HomeHelp Kids Cope With Pandemic, Therapist Advises

Help Kids Cope With Pandemic, Therapist Advises

Larry Wong

It’s a notion that most of us have guessed to be true, but Larry Wong, a licensed marriage and family therapist, came right out and said it during a telephone interview on Monday morning.
“The quarantine and social distancing, the demographic that all of this is the most challenging for is children and adolescents,” Wong declared. “There are challenges for everyone, but this is most challenging for our young people. Our children and adolescents are not meant to be locked up.”
Schools across the country closed for in-person instruction in early March — the San Marino Unified School District announced its shutdown on the ominous date of Friday, March 13 — and the district started the 2020-21 school year via distance learning on Aug. 12. No concrete plans for reopening campuses exist and sports have been postponed until late December, raising doubts about the possibility of a quick turnaround in what has become the status quo.
Wong said children and adolescents rely on social interactions and friendships in a structure reinforced by routine to obtain a normal level of development, factors that are no longer readily available in the era of Safer at Home.
“It is very difficult on our children when that is taken away,” said Wong. “And there is no way around it.”
Complicating matters is the fact that mental illness often originates at a young age.
“We need to pay attention to how our kids are doing during this crisis,” he said.
Wong said that younger children — preschool through early elementary age — might become “clingy,” fearing that family members might become ill from the coronavirus.
“They might repeatedly ask if everyone is going to be OK,” Wong said, adding that “general irritability” is also a potential indicator that a young person is struggling.
“The biggest symptom is difficulty concentrating,” Wong said, “along with boredom, restlessness, uneasiness and worry.”
Wong said older children might appear to be more defiant.
“That is often a sign that something else is going on,” Wong said. “It is really important to pay attention to this symptom, especially if it is different from the child’s typical behavior. It is important that we communicate. Ask them if they miss their friends.”
Changes to families’ typical schedules can pose a challenge to young people.
“Typically, family members go off to work and kids go off to school,” Wong said. “When we are all together for a long period of time, it becomes challenging for everyone to get along.”
He also said that it is important for adults to manage their own stress during these periods of isolation.
“Children notice when we get stressed, and it rubs off,” he said.
Wong presented a series of suggestions for dealing with the pandemic.
“Parents have to learn to communicate in an age-appropriate way,” Wong said. “We have to provide the education piece for our families. We have to tell them why we are quarantined, why we are socially distanced. We cannot simple say, ‘We can’t go out.’ We have to educate them as to why we can’t go out, in an age-appropriate way.”
He also said it is wise to limit a young person’s intake of news.
“If the parent wants to stay educated, that is good,” Wong said. “But watch on your own. News reports can negatively affect our kids.”
He also said parents should limit how frequently their children take naps during the day.
“Too much napping might lead to depression,” he said. “And it affects sleep at night. Neither of these are good.”
Similarly, it is important that young people stick to a regular bedtime.
“Initially with quarantine, people let their kids stay up late at night and sleep in the next morning,’ Wong said. ‘We are at the point where it is more important to set and stick to a regular nighttime routine.”
He also mentioned the importance of going through the process of saying goodnight to children.
“Don’t let your children just wander off,” he said. “When they go to bed, give them a hug and tell them ‘Goodnight.’ Don’t let them isolate themselves.”
A form of that important word came up during Wong’s next suggestion.
“Social distancing does not mean social isolation,” he added.
“Are your children kids staying in their room too long? Are they still staying in contact with their friends? It is important that we are paying attention to whether or not they are isolated.”
Remedying that situation could involve going against a parental instinct.
“That might even mean you allow them more use of social media,” he said. “While some are very strict about social media and electronic use, be sensible and make sure your children are connected to their peers.”
The loss of some routines could call for the development of other habitual activities.
“Set a time to have dinner together as a family,” Wong said. “Try to have lunch together when possible. Sit together as a family. Take walks together. It is a good exercise to discuss and agree upon which routines are important.”
Communication is a key element to a functioning family, especially during quarantine.
“Listen to your children,’ Wong added. “Ask them how they are feeling. They are going to express frustration, anger and disappointment over all of their losses. The biggest part that we are missing is the social engagement. They will say that school is boring, but often they are really missing their friends. Listen to your kids as they express these losses and be empathetic to how they feel. Find a creative way to bring them together with their friends, collaborate with your children about how to make that happen while still complying with social distancing protocols. You are helping them overcome their losses.”
He said quarantine “demands a deeper way of communicating than many parents are used to.”
“We typically have more of a provider role, just getting things together, making sure that we have all the things we need before we set off to school,” Wong said. “A lot of parents aren’t used to being around the house and are not used to connecting. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable — share how you are feeling, but always in an age-appropriate way.”
Parents can also help the family dynamic by setting up a defined work space inside the home for themselves.
“People are actually working more hours,” Wong said. “Define your work area, then set work hours. This is really important, and make sure you spend time with your children.”
Self-care is also crucial during this unique period in our history.
“Make sure you have your own downtime,” Wong said. “If parents can take care of themselves, they are able to give guidance to their children. Maintain a structure, a routine and a schedule.”
Wong and his wife, Grace, have two children —a junior at Pepperdine University and a senior at San Marino High School. The therapist is an active volunteer in the community, serving on various SMUSD committees, including the Academics Advisory Committee, Suicide Prevention Policy Committee, SMHS Wellness Center Steering Committee and Wellness Initiative Committee.
For the last four years, Wong has also served as professional adviser to Partnership for Awareness. In this capacity, he has provided guidance on parent and wellness education programs. He has also been a speaker for on topics such as suicide awareness and parenting.
“There is no doubt that there is going to be some psychological damage to our children,” Wong concluded. “For some, it could be months or even years down the road before we realize the full impact of how significant this pandemic is.”


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