Supporting Kids During The Coronavirus Pandemic : Life Kit Kids and teens have had their lives upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's what parents can do to help them stay positive and feel supported.
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Kids Are Anxious And Scared During The Pandemic. Here's How Parents Can Help

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Kids Are Anxious And Scared During The Pandemic. Here's How Parents Can Help

Kids Are Anxious And Scared During The Pandemic. Here's How Parents Can Help

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ANYA KAMENETZ, HOST:

Hey. I'm Anya Kamenetz.

CORY TURNER, HOST:

And I'm Cory Turner. And we are here for a brand-new LIFE KIT parenting episode on helping you and your kids cope with this pandemic, which we're now more than nine months into.

KAMENETZ: Oh, my God. OK. We have some updates on the science of COVID because we know a little bit more now about how the disease works, especially with kids.

TURNER: Yeah. We're also going to talk about how to deal with the feelings that we are all having, but especially the kids in your lives.

KAMENETZ: That's right. And even if you are way out on the end of your rope right now, we've got some super actionable, doable tips on how you can be a more patient parent tonight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: For the kids in our lives, and I'm talking children and teenagers, the last eight months have been many things. Maybe it was fun at first. I know it was for my kids, when the possibility of school closing felt more like a snow day, or maybe five snow days.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, but the novelty is way gone now, and it's been replaced for many people with frustration, sadness, apathy, maybe even depression.

TURNER: Yeah, anxiety - you know, kids wondering, will I get sick? Will someone I know or love get sick?

KAMENETZ: So we are going to start with a little bit of good news that should help ease some of that worry. The next couple minutes through takeaway No. 1, we're actually inviting you to listen alongside your kids.

TURNER: Yeah. So go get your kids. Put us on pause.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: All right, so hopefully now you're back with your kids. Hello, kids. I'm Cory.

KAMENETZ: Hey. I'm Anya.

TURNER: Thank you for joining us. We're going to try to make this fun.

So I called up one of the most respected medical experts in the country when it comes to things like the coronavirus, and I asked him to talk directly to you kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ASHISH JHA: My name is Ashish Jha. I'm a doctor and I'm a public health - sorry, this is actually harder than I thought (laughter). What's a good way to describe me?

TURNER: Well, one way to describe him is he is dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University. And for you kids out there, what you need to know about that is he basically studies not one patient at a time, but how we all as a community and as a broader community, as a country, how we get sick in patterns and how we can take care of our health. Dr. Jha says one of the biggest things that we've learned about the coronavirus in kids is...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JHA: Kids generally don't get very sick from this virus.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, so for most kids, Dr. Jha says, coronavirus is almost like a cold, but this is still really important. Kids need to make sure that they do not spread it to other people.

TURNER: And that's where the science has changed a little bit. So you probably remember early on when everybody was like, wash your hands, wash your hands, sing the birthday song twice, don't touch your face, don't touch anything. Well, that's not necessarily wrong, Dr. Jha says.

JHA: But we don't think that it spreads so much from surfaces, though we do still think it's important to wash your hands. The most important thing is really about making sure you wear a mask and keep some amount of distance from other people.

KAMENETZ: And that gets us right to takeaway No. 1 - pretty basic, but apparently some people still need reminders.

ANYA KAMENETZ AND CORY TURNER: Wear a mask.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JHA: So when you talk, when you breathe, when you cough, basically, the air that comes out of your mouth can have the virus in it.

TURNER: So we tried to come up with a metaphor comparison that's really going to help you kids understand why it's so important to wear a mask. And what we came up with with Dr. Jha is that your mouth works kind of like a can of bug spray. So when you push the button, you know, on the top and droplets come out - well, it works the same way when you open your mouth and you talk or you sing or you cough. Droplets that come out of your mouth might have COVID in them, even if you don't feel sick right now. So now imagine what happens if you put a mask over that can of bug spray.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JHA: Sort of a funny idea, putting a mask on a bug spray. But if you did, then the amount of bug spray somebody else would get is very, very tiny.

KAMENETZ: So you can think of it this way. We wear our masks to protect ourselves, but also to protect others. And that is really cool 'cause you know who else was a mask to protect other people?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ AND TURNER: Superheroes.

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ROSEMARIE TRUGLIO: I know you're doing a great job being superheroes, and I just want you to continue to do it.

TURNER: That is friend of the show Rosemarie Truglio. She works at Sesame Workshop. She is one of the very smart people behind "Sesame Street."

