“I hate this. I miss playing with my friends.”
The words uttered from the mouth of my seven-year-old as we were out for a bike ride. We had just ridden past her best friend’s house – the bike rides have become a ritual for us in this age of social distancing.
Her friend was able to come out, but unlike their play dates not long ago, the interaction consisted of a wave and a five minute chat with a lot of laughing while standing six feet apart.
As we began the bike back home, the tears started, followed by getting off of her bright pink bike, sitting on the hot sidewalk, and putting her head between her knees as I heard the sobbing begin.
Here we are – seventy days and counting since life as we knew it was put on pause – and my child finally cried about the coronavirus.
It was one of those cathartic cries – where one small event triggered a downpour of tears and verbalization of feelings and emotions that had previously gone unsaid.
“I hate Zoom and having school through my iPad.”
“I miss Ama” (her great-grandmother).
“I hate that people are sick and dying”.
It was twenty minutes that people on this random side-street heard a little girl crying, sobbing, and stomping her feet before getting up and hugging me, getting back on her bike, and riding home.
As a licensed social worker, one who had worked in the elementary school setting for several years, I had been waiting for this moment. My daily emotional check-in with her, which sometimes was direct and other times more indirect through play, always received the “I’m fine, Mommy” type of response.
I would get comments as to how well she adjusted to homeschool life and how she was always just so happy despite the world being in chaos. Whether it was avoiding the reality, not processing all that was happening, or enjoying a new and unfamiliar experience of attending school in the dining room… whatever it was, she finally reached a point where those feelings came out and could be expressed.
I used to have a poster in my office that said, “All feelings are OK, it’s how you express them.” That is easier said than done… this process of understanding how we feel, why we feel that way, and then embracing that vulnerability to let ourselves actually feel.
One of my favorite movies is Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out, where they show that those uncomfortable feelings like sadness need to be felt and expressed just like joy. Children do not always have the tools to express those feelings in a safe or easy to understand way. Anger or acting out might be ways that children are expressing feelings of fear, anxiety, frustration, and the list of other emotions that we are all feeling during this time.
The Social Work Toolkit posted a very creative printable document titled, “My 2020 COVID-19 Time Capsule”. In this packet, there is a space for kids to document their feelings during this pandemic, share where they are living and how they are connecting with others, list special occasions celebrated at home, use interview questions to ask their parents about how they are feeling during this time, and even write a letter to themselves so they can look back when this is over about how they felt. It is something that I will be sharing with my daughter, as she does enjoy journaling.
Each child is different. Despite all that I would do to help my seven-year-old express her feelings about these changes brought about by this pandemic, a child has to be ready to let those feelings out. What we can do as parents is reassure children that they are safe, let them talk about their worries, share our own ways that we are coping, monitor and moderate their exposure to world events, and, to the best of our ability during this time when we are juggling many areas of life, try to create a routine and structure.
Just as flight attendants instruct (even though most of us aren’t going to be in the air anytime soon), put your own oxygen mask on first. In order for us to best help our children, we need to make sure that we are caring for ourselves.
We, too, should be informed but avoid excessive exposure to media sources, stay connected even when physically distant, find time to relieve stress and practice daily self-care, and most importantly focus on our own mental health. New Yorkers can call the COVID-19 Emotional Support Hotline at (844) 863-9314 for mental health counseling.
All feelings are okay. Always remember that. Let’s do what we can to help our children express them in a safe and healthy way.