Overcome the Challenges of COVID-19 with Empathy

Updated: Mar 30

"Empathise with the frustrations your child or teen might be feeling, as they really may not be getting their needs satisfied at the moment. In fact spread the empathy around in large doses---empathise with yourself too!" Dr Angie Randell, Clinical Psychologist

You and your children are still at home, trying your best. You are probably trying to do home-school, trying to do some work, keeping the house somewhat clean, trying to stay entertained, trying to stay physically active, trying to eat healthily and trying to stay sane... Yet, your usual routines are totally out of whack. You have much less space from each other. You might have fewer people to turn to for practical support as they too are practicing home isolation. 

I think that what some parents are trying to juggle at the moment is actually not humanly possible.  On top of the competing demands and new roles such as home-school-teacher, some people have lost or are worried about loved ones, some have lost jobs, some are scared to be at home in abusive relationships... Even if you find yourself in a relatively fortunate position, we are all struggling with this situation somehow. This is definitely a time to be aware of the impact on emotional and mental health of yourself and your children. 

It looks like this current home isolation period is coming to an end soon, although it seems likely that we will continue going in-and-out of these isolation periods over the next 12-18 months.

These are unprecedented times so it is hard to know exactly what the impact of this is (by that I mean there’s no specific research that has been done on this!), and of course it will be different for everyone. The following are just some of my own thoughts based on my knowledge of development, psychological theory, and my own observations at the present time.

We are grieving

This is a collective state of grieving that we are in. We have all lost something.  At the minimum, we have lost a certain sense of normalcy in our lives of little day-to-day actions that we took for granted. For some, it might be much more that has been lost such as deaths in the family, or loss of a job. We are also aware that these losses and uncertainties are happening to everyone across the globe. Loss and grief come along with a wide range of emotions:  Sadness. Confusion. Worry and fear. Frustration and anger… and wanting to bargain with the situation to get it back to normal! Children are feeling these feelings too, and this is completely normal. 

It will be helpful for your child if you empathise with them about their feelings, allow them to express themselves, and help them piece together why they might have these feelings. Let them know that it is understandable and that many people are feeling the same way as them. Gratitude can be a helpful antidote to these feelings, as can the practice of considering all the things that have stayed the same despite these significant changes… (e.g. your parents still love you, we like having pancakes at breakfast, the trees still give us oxygen…).

Humans are natural meaning-makers, but the grief of the current situation might be making this difficult, as so many things might have lost meaning or significance. It might be helpful at the moment to “up” the meaning stakes at the moment, by being really explicit and intentional about the meaning of simple actions you do. For example “this bike ride is helping our bodies stay healthy and it is safe for other people too while we’re able to be far enough apart”, “It’s special to write a letter to stay in touch with grandma, it shows her we love her especially since we miss her and can’t see her right now”. 

Many kids and teens are feeling lonely

Play is the work of childhood. It is through play that children learn about themselves, and develop cognitively and socially. But it is harder to do and harder to learn from without a playmate. Unfortunately, adults often make pretty lousy playmates. They are just not as in to it. They are less patient. They have a million other things to do. Children may be feeling quite lonely for playmates at this time especially if they do not have siblings close in age.  You can help kids by setting aside some time, even if it is just 5 minutes in the day, to really be present with your child and allow your child to direct some play and activity between you. Take their lead and try not to intervene too much, just comment on what they are doing and join in where they invite you to. Loneliness can be mitigated by arranging virtual play dates using online videoconferences, and possibly some in-person play dates too for kids mature enough to keep their physical distance.

Frustration may be running high… (for everyone)

Teenagers too may be particularly frustrated socially. Their stage of development, with its focus on developing their identity and individuating from the family, demands particularly high levels of social interaction outside of the family. It is likely that these needs will not be satisfied at the moment. They are probably getting deeper into their social media and online means of connecting with their peers. And perhaps parents are pulling in the reigns on that too. Some blow-ups are likely to happen. 

Empathise with the frustrations your child or teen might be feeling, as they really may not be getting their needs satisfied at the moment. In fact spread the empathy around in large doses---empathise with yourself too! Your needs may not be getting met too well either! Know that angry outbursts are opportunities for connection.  Be sure to talk through the feelings and reactions once your child and you yourself feel calm enough to do so. Trying to carry out conversation while angry or defensive emotions are high is not likely to go well as our brains are not as coherent and logical at the peak of these negative emotional states. It may be helpful to start with the focus being on understanding where your child is coming from, before you move on to discussing inappropriate actions they had made, and the consequences you may be putting in place for them. Talk together about how they can express themselves more respectfully and safely when they feel this way in the future. Also don’t be afraid to apologise for your own over-reactions, if they occur. You are human and it might be very likely to happen at the moment! Teens will respect your honesty and it is a wonderful opportunity to be a good role model about taking responsibility.

Sleep may be disrupted

All these changes, all these emotions, many of us are experiencing sleep disturbances and strange dreams at the moment. Children included. To some extent these difficulties can be helped through practice of good sleep hygiene. This refers to things like – having a nice dark room to sleep in, having a strong routine before bed that involves a winding down of activity and ceasing screen time for at least half an hour before bedtime. Going to bed at the same time each night and waking up at the same time each morning will help set the sleep schedule along.

Our need for routine becomes apparent

Creating a routine of day-to-day life will help ward off boredom for your kids, and provide you all with a much needed level of normal-ness and predictability. A good routine should allow for all elements of ‘the healthy mind platter”: focus time, play time, connecting time, physical time, time in, down time, sleep time (if you aren’t familiar with the healthy mind platter, check out https://www.drdansiegel.com/resources/healthy_mind_platter/).

Anxiety is a healthy response to this situation

Society had to take really drastic action to prevent the exponential increase in cases of coronavirus, before there was any visibly obvious problem. There is a chance we may not have done all of that without the feeling of anxiety, since “everything seemed fine” when the measures were first put in place. This situation might provide a great opportunity to discuss the notion that it can be helpful to be anxious. However, do let kids know that it’s also really important right now to keep enjoying life. Give children the right information if their fears regarding coronavirus are exaggerated. Focus on the fact that you and many other people are doing the right things to protect each other and staying safe.