KAMENETZ: And this superhero image, Rosemarie says, is a great opportunity to help our kids feel powerful at a time when, you know, everybody feels kind of powerless.

TURNER: So she wants all of you out there to know...

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TRUGLIO: You are playing such an important role in keeping others around you healthy.

TURNER: Except for Batman. Somebody really needs to tell Batman that his mask is upside down.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, he should probably call somebody about that.

Now, you know, if you're a little bit older, it might not be a bad idea to take this a step further. How are we going to be upstanders and make sure that everyone in your friend group is staying safe?

TURNER: You know, maybe you're hanging out with friends in the park. Maybe somebody's mask slips down. You could try saying something like...

KAMENETZ: Maybe like, I need to keep my grandma safe, so do you mind taking a step back, putting on your mask all the way? I want us all to be safe and be able to keep playing together. You can kind of try it out because people feel shy about this. Even grown-ups feel shy about it, honestly.

TURNER: Yeah.

KAMENETZ: It's good to practice.

TURNER: All right, so the kids' part of this podcast is over now. So I just want to say to all of you out there, thank you for listening. It was super fun.

KAMENETZ: Yes. And thanks so much for keeping everybody safe.

TURNER: I just want to reassure all of you what your mom and dad or your aunt or uncle or grandparents have been telling you. This is going to end, right? Just keep doing your best.

KAMENETZ: That's right.

TURNER: All right, now we're back with just you grown-ups.

KAMENETZ: Yes, and we're going to jump from the science of coronavirus to the feelings that are coming up. So, Cory, just recently, I was reading a report where they interviewed 46 teenagers in depth about their experiences during COVID. And no matter how old your kids are, they can probably relate to this. Myself as a parent, I definitely related.

TURNER: Anya, I feel really seen by this report.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, me, too. But there - you know, there's some really actionable advice in here, too, like bedtime - it's important, y'all - and outdoor and movement time - we all need it, and we need to get creative with it as we head into these shorter days.

TURNER: Yeah, and I also want to issue a really clear warning to parents of teens that you need to be on the lookout for signs of something more serious here. You know, please keep checking in with your teen, even if the vibe you're getting is, leave me alone.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, that's very true. So I checked in with adolescent psychiatrist Lisa Damour about this, and she reminded me of something.

LISA DAMOUR: Depression in teenagers sometimes looks like a prickly porcupine. Everybody rubs them the wrong way.

KAMENETZ: So don't take it personally, OK? Keep coming back and offering them a listening ear. But, Cory, I don't want to skip the bedtime and the outdoor time. It's so basic, but so important.

TURNER: We're going to talk now about another strategy that you and your kids can use to keep the worry away. Dr. Krystal Lewis is a psychologist who helped a lot with our episode on anxiety, which was one of my favorite episodes. She works with kids, and she has been hearing all kinds of worried feelings and thoughts about COVID, especially with infection rates rising right now - things like...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KRYSTAL LEWIS: This is going to be forever, and I'm never going to get to see my friends, or I'm never going to get to see my family.

KAMENETZ: And Dr. Lewis says when those negative thoughts or those worries pop into your head, one thing you can try is our takeaway No. 2 - practice positive thinking and mindfulness.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LEWIS: We might sometimes think that talking to yourself is kind of weird, but it really can help to improve your mood and sometimes reduce the anxiety or sadness that you have.

TURNER: And don't just talk to yourself. Try telling yourself something good.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LEWIS: I know this won't last forever, or I can get through this. You might have to motivate yourself and say, you're doing a really good job.

TURNER: So we're really talking about replacing negative thoughts with better ones. Another way to do this is something we first talked about in our kindness episode a while ago, where we really recommend carving out a few minutes each day, you know, maybe before dinner, where you say out loud what you're grateful for. You know, in my family, that's when we do it. We say our gratefuls right before we eat each night.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. I think it's such a good idea. And if you need a little nudge, you know, there's research out there that shows that gratitude actually keeps us healthy. It's good for our immune system, for blood pressure. And it also motivates us to practice other healthy habits.

TURNER: Yeah. And as the dad here, I just want to reiterate, it may sound awkward or cheesy, but I just can't say this enough. Practicing mindfulness and even this kind of positive self-talk - it is really important, and it is healthy, and it works.

KAMENETZ: Totally, Cory. I think that's really important to remember. And for more on this, I talked to Frannie Williams. Frannie is a wellness guide, a yoga teacher, and she coaches parents. And she says for those of us who are working and taking care of kids all day...

