The Coronovirus is impacting all our lives now. Across the country and around the world we are seeing cases of children getting very sick and some even dying. I have been working on ways that I can use my expertise to help the children everywhere to keep learning and having fun in our new abnormal. By helping the children, I am hoping to help parents as well. This blog discusses children’s developmental levels and how we, as adults, can use the knowledge of them to support our kids through this very challenging time. I will separate the info into age groups so you can skip to the ages you are interested in learning about. You can also see the sections separated by color in the site I just created for all of you. (mrs.robinsneighborhood.com)
Infants and Toddlers
Pregnant moms should really be careful to be practicing social distancing (SD) now. By being pregnant, you are living with a compromised immune system. Your beautiful baby inside you is using your immune system as well as the nutrients from your foods to create his or her own system. If you have any other health conditions as well, such as Diabetes, Autoimmune Disease or Lyme Disease for example, your immune system is even more suppressed. The good news is that the (only) studies we have now said that most babies are doing well even if mom catches the virus. Medical doctors have discussed that the fact that breathing difficulties associated with the virus will be worse for women in their third trimester due to the baby pressing on lungs too. Lastly, be good to yourself however you can. Stress is not good for you or baby so find ways to relax and focus on your very exciting future instead of the death toll on the news.
As for infants and toddlers, most of them are faring well with the virus although the first baby died in the US this week in Chicago. My heart goes out to this family now. As a mom, you already know how critical it is to supervise these little guys. They can find things in places you did not know existed and put things in their mouth quicker than you can get to them. The most important thing you can do beyond SD is to clean like you have never cleaned before! They are too young to understand or care about the virus, but they can pick up on your stress. Try to keep to as normal a routine as you can for them to reduce the anxiety you both may be feeling. These little cherubs are little IDs running around. They want what they want NOW. This can really be challenging when you may not be able to go see their gramma or go to their favorite park so have distractions ready.
Our preschoolers are very egocentric. This means that they believe EVERYTHING is about them, for them or because of them somehow. You may have noticed that your little princess or superhero is not the most logical thinker on earth. She can NOT see any perspective other than her own-physically or cognitively. He can not understand that things are NOT the way they have always been. Your kids will not understand OR be ok with you saying that they can not go to school in Nebraska because kids in New York are sick. Janie cannot comprehend that if she goes to playgroup, she may make Selina’s grandmother sick. Jose’s dad is his dad-period. He can state factually that his dad is a doctor but will not comprehend or accept that dad must isolate in the basement now. These children have short attention spans but will still be picking up on things you are unaware of, such as the scary evening news.
Emotionally, these kids are all over the place and their view of the world is based in the present. Just because Suzy was distracted enough yesterday to be ok with missing her karate lesson does NOT mean that will fly today. They wear their emotions like the socks they change daily. They are very adept at picking up on your emotional cues and anxiety. Do not pretend things are normal when they are clearly not. It is ok, and beneficial for your child to know you are scared sometimes as an adult to. You can teach them ways that you cope with your fears which will help them. Talking to them at their level will be critical to their understanding and coping and by extension-your sanity.
Talk to them using simple, short explanations and examples that concretely relate to them. You need to reassure them AND YOU that they WILL be ok. “Remember when you had that bad cold a few weeks ago? A lot of people outside have that bad cold now. It has germs that like to fly in the air and stay on tables and things. The germs want to be with people, but they make us sick, so we have to stay away from them. If we play inside, the germs will become bored with no friends and go back to where they came from. The germs are invisible so we can’t see them. So, we need to be sure we are staying away from people so the germs on them can’t jump on us. We need to wash things all the time in case the germs came in, and we did not know it. This sickness will go away just like your cold did. When it does, you will be able to go to school and dance and play at the park. “
In the meantime, it is really important to create your new abnormal for your preschoolers. They thrive on routine and need the structure. Their day should include good food, adequate rest, and free play time. They should be using the fine motor skills in their hands by doing things like building blocks, stringing beads or pasta, and using play-doh. They need outside time for fresh air and vitamin D from the sun. They should exercise for gross (large) motor skills development. Your back yard can be great for imaginative games like playing pirate as well as running, swinging and jumping. Just be sure to stress they wash hands immediately after playing.
Given that 90% of a preschooler’s brain develops during these years, 2 months is a long time to isolate without learning. Learning opportunities will be important. I created Mrs. Robin’s Neighborhood to help, and there are a lot of other people sharing ideas and resources as well. Preschoolers love helping and playing pretend as you know. I am asking the kids to help me to create a Corny-the Coronavirus superhero. This activity will hopefully give them all a concrete image they can hold on to that says someone is fighting the germ. Encourage them to help Corny beat the virus by talking about ways they can clean, not touch their face and practice being safe. We all feel better when we (think) we have a little control over our world.
