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Are the kids all right? Helping the youngest cope during the pandemic

Image of parents and young kids
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Are the kids all right? Helping the youngest cope during the pandemic

GSE associate professor Jelena Obradović shares strategies for parents to support young children’s emotional health.

The COVID-19 outbreak has many parents concerned about the long-term emotional impact on their kids, especially those in early childhood. How can adults protect the well-being of their little ones?   

On this episode of School’s In, Jelena Obradović, an associate professor of education at Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE), joins GSE Dean Dan Schwartz and Senior Lecturer Denise Pope to talk about young children’s vulnerability to the disruption and stress of the pandemic, and how parents can support their kids’ mental and emotional health during this time.

Obradović, who directs the Stanford Project on Adaption and Resilience in Kids (SPARK), shares a set of practices the nonprofit research organization Child Trends calls the “3 Rs”: reassurance, routines and regulation.

Reassurance involves staying calm and giving children a sense of safety and security. “It’s really important that we communicate that the adults are doing the best they can to keep [kids] safe and healthy,” Obradović says. Given that illness and death are realities with the pandemic, parents need to balance honesty with reassurance, she says—in part by acknowledging that things are upended and conveying what kids can do to help, like wash their hands and practice social distancing.

Routines are also an important way to help kids feel safe by providing a sense of predictability. That doesn’t mean creating an ambitious daily schedule of specific activities in 30-minute blocks, which can provoke more stress for both kids and their parents. Obradović suggests breaking the day into general categories like play time, lunch time, nap time, learning time and together time, and putting them into some kind of sequence so that kids know what to expect.

The third R, regulation, refers to helping children manage their emotional responses to stress. Without the vocabulary to express their feelings, young kids especially may become irritable or clingy or lose their temper.

“I love asking my kids how ‘big’ they feel a certain emotion,” says Obradović. If they’re mad, she says, “I’ll ask, ‘How big is your mad?’ So they can show you with their hands, and they feel heard.” To help them regulate the emotion, she’ll ask: “Do you want me to help you make that feeling smaller?” That way, they feel supported while taking an active role in their own self-regulation.

She also shares tips for helping kids self-regulate through simple mindfulness exercises, such as having them put a finger in front of their nose and inhale like they’re smelling a flower, then exhale by pretending to blow out a candle. “A couple of deep breaths can really calm a kid down—and can also calm an adult down.”

You can listen to School's In on SiriusXM, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Soundcloud.

Faculty mentioned in this article: Jelena Obradović

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