FRANNIE WILLIAMS: If your cup is half empty, you don't have any extra to give away. You want to be overflowing.

KAMENETZ: So how do you do that? Frannie says if we practice a little bit of mindfulness, we can reframe the smallest moments as gifts for ourselves.

WILLIAMS: I just went outside, and I just took a few deep breaths. Before I saw a single person, before I had to entertain another being, I just entertained the universe and myself, and it was nice, and it was refreshing.

TURNER: I really like that, Anya. In fact, it reminds me of something that Dr. Krystal Lewis helped me with. You know, she was talking about gratitude, too, but she recommended to me that I try it with a piece of candy - you know, really slowing down when I eat it, like, thinking about it even before I put it in my mouth. Like, try to anticipate, how good is this going to taste? What is it going to taste like? What in that taste do I look forward to most? Is it the peanuts? Is it the chocolate? Is it the nougat? Basically...

KAMENETZ: Are you hungry, Cory? You're making me hungry.

TURNER: (Growling) Do you hear the stomach?

KAMENETZ: (Laughter).

TURNER: Basically, the important thing here is take a minute to focus exclusively on this very small thing in the world. And it basically yanks your brain off of the other, more stressful, distracting things that it may be obsessing over.

LEWIS: It's that little stuff, you know, that you can resend to your thinking and take a negative and make it a positive. I think perspective is everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: So this morning, I was struggling getting Elvie (ph) out of the house to preschool. And she stopped on the front step, and she said, I can see my breath, 'cause, you know, it's, like, a chilly day. And it was that perfect moment of mindfulness. Sometimes the kids actually help you out (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: On the other hand, grown-ups - sometimes I'll admit I have the presence of mind to do this and to think positively. Other times, I am the one who runs out of patience; I am the one who has a meltdown. And then I become the trigger for somebody else's anxiety, for my wife or my boys.

KAMENETZ: We have to be real. Like, this advice is easy to use when it's easy, but sometimes things get really, really hard. And we need advice for the low points, too, so this is our next takeaway, takeaway No. 3 - meet those tough moments with as much empathy as you can muster.

TURNER: You know, part of what Frannie coaches parents on is dealing with meltdowns. And those can come certainly more frequently these days.

WILLIAMS: They really do feel like because the purple popsicles are all out that the world is over. And depending on their age, like, they just - they believe that with all their heart. We don't believe that because we know that we can go get more purple popsicles. But to a child, that is the end of the world.

KAMENETZ: So if you want them to calm down, says Frannie, the trick is that you have to calm down. So one time she was working with a 5-year-old who was having a really hard time.

WILLIAMS: And I just started doing deep breaths. And she looked at me, and she was like, why are you doing that? And I was like, I just need to breathe. And she literally had this perplexed look on her face 'cause she doesn't understand why we need to breathe yet. And out of nowhere, I noticed that she was mimicking me. She's modeling me. She started taking these big belly deep breaths.

TURNER: So we have to model these coping skills. You know, you don't just give kids a timeout and make them go away. You take a timeout, too, and show them what that looks like. Show them how you calm yourself. Show them how you breathe deeply.

And, you know, Anya, this reminds me of something that Rosemarie at Sesame told me. She said the new season of "Sesame Street" which is coming out is all about helping kids get through these really tough moments, how to help them be more resilient, how to embrace failure. She says kids learn a lot about how to do that, how to deal with adversity, by watching us.

TRUGLIO: And they're seeing how we are reacting to setbacks, mistakes and challenges. So this is a big message for adults because our actions are speaking a lot louder than our words.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: So, you know, Cory, I was recently talking to a researcher in Oregon. And his team has been surveying families every few weeks in the pandemic. And they find that when parents report feeling more stressed on one survey - maybe there's a job loss, an income loss - then by the next survey, those parents report more behavior issues and sleep problems in their children. So you really see how this is passing from parent to child, these stressors.

TURNER: Oh, that makes so much sense. And, you know, even if your family is OK financially, you know, many of us are spending so many extra hours together. We're having to be parents, teachers and disciplinarians and maybe even a playmate. It's taxing.

KAMENETZ: Yes, it is. It's a lot of hats. And we're going to be affecting each other's moods. So the only thing we can really do is try to get that ball rolling in a positive direction.

TURNER: So our next takeaway relates directly to this, No. 4 - we need to find new ways of connecting with the people that we need in our lives. These are the friends we've lost touch with. These are family members maybe we can't see in person. There are still ways to lean on them, to get help from them, to connect with them and to love them.

