As the school year is upon us, it’s more than just a new academic year. The pandemic has dramatically changed our everyday lives and those things we take for granted – like school, work and home life. As such, our kids may need extra love and care so they can communicate what is happening and how to adjust to the new schedules and rules around learning and socializing. We asked Cate Bereznay, ND, MS, MPH a pediatric naturopathic doctor about how to talk with children during this not-so-normal school year.
Institute for Natural Medicine: It’s no secret that we are all learning how to live different lives during the pandemic. As this lingers longer than anyone hoped and children’s lives are disrupted, what are the best ways to start a talk with children?
Cate Bereznay, ND: Children are almost always inquisitive all on their own. Parents can certainly ask their child if they have any questions about what is going on, but I generally tend to recommend parents follow the lead of their child. If their child has questions and asks, answer them using simple, age appropriate language. I always encourage parents to resist the urge to over explain or expand too much beyond just what the child has asked.
INM: Every parent wants to protect their child from unpleasant and frightening thoughts or situations around COVID-19, but there is also a need to be truthful. How can both of these be satisfied when a parents decide to talk with children about the virus?
Dr. Bereznay: I’d suggest that parents listen to what it is their child is asking and answer just that as truthfully and completely as they feel is appropriate and possible given their child’s age, disposition, etc. I think we adults have a tendency to project our worries and fears on to the children in our lives. The reality is that children are often far more adaptable and far braver than we adults are! I always recommend parents seek out other adults to process their worries and fears with before having any sort of conversation with their child. Once they’ve had the opportunity to work through their own anxieties, they will be able to approach their child’s questions from a more grounded place.
INM: What should parents look for in behavior, especially as this new school year begins with all of its new rules and regulations?
Dr. Bereznay: I’m not sure there is any one behavior or category of behaviors to look out for. Parents are the experts in their children and will know when something isn’t quite right. With any concern – behavioral or otherwise, know your child’s pediatrician is only a phone call away and will be happy to discuss what you are noting. And of course, it goes without saying now is not the time to skip checkups! There are so many important things that happen at wellness exams – growth monitoring, developmental and other screeners, and vaccines. All of these things, especially vaccines, are more important than ever before in the context of a pandemic.
INM: What coping tools for children would you recommend to share with parents?
Dr. Bereznay: With most all of school being online, children won’t have access to the already limited outdoor play time they might have originally had built in to their more traditional school day. As much as is possible, I recommend good chunks of unstructured play time every day, ideally outside. At a minimum our goal is one hour of movement each day where the child’s cheeks are rosy and their heart rate is up. Most younger children, given the opportunity, will do this organically on their own through play – tag, bicycle riding, hide and seek, swimming, the list goes on and on. Tweens and adolescents will likely require more encouragement to get up and off their screens, but it is no less important for them to get outside, play, and move their bodies.
Resources We Love to Help Open Doors of Communication and Talk with Children
Parents and kids love this series because it uses charming and humorous metaphors to help children learn how to cope with worry. “Did you know that worries are like tomatoes? No, you can’t eat them, but you can make them grow, simply by paying attention to them. If your worries have grown so big that they bother you almost every day, this book is for you.”
Breathe Like a Bear is a mindful book that offers exercises that teaches kids techniques in mind-body wellness, healthy breathing and emotions. Work with your children on 30 simple, short breathing practices and movements can be performed anytime and anywhere — in the car, during the day, in online school or even at a child’s desk at school.
Mindful Games Activity Cards: 55 Fun Ways to Share Mindfulness with Kids and Teens, by Susan Kaiser Greenland
Playing games is a low-stress way to helps kids and teens find focus, be more attentive and mindful. This card game, Mindful Games Activity Cards is ideal for helping parents, caregivers and teachers engage with and identify emotions that school-age children and teens may be experiencing.
Cate Bereznay, ND, MS, MPH is a naturopathic physician specializing in pediatrics. She has additional training in public health and research and is passionate about exploring the interplay of individual clinical medicine and population health and wellness. Dr. Cate strives to practice medicine that builds a foundation on which individual physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing can be addressed and also hopes her care serves as an instigator, empowering her patients and their families, to join her in advocating for the improvement of the broader social determinants of health (conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play) as well. She is proud to work at HealthPoint, a Federally Qualified Health Center serving King County, Washington.