Local psychologist offers tips on how to protect your mental health, talk to kids during coronavirus outbreak
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- As students stay home due the COVID-19 outbreak, they may have questions, or even fears, about it.
Closures for dozens of Michiana school districts because of the coronavirus go into effect this week.
On Monday, School City of Mishawaka is shutting down for two weeks. Michigan’s three week school closure starts Monday too. Meanwhile, South Bend Community School Corporation, Elkhart Community Schools, and Penn-Harris-Madison will shut their doors Tuesday.
Dr. John Peterson, a psychologist at Family Psychology of South Bend, says parents can play an important role in helping kids understand what they hear in a way that is truthful, accurate, and still reduces anxieties.
“We want to position ourselves as a resource to children,” said Peterson.
Peterson says children may feel stressed or worried while out of school for the next few weeks because it’s a change in their routine. However, he explains kids adapt well and as long as they feel like they’re in a supportive environment, the long term impacts should be minimal.
“Being available for conversation is helpful, orienting towards safety, and you want to be a source of information but primarily emotional support,” said Peterson. “These are the things that will settle into them that we have a sense of subjective safety and place of fit in their world.”
Preschool-aged children will likely be focused on concrete questions if they do know what’s going on like, ‘Is my teacher sick?’
Peterson suggests those parents wait for the child to ask a question then simply answer it.
For elementary-aged, kids will likely understand what the coronavirus is and have concerns about the unknowns.
Peterson tells parents to answer their questions and explain what is known but don’t linger on the unknown.
Lastly, for teenagers, Peterson says their concerns will be on the intricacies like ‘What is our social responsibility?’ and the local, state, and national response to the outbreak.
To address them, Peterson recommends parents engage in their curiosity to show them they’re emotionally supported.
“These conversations are also an opportunity for us to demonstrate that you [are] acknowldging concerns,” said Peterson. “Showing that we’ve been thoughtful and we have some decision making rules in place and again having a sensitive but confident leadership style is helpful to reduce anxiety and worry.”
Peterson said adults may feel stressed during this time as well. He says coping with it in a healthy way will ultimately make yourself and the people around you stronger.
“If you take care of physical health, also consider mental and emotional health,” said Peterson.
The CDC says stress can include fear and worry of your own and loved ones’ health, changes in sleep or eating patterns, worsening of chronic health problem, and increased use of alcohol or tobacoo.
Peterson says to reduce it, people should establish a routine. He explains they offer a sense of predictability during a time of uncertainty.
He also recommends exercising, practicing relaxation, or doing anything that has helped people reduce their anxieties in a healthy way in the past. Peterson explains that the mind and body are one so it’s important to take care of your mental health in addition to your physical health.
“It is our experience of well being and as much as it is, quite literally, you’re quality of life, it’s worth getting equal attention to that,” said Peterson.