JOY OSOFSKY: I have some very young grandchildren - 2, 4 and 6 years old. They love to play, and I love to play. I love kids, so I love to play.

KAMENETZ: So that's Joy Osofsky. She's a professor of pediatrics, psychiatry and public health at the Louisiana State University School of Medicine in New Orleans. And she's a grandma with two grandchildren who live all the way across the globe from her. But they have this ritual on the way to school almost every day.

OSOFSKY: They have to take a ferry to school. And they call me from the ferry, and we play games while they're on the ferry, which is about 15 or 20 minutes. And then they get off and go to school. And they do that almost every day. And I can tell you that I look forward to getting that phone call every day.

TURNER: She says they like to play games together on the phone, shooting fake baskets and eating imaginary hamburgers.

KAMENETZ: I can't really picture that, but it sounds super fun.

TURNER: I can picture it.

KAMENETZ: So we're going to leave you with one more really important takeaway, and it's something that Zoom cannot help us with. This is takeaway No. 5, and it's get more, safer hugs in your life.

TURNER: This is my favorite, I have to admit. This is really big for me because I am a hugger, and I have been missing out. I have been hugging the handful of people in my life I am still allowed to hug, and I think they're probably all tired of my hugs. Luckily, I spoke with Professor Tara Powell. She works with kids. She teaches social work at the University of Illinois. She told me she was really missing hugs, too. So you know what she did? She bought a giant pillow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TARA POWELL: Yeah (laughter). It's all the way down (ph) 'cause I just was feeling I wasn't getting enough hugs. So I was like, I just need to hug. I just need to hug something.

TURNER: I think at this point, Anya, it's really important for all of us to be humble and honest about what we need right now. I've been hugging my kids. I have one of these giant pillows, too. Let's admit it, and then we can get what we need, maybe.

KAMENETZ: (Laughter) That's awesome.

TURNER: I don't know.

KAMENETZ: OK, well, I do want to slip in another tip here from Lisa Damour. She's an adolescent psychiatrist. She said that our kids are usually all over each other as friends - right? - roughhousing, tickling. And they're not getting that contact, most likely, right now. They have social distancing, right? So lots of us parents, we tend to taper off the physical affection when our kids get a little older. We're not carrying them around as much. So Lisa Damour told me now is the time to dial it right back up. Get in those tickle fights, pillow fights, hair ruffling. Our kids really need it, and so do we.

We're going to go out with a pep talk from Dr. Jha. He said, keep in mind that there are vaccines on the horizon. There really is a very real light at the end of the tunnel here.

JHA: I know that this has been a really hard eight months, and it's not quite over yet, but we really are more than halfway through this. And if everybody sort of hangs on tight and does a good job of taking care of each other and being safe and - you know, that we're going to get through this, and it will get better. And we're going to all get through this together.

TURNER: All right, I needed that. Let's do some recap.

KAMENETZ: Takeaway No. 1 - it's pretty basic, but apparently lots of people still need reminders.

KAMENETZ AND TURNER: Wear your mask.

TURNER: Takeaway No. 2 - try talking to yourself, Cory. OK, I think I will, and I'm going to talk about really good, positive stuff, like you look very nice today, Cory. Congratulations. Nicely done on this podcast episode, buddy.

KAMENETZ: Takeaway No. 3 - parents, fill your cup so you can meet those tough moments with as much empathy and patience as you can muster. Doesn't take much - maybe just, like, a piece of candy eaten on the porch quite slowly, some fresh air, moment alone.

TURNER: Takeaway No. 4 - keep finding new ways of connecting with the friends and family you really need right now.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, that's right.

TURNER: There are lots of ways to do it. Get creative. And you might actually rekindle some old friendships with folks you haven't seen in a while.

KAMENETZ: And takeaway No. 5 - you can and you should get more and safer hugs and cuddles in your life.

TURNER: Or buy a pillow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: For more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We've got ones about home-schooling your kids, one with "Sesame Street's" Grover that's just for kids. You can find them at npr.org/lifekit.

TURNER: And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us a voice memo at lifekit@npr.org.

KAMENETZ: This episode was produced by Meghan Keane. She's also the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editors are Beck Harlan and Clare Lombardo. And our editorial assistant is Clare Marie Schneider. I'm Anya Kamenetz.

TURNER: And I'm Cory Turner. Thanks for listening.

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