Trauma - Healing from Trauma

How to help your child process COVID 19 – Thoughts from a Family Therapist.

As a Family Therapist, and as a mother of two, I join my community in navigating  this recent COVID 19 outbreak. For me this also means fielding big questions for little people. In this article I hope to provide a few tips and explanations on how to support your children while they try to make sense of their disrupted schedules and ongoing family and community stress. 

The first step to providing a space for children to process difficult topics is for parents and primary caregivers to address their own anxieties. Stress and anxiety is felt in the body. It affects muscle tension and respiratory movement which shows up in the functioning of our breath (depth and pace), heart rate, and stomach sensations. Children’s biological attunement is to their parents. This attunement is not limited to their parents words but also (and some would argue primarily) to their bodies. This means that even the most sheltered child can pick up stress, as children’s bodies start to mimic their parents body sensations through a mirror neuron process. 

While this might sound like we are doomed from the start, the transfer of stress and anxiety through our body is also the solution to providing mental health for our children! 

If we can choose to ground our body and anchor our mind in the midst of stress our children’s bodies will also be much more anchored and resilient. 

When you have done your best to remain consistent, grounded and calm with your children you are well on your way to creating an unspoken atmosphere of safety, allowing space for their internal dialogue to be expressed and processed well. 

It is well known in the therapy world that children have underdeveloped brains, especially in the language and long-term thinking centers. Due to the underdevelopment (which lacks structural growth, grey matter, and hemisphere integration) children’s ability to process the world is limited. This limitation is important to consider when we want to help our children process challenging information and changes in their world. When we leave our children to process difficult or differing events we leave them to process with an underdeveloped, unknowing brain. Instead we need to turn toward our children, with our fully developed adult brain, in a calm and open manner. Instead of expecting our children to process through conversations we want to encourage our children (12 and under) to process primarily though play. Below are some tips on how to implement this personally in your home. 

Tips on how to facilitate process through play at home: 

  1. Ground yourself

Take a few moments to have your coffee, take some deep breaths and put aside anything you might want to think about that is unknown or feels distressing. Allow yourself to be in ‘this moment’ only. Be willing to sit with your child/children for half an hour to an hour and be with their process. This is called ‘attunement’. 

  • Provide toys that might create a similar structure to their changing world.

For example, if you have a family member who has traveled you might create a paper airplane, etc. Try to pull together toys you already own in one area of the house. Below is a list that might be helpful: 

  • General structures (doll house, Lego fort, Paw Patrol Command Centre…) 
  • Figures (people, animals, dinosaurs… a collection of characters)
  • Health Care possibilities (emergency vehicles – if you don’t own any you can make anything with wheels become an ambulance, airplane, car etc), doctor kits,
  • Kitchenettes (sink, soap…)
  • Stuffed animals, dolls…
  • If you have a sand tray this can be helpful too
  • Be flexible and patient

Children will collect items from around the house or talk about their experience in fragmented ways. This means it is not typically a one-time conversation, but instead bits and pieces of conversations here and there. This can be frustrating, but know that this is how a healthy child processes events and questions. 

  • Reflect – don’t correct 

Sometimes it is tempting to correct children when they are thinking about scary things or getting facts wrong. While it is important to help them understand that they are safe and that you are here to keep them safe, the details are less important. While playing, instead of correcting (“no that’s not what happened”… “They shouldn’t be afraid”… ) try to provide a reflection. A reflection is noticing with words what you see – sometimes making guesses about what the characters are feeling can also provide language to the process. For example: 

Refection 
Mr. Lego Man is coughing. Then he went inside. 
I wonder how the airplane is feeling after all of this travel? 
I see that dolly is staying in the airplane. She is just sitting there…
I can see that he is sad and frustrated. 
  • Try some open ended questions 

Open ended questions are questions that do not lead to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Try to give time and space  (at least 20 seconds of silence) for children to answer, or not answer. The question itself helps your child’s brain start to think about different possibilities.

Open Ended Questions Closed Question (yes or no possibility)
What are you wondering? Are you wondering about …? 
How are you feeling about missing (regularly scheduled event)?Are you sad? 
What is it like to stay at home? Is this frustrating ?
  • Anchor safety 

As you are involved in observing, reflecting and being curious about your child’s inner world you may want to take certain opportunities to highlight times when they project positive outcomes and safety. As your child expresses positive changes (the Dr. was helpful, the airplane landed safely, everyone went back to school…) you can take the opportunity to be extra curious with them around these hopeful points of connection. 

In this together.

Alisha – MAMFT, RCC

References: 

2005b. “The Psychology of Play” [Ot avtora: biografia issledovanni], trans. Lydia Razran Stone. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology 43:22–48. 

Goldberg, Elkhonon. 2009. The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World. Gudareva, OlgaV. “Psikhologicheskie Osobennosti Suzhetno-rolevoy Igry Sovremennykh Doshkol’nikov” [Psychological Features of Make-believe Play in Today’s Preschool- ers]. PhD diss., Moscow City University for Psychology and Education, 2005. 

Goldberg, Elkhonon. 2009. The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World. Gudareva, OlgaV. “Psikhologicheskie Osobennosti Suzhetno-rolevoy Igry Sovremennykh Doshkol’nikov” [Psychological Features of Make-believe Play in Today’s Preschool- ers]. PhD diss., Moscow City University for Psychology and Education, 2005. 

Oaklander, V. (1978). Windows to our children: A Gestalt therapy approach to children and adolescents. Moab, Utah: Real People Press.

Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York: Bantam Books.

Siegel, Daniel J., 1957-. Mindsight : The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York :Bantam Books, 2010.