School Age Kids
School age kids can understand a lot more than our preschoolers can, but they also have cognitive limitations. Most of them have been engaged in public school and many activities outside your home before this plague came. They will be missing their friends, sports, extra-curricular activities and maybe even grocery shopping with mom by this point! Many schools are closing long term now and are providing some format to learn online. Try to schedule your new abnormal around that virtual learning experience as that will help maintain skills and reduce anxiety. However, there may be a lot of glitches at first which can be very frustrating to you and your child. Even some of my college kids are struggling adapting to a fully online program and our system was already up and running prior to the virus. I am hoping to help you to support them by providing something different and positive that may distract them from missing some of the pieces in their world.
Kids this age are concrete thinkers developmentally. This means they understand and can relate to things that are concrete in nature and present in their world. They do not engage in abstract thinking and won’t “get” concepts like negative numbers or the questioning the existence of a god. They will not be concerned about whether it is right to have country-wide SD, it will just be what is. They also focus on the rules of a situation and structure their beliefs around what is fair. They are not egocentric and care about and for others. They creative and most love learning. They engage in problem focused problem solving. Where our preschoolers will be focused on emotion and happier with a cookie, these guys will want to solve the problem. You can keep these characteristics in mind when you discuss the Coronavirus and its impacts on their world. Teach them to be Corny Superheroes too. They will have fun being detectives and figuring out where the germs could be and eradicating them!
Cognitively, this age group will get that if they play with Anna, her grandmother could become sick. They will want to help keep her healthy. But emotionally, they will be sad. A preschooler will say they miss their friends but realistically, they are friends with whoever they are playing with in the moment. School age kids are at a different social level. They are starting to form real friendships that resemble adult level relationships. They truly WILL miss their friends and teammates and teachers. Now is not the time to deploy limited device time. After they have done their schooling, and chores and gotten some exercise, release the reins a bit. Their devices will be a positive link to the missing pieces of their world.
Talk realistically to these kids about the virus. It is very likely they will have seen a lot of stories and scary numbers on the news and online. Answer their questions and do not minimize their fears. Explain and repeat the ways you are all being safe and emphasize that you will all be ok together. Focus on the positives, such as how people all over the world are working together to defeat the virus. School age kids rely heavily on their abilities to feel good about themselves. Help them to safely practice the skills they are missing now as much as you can. Play catch to keep up some baseball skills with Billy or play some music and have Ellie show you her dance steps. Be careful to monitor emotions for signs of depression. Many school age kids have clinical depression that goes undiagnosed. It puts them at risk for a more permanent cycle of depression if it goes untreated. It is normal to be sad and frustrated now but kids this age should bounce back pretty quickly and adjust with the tools I have discussed. If you notice that they are displaying signs of depression, such as losing interest in favorite activity, eating or sleeping more or sleeping less, or unusual irritability, contact your doctor.
Our adolescents will struggle the most during this time of SD. These kids are innately social for the most part and have built their worlds around their friends, teammates, romantic relationships and coworkers. Basically, most of them have been living outside of your house for most of their waking hours up until now. Starting at age 12, their days have gradually become filled with athletics, extra-curricular activities such as drama, school clubs, social advocacy, friends and boyfriends and girlfriends, jobs, driving lessons and college preparation. They have allowed you to share their world if you are lucky, but you have in no way been the center of it. Then, this giant anvil lowered to flatten their worlds. This SD is impacting every part of their world that is crucial to the identities they are developing now.
Cognitively, these kids can see the big picture. They can think abstractly, hypothesize about the future and understand most things on an adult level. However, it is important to understand where the adolescent brain is developmentally now. The frontal lobe of the brain is just starting to kick into overdrive at age 12 or so and will continue through age 25. The frontal lobe is responsible for executive functions. This means that as they age, they become more capable of planning and sustaining attention, making decisions, thinking critically, using sound judgement, and controlling impulsivity. It is critical to think about these abilities in terms of where your kids are on the continuum. For example, college kids are far more capable of monitoring and self-checking their behaviors than high schoolers or middle schoolers are.
Developmentally, these kids are very egocentric now. They are not incapable of understanding other’s perspectives like our preschoolers are-just the opposite. But they are egocentric in that they believe no one can possibly understand their world or what it is like to be them. And THEY ARE CORRECT to a point. We adults who were not teenagers in early 1900s have never experienced this level of social deprivation before. Teens literally exist to be social. They feel that they are part of a different world than kids and adults and they are. They want to be like their peers and with them-simple. Unlike our school-aged kids, they question society rules and stand up for their beliefs. This group also lives with a sense of invincibility and does not believe bad things will happen to them.
The teen brain is heavily influencing their physical and emotional health as well now. Physically, it is switching up how it produces melatonin now. Teens will stay up and sleep later because their brain produces melatonin later in the day now. Emotionally, the amygdala is responsible for processing emotions and fears and is very responsive to stress levels. The adolescent amygdala is on a continuum as well. The brain is producing hormones now which also contribute to the emotional roller coaster these kids are riding now. The brain is producing dopamine at the highest level it ever will. This neurotransmitter is responsible for the “good” feeling you get from experiences like skiing downhill, exercises and some legal and illegal drugs. All these brain areas work together to make teens feel each new experience much more intensely than children or adults do. This applies to both positive and negative experiences.
