed these concerns to Mary and Jill.
Mary: “Focus on the “now” and the process of acceptance of people and the importance of your voice being heard in a peaceful way. There are many ways to express yourself peacefully, and the protests are one way.”
Jill: “Protests, riots, and social inequality just can be simplified to “tension,” and when tension is high, it has to be released like a tea kettle, when it reaches its boiling point-it whistles. When humans reach a boiling point or have had enough, they scream or act out. There are deeper cultural issues here for sure. An individual child can learn to stop it from progressing that far because the signs are there. Learning our own personal “triggers” will stop the escalation from getting that far.”
“Sort out feelings. We all have feelings regarding something…how we play out our tension is to learn to go within. How does that make my body or voice want to act out…protest or just be?” And then they can begin to understand the feelings at the root of the actions.”
“Educate yourself. Watch documentaries. Read. Listen and discuss books. Listen to podcasts. Learn to understand.”
**Q** As we talk about expressing emotions and understanding feelings, we can see the critical need for communication. It is so very important for all of us and especially for our children as they may have limited abilities to express themselves fully. How do you make sure to foster communication?
Mary: “There is one way to make communication as open as can be, and that is a regular daily/nightly talk about what is happening with the means of communication that is most suited to your child. For some, it can be simply talking on the phone to a friend, email a quick hello, or a zoom call.”
Michele: Mary terms this connecting, and we are doing that with Elizabeth, who finds it fun to “connect” by mailing postcards to her friends and texting (these were all ideas given to us by Mary). My understanding is that the “connecting” helps close the void of isolation that our children can feel from having all their plans and social outlets removed. But, it is all about reaching the child where they are and helping them. So whatever manner that you can begin a conversation with your child, as Mary said, is the place to start. And then grow it from that point.
**Q** I know as adults we may find ourselves dreading putting on a mask or perhaps find ourselves reaching “really quickly” around someone at the store or realizing you forgot to take sanitizer with you. We are trying to remember these new things and we struggle…so how can we help our children understand it virus, precaution and it all? I took this pretty important topic to Jen, Jill and Mary
Jen offered these tips for helping your child learn and cope with all the new precautions.
“Tell the children the truth and answer questions in developmentally appropriate and simple ways” (Ex: We wear masks to keep everyone safe).
“Create short storybooks for our ‘new normal’ and help support new routines.”
“Practice new suggested regulations (mask-wearing, social distancing, etc…) at home and in naturally occurring opportunities.”
“Prepare a child before going out in public (about the changes) and allow extra time for them to process the expectations.”
“When social distancing, provide reminders to wave instead of handshakes/hugs. Use pictures, model social behaviors for them, use a visual spot on the floor for them to stand on to help maintain expected social distance from others.”
For those whose children have sensory issues, Jen offered:
“When wearing masks: set a time limit, allow for short breaks from wearing a mask in a safe space (in the car, for example).
“If sensitive to touch, wear a mask that ties around the head instead of masks that loop around the ears or use cotton balls as a cushion under ear loops.”
“when sanitizing and/or washing hands, make it part of their daily routine and keep it consistent. Find a song that they can sing for 20 seconds in order to help them clean hands thoroughly.
“Create or establish a calming area for your child, where they can go if they become overwhelmed.”
Jill said: “Coronavirus regarding healthy versus sick. It is true, people get sick with some virus or bacteria all the time. This virus stands out due to its quick and unpredictable elements of attack. There are ways to minimize a high risk: Wash our hands, take vitamins, eat healthy. Explaining to our children that “wearing a mask helps us help others stay healthy.” The masks “keep our germs/spittle to ourselves.” Explain that we are helping others as well as ourselves.
“Keeping our distance shows respect for personal space”
“Everyone doing their part to lessen the contagion factor shows respect, courage, strength, good character and teamwork”
**Q** So much pressure on us during this time has resulted in increased numbers of people seeking help for anxiety and depression. We can all admit to feeling such extra emotions during this time. And if you are like me, you are making sure to find ways to manage these emotions. Maybe it is a walk, talking to a friend, prayers? But, what about the times when our stress makes helping and dealing with our children’s emotions just a bit too much? When we are in such a tough place at that moment when our children show their anxiety or needs, how do we manage our stress in such a way as to not “give” our child our anxiety?
Jill’s advice on feelings: “Speak only the truth, I am having trouble processing my feelings. I am having a hard time naming my feeling. Try to recognize your triggers.”
“My advice to parents when feeling stressed? Dance it out. Draw. Meditate. Re-read this article. Look within yourself and express your truth, lovingly and kindly, and with compassion to yourself—model good behavior. Ask your child what they would do if you were tired or cranky- listen to the answer. Reach out of your comfort level and try something new. Be cautious, not fearful. Concerned, not angry. Comforting, not pitying. Speak from a place of love.”
Two helpful slides for parents/caregivers: Greg provided these two slides that illustrate the need for us as parents and caregivers to find that calmer place before we can really help our children.
And like Mary said, “Take a deep breath to slow the intensity.”
A big THANK YOU again to all who helped make this article as informative as it is.
Life these days is dynamic, always changing, always needing one eye on the “now” and one eye on what is coming next. All with the goal of helping our individual worlds navigate the best we can.
Here are the names of the professionals who helped me with this article. Thank you to all for your time and expertise.
Jen Bunch, OTR/L, 4 years experience working with adults and children with focus on motor development, sensory integration and mental health and wellness
Jill Lewis, LMT, practicing massage, Cranial Sacral Therapy, reiki for over 25 years at Jill’s Touch. Her goal is to help everyone learn to self-heal, self-express and self-correct. She is a mom of 2, a cancer survivor and lover of life!
Mary Padula, MA, CCC/SLP, TLP-C/BC-C, Neurodevelopment Program Consultant, author of “Navigating the Therapy World.” Full disclosure, she is our beloved therapist for Elizabeth for over 21 years, our quarterback on our journey.
Greg Santucci, MS, OTR, Executive Director of Power Plan Pediatric Therapy www.powerplaytherapy.com
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This post originally appeared on our July/August 2020 Magazine