Hold On

Olga Doukas on Kids’ Emotional Health

Our world has been upended now for weeks, and we’re feeling a bit frayed around the edges. How can we keep our children’s spirits up in the midst of the uncertainty?

We turned to Clinical Psychologist, Olga Doukas, who has helped us through many parenting trials. In her private psychotherapy practice in Athens, Greece, she specializes in family counseling and treating children with emotional challenges. Her intelligence, positivity, and compassion makes situations that feel insurmountable, suddenly manageable. We thought we’d share her wisdom and expertise at a time when we can all use a little extra help to keep moving forward.

How do we keep our kids emotionally healthy as the pandemic continues on longer than they—and we—expected?
We should keep in mind that children adapt more easily to new, frustrating times than adults. But children are a mirror of ourselves. The way our children face pandemic challenges depends on how we adults handle and manage ourselves and our lives.

How do we do that when we, ourselves, don’t always feel balanced, faced with so many critical decisions?
In this bizarre and very serious situation we’re experiencing, we have to be patient with ourselves and take things one day at a time. Know that we are all facing grief. We grieve when we lose something that is important to us, and we are all experiencing loss—whether it’s a major loss, losing the personal contact with our loved ones, or even our everyday routines and rituals. We can feel detached, angry, or sad. Children may experience these same feelings. To help them, we can start by talking about our own feelings and reassuring them that things will get back to normal, even though it’s a different normal; and by reminding them to keep the things they have lost in their minds and hearts.

We need to remain patient with our kids and stay cool, calm, and tolerant despite their behavior. We will also set a good example by being personally and socially responsible and expressing solidarity with people in need, which will help our children develop a strong, compassionate character.

How do we talk to our children about the pandemic without frightening them?
It is essential that we communicate with honesty, in a calm, even way. If we seem scared, they will be scared. Use simple words so they can understand and feel reassured. Explain that it’s a difficult period for all of us. Reassure them that it will not last forever. Also let them know about the measures being taken to protect us.

What if we see they are upset? How do we get kids to open up and talk?
Be open, but don’t pressure them to talk if they are not yet ready. Children have to feel free to share with us their feelings and thoughts. For that they need a supportive environment. We gain children’s trust by talking to them honestly and sharing our own feelings.

Is there anything we should avoid doing?
Avoid talking about the pandemic all the time, and watching the news. Excessive news watching and preoccupation with the stressful situation could traumatize the whole family.

What are signs that children are feeling anxious or unhappy?
Because their daily life has changed so suddenly, children may feel stressed or scared. Their feelings and thoughts may be hiding behind intense reactions or behaviors. Things to look for: signs of stress, depression, anger, irritability, boredom, sense of helplessness, detachment, hyperactivity, loss of appetite, inability to sleep, lack of interest in playing or studying, and having emotional outbursts.

Older children may test limits. Younger ones may show regressive behavior such as sleeping problems, separation anxiety, bedwetting, stomachaches, or other physical discomfort. (note: If any of these behaviors persist, contact a specialist.)

How can we make them feel better?
Let them know that there is no “right” or “wrong” about the way they feel. Share with them your own feelings, for example, that you too are having difficulty managing this new situation. And that it’s normal for them to be concerned.

What can we do to keep them emotionally healthy?
It is very important to keep a daily routine. Try to organize a family schedule with times for sleeping, eating, taking a bath, brushing teeth, etc. Having a daily routine provides children with a sense of security and safety. And being occupied with activities during the day keeps us all from having negative thoughts and feeling less vulnerable to fear.

Are there any helpful activities we can do with our kids?
Any activity that keeps children happy and gives them a sense of being useful. Playing, reading, art & crafts, listening to music, painting, helping around the house, cooking…all sorts of daily activities can be very helpful. Also, anything that get them moving, even if it’s inside. This all gives children a sense of continuity, security, usefulness, and achieving goals day by day.

Be careful with screens. Because children will be using them much more than usual with remote learning and communicating with friends and relatives. Outside of what is essential, parents should limit screen time, since there’s a high risk of future addiction.

Anything else?
We should not forget that children are children. They need to continue to live as kids: to play, to communicate with friends and peers (even through technology), to laugh, make noise, and even, occasionally, to do naughty things!