Lastly, your adolescent’s brain development is different for boys and girls. Research shows that males brains are wired less to recognize and to respond to both visual and emotional input. They view the world through more of an analytic lens. For example, they are not great at reading or noticing facial expressions but will be awesome at remembering directions and building things. They don’t like to “TALK ABOUT STUFF” a lot-especially feelings. They are wired to live and experience their world through actions. They will not say “thanks mom-loved the dinner” because they inherently think they showed you this by eating it. Girls will be much more focused on emotions and LOVE talking about things for the most part. They love physically being with their girlfriends and talking incessantly about their feelings and hopes and experiences. This will impact how your teens are faring now. Guys will be able to bond through video games because this is how they normally relate. Girls will be needing their besties more to get them through this.
These very real physical developments are playing out in how we see adolescents respond to this crisis now. This partially explains why the kids the CNN interviewed on spring break said they were not SD because “kids their age didn’t get sick and it is not a big deal”. The fact that many people, including the guy living in the white house were minimizing the illness did not help. As we begin to see the numbers rising and the death toll increasing, we begin to see differences in the way these kids are responding. Some are rebelling in typical adolescent stupidity while others are trying to navigate their new abnormal the best they can. We also see the usual shining stars of the group trying to help in any way that they can. As I was writing this, a train of decorated cars with 1 or 2 adolescents in each was driving by my house to give their daily dose of happiness to my housebound community.
The same disappointments are impacting our high school and college kids now, especially the seniors. They are all angry and sad and worried over the loss of school, jobs, contact with friends, missing final track meets etc. in sports, and end of year activities. Some are even missing classes and church. The college kids have the added loss of their newly found freedom living away from home. Most of them did not get to say goodbye to friends or boyfriends and had to suddenly remove all their belongings in isolation. I asked my college students to post about the positives and the negatives they are experiencing in their new abnormal. The biggest response was that they feel no motivation to learn anymore and are really struggling try to concentrate. Many discussed the difficulty of moving back home suddenly and trying to find a place to do their schoolwork as parents are working from home too. All of them discussed being sad that they had no closure and were missing out on their senior activities. A few did say that they were surprised that they were enjoying some extra family time. A couple of introverts were “happy for the first 2 weeks but were tiring of SD now”.
How can we help this age group cope with the impacts of this virus? We need to listen to their very real frustrations and respond to their totally appropriate sadness with patience and kindness. “You are right. This absolutely sucks that your senior activities have been canceled. You (or we) have all been working so hard to be ready for this. I am so sorry that you lost your internship or can’t see your girlfriend right now. I can’t imagine how hard this must all be for you”-because you truly cannot. “I know you were excited to go to prom and graduate and have a party.” They are also worrying about logistical things like how to continue getting their license or how to pay for their car insurance when they lost their job, something you can identify with. Then, we need to get them all on board to be part of the cure and not the problem as it is the only way things will be able to move forward.
We need to help them to see the benefits od SD in a way that benefits them. Adolescents tend to be a bit self-absorbed as you may have noticed. Make the random numbers on tv come alive for them by giving them real names and faces. “If you and your friends do not practice SD, your immune-compromised cousin, or your Gramma Mary, or your older pregnant sister or your diabetic father could die.” Explain the chain of the virus and that many people who do not know they are sick are out there infecting people. Also relate that more young people are becoming critically ill now. “The only way to stop the spread is through SD. I know this is really hard for you. But we will get through this together. When it is over, we WILL have that graduation party.”
Understanding and empathizing are necessary to getting your teen through this as they are likely at a higher risk of depression now than our school age kids we discussed. But, they need a distraction. Use the fact that kids this age are naturally engaged in social causes. Look at the progress our Parkland students are making with gun control. Help your adolescents to be part of the shining star group. Challenge them to figure out ways they can safely help to stop this virus. These kids are creative, more technically adept than any adult and full of energy. Challenge them to come up with an effective SD meme or Gif or Tik Tok video. They will like being able to help, and they can feel some control and focus on something besides their sadness. You can also start planning their party or prepping for SATs etc. This will help them to see a light at the end of this dark tunnel. Be patient with their moodiness. Unless you are going through menopause, you have no clue how it feels to navigate this bleakness while riding the hormone train. Be appreciative and POINT OUT any positives you see in their behaviors. Praise lifts us all up!
Finally, all children will benefit from the suggestions about routines and support discussed so far. It is important to realize that kids of any age with special needs will find this time of SD even more challenging. Maybe Curtis has autism and cannot receive ABA therapy or Frank has ADHD and is severely struggling trying to attend to the new online curriculum. Annie may be anxious normally, but now is constantly very worried. Your children without special needs may regress and will need support now. These children with special needs will definitely flounder. You will need to practice the principles discussed as well as figure out inventive ways to help them cope with their issues. Research shows that adolescents actually do think like and enjoy spending time with their parents. I hope this can help you all deal with your new abnormal in some small way. Be safe and take care of your babies, no matter their age. 😊