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How To Reduce Stress In Children Stuck At Home This Summer

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

As the pandemic continues, children are still mostly at home. Summer activities are canceled or up in the air, and many children are suffering confusion and stress. NPR's Patti Neighmond talked with psychologists about how parents can help their kids cope.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: During the first few weeks of staying at home, Maryam Jernigan-Noesi's 4-year-old son Carter (ph) was excited. His working parents were around him most of the day, and it seemed like a big extended weekend. But after a few weeks, she says, things changed.

MARYAM JERNIGAN-NOESI: Certainly in terms of, like, getting dressed and brushing teeth and that type of routine, he was a little slower to do that - testing the limits with mom and dad.

NEIGHMOND: Carter (ph) was used to a two-hour nap at school. But now at home, he didn't want to nap. And at night, it was hard for him to get to sleep.

JERNIGAN-NOESI: So in some cases, laying in bed and just wiggling and twisting and turning, but literally able to say himself, you know, I just can't fall asleep. I'm not sleepy.

NEIGHMOND: As a child psychologist, Jernigan-Noesi knows that when children are emotionally distressed, they may revert to behaviors from earlier childhood. Those who are potty-trained may have accidents and wet the bed. Others may start thumb sucking again.

JERNIGAN-NOESI: So Carter (ph) for example, who hasn't been rocked to sleep in a while, wanted to sit in my lap and be rocked in the chair that I used to breastfeed him in and rock him to sleep when he was much younger.

NEIGHMOND: A number of Jernigan-Noesi's friends tell her their children - 8, 9 and even older - are suddenly clingy, following parents around the house, asking them to sit in the bathroom while baths are taken and teeth are brushed.

JERNIGAN-NOESI: Almost as if they did not want to do anything independently, which was uncharacteristic. And these were developmental milestones they had met years before this time. And it was pervasive enough that I was beginning to see in my own literature as a psychologist that this was being reported across the board.

NEIGHMOND: Along with other behavior changes like moodiness, anger and even tantrums. Child psychologist Mary Alvord studies trauma and resilience. She says anxiety can cause stomach aches and headaches, especially among older children. The first step in helping your child, she says, look inward.

MARY ALVORD: Children and teens pick up the level of stress in their parents. They don't always understand what's going on, but they can feel the tension.

NEIGHMOND: The more calm a parent can be, the more they're reassuring their child. Staying calm, she says, isn't always easy and often requires a conscious effort.

ALVORD: It might mean you go into the bathroom and lock the door for 10 minutes if you need to just kind of chill out and have your own space. It may mean you go for a fast walk to reduce any tension that you have.

NEIGHMOND: And try not to focus on your child's worrisome behavior, says Alvord. Pay attention to what's going right.

ALVORD: You'll look, like, really upset, but you talked about it, you know, you stayed calm, you used a indoor voice, you know, and you asked what you needed. We want to teach kids, even at a young age, to assert themselves for what kinds of things might be helpful to them.

NEIGHMOND: Some children, for example, have created soothing spaces just for them, like Barnet Pavao-Zuckerman's 10-year-old daughter.

BARNET PAVAO-ZUCKERMAN: Evelyn (ph) has had a little cozy corner in her room that's totally enclosed with a "Harry Potter" cape and a Portuguese flag and some other fabric. So it's sort of like a little fort in the corner of her room, and that's where she sits. When she's just feeling anxious or upset, she goes and sits in that little corner.

NEIGHMOND: For older kids and teens, Alvord says parents should be on the lookout for behavior changes that affect day-to-day functioning like eating, sleeping and friends.

ALVORD: Are they losing friends or are they disconnected? Because while we need to physically distance, we need to make sure we're all socially connected. And teens in particular, their peer group means so much to them. And developmentally, it's important for them to connect.

NEIGHMOND: Psychiatrist Joshua Morganstein, spokesperson for the American Psychiatric Association, says the biggest gift parents can give their child is time, time to wait and listen to what they have to say.

JOSHUA MORGANSTEIN: That lets a child know, one, particularly if you explain it to them, that they are worth waiting for. It's worth waiting and taking our time to try to understand what's happening.

NEIGHMOND: And be honest when talking with your child, he says, no matter what their age.

MORGANSTEIN: Even telling your children you don't know. Why don't we look that up? If a parent thinks to themself, what do I want to teach my child to do when they're confronted with a potentially dangerous situation as a teen? Do I want them to make things up or pretend that they don't feel concerned about something? Or do I want them to go get some information, or to ask someone who maybe knows more about it? Ask a trusted source.

NEIGHMOND: The pandemic presents opportunities, says Morganstein, to teach children how to respond and cope in future crises, no matter how big or small.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.