The challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic have significantly impacted how children learn, engage with peers and manage stress. Adolescent children and teens, who are used to more freedom and independence, have arguably had to weather more change to their daily routines than younger kids.
In this installment of Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s (D-H) “Heads Up: Coping through COVID-19” webinar series provided direction to parents of seventh graders through college-age children. Pediatrician Kimberly Gifford, MD, Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock (CHaD), and Susan Pullen, LSCW, D-H, discussed best practices for guiding older children through physical distancing, remote learning and maintaining healthy habits.
Schedules, sleep and school
One of the biggest stressors of remote learning is helping kids manage their daily schedules. The webinar began with a focus on how children should spend their time at home. Gifford likened schedule-making to an art form—one that kids can learn by being in tune with their body’s natural rhythms.
“I like to think about nurturing the mind and the body and the soul all at the same time, or all throughout your day,” she said. “So nurturing the mind with schoolwork and other creative outlets. Nurturing the body by being physically active, stretching, getting your heart pumping, maybe going out for a walk with your kids to get some fresh air, and nurturing the soul with anything your kids enjoy.”
Pullen also recommended relaxing constraints on kids putting away their books, activities and other interests, so that items are visible and easy to find. Keeping the dining table clear for meals, which reduces stress, increases meal participation and welcomes communication.
As children reach adolescence, their bodies naturally shift to later bedtimes and sleeping later in the mornings. With the remote school day starting later, Gifford assured parents that it’s acceptable for kids to take advantage of later sleep schedules.
In addition, parents of older children shouldn’t feel obligated to actively teach their remote learners. “That’s not the job you have to do,” she stressed. “Your job is to support them and help them to reach out for help when they need it, and know that when school's back in session, their teachers will really be there to support them and help them to catch up on whatever might've been missed.”
However, it is critical for parents to remain observant of kids who have existing learning challenges, like ADHD, and make study adjustments for them as necessary (using timers, taking frequent breaks, etc.). Parents should also gently and openly address any changes they notice in mood, anxiety, increases in online time and/or isolating behavior. These could be signs that a child may need extra support from a medical professional or counselor.
Negotiating freedoms, communicating successfully
- Create a general schedule for the day, which includes stimulating activities for the mind, exercise and enjoyable activities.
- Reconfigure your home’s space to make books, activities and hobbies readily available.
- Allow adolescents to alter their sleep cycles to later bed and wake-up times to accommodate natural sleep shifts due to age.
- Guide your child in emailing teachers for extra help.
- Negotiate some ways for older kids (who drive) to be out of the house safely.
- Keep the lines of communication open, validate your child’s feelings and be an active listener.
- Help kids stay connected with friends online, by phone or even writing letters to mix it up.
- Practice self-care and stress management to model healthy practices.
- Lower your expectations for yourself and your children, and enjoy being together.
The webinar panel received a viewer question sent to firstname.lastname@example.org about how much freedom to allow high school and college kids, who have driver’s licenses. She wondered if they could go for drives, hikes or short errands while following COVID-19 precautions. Gifford said it’s acceptable, and noted this offers the opportunity for discussing physical distancing guidelines and their importance in protecting the health of others. These kinds of conversations build trust between parents and kids, and keep the lines of communication open.
“As kids get older, seventh grade and up, it's a different type of communication. It begins with allowing for some negotiation, really listening to your child's point of view, taking time to consider their perspective and be non-judgmental,” Pullen explained. She offered this response example: “That sounds really important. I'm going to think about that and get back to you. Thanks for sharing. I really want to take some time to think about that because I can hear that it's so important to you."
Parents should also encourage their kids to stay connected with peers to share experiences and receive support. They may want to chat on social media, talk on a landline phone or write to each other by mail. This time at home provides opportunities for creative communication. As always, it’s critical to ensure safety with online conversations through oversight and check-ins with children.
Both Gifford and Pullen addressed the importance of self-care and managing stress. Children observe how their parents handle stressful situations, so trying to be mindful, present and flexible will assist kids in learning coping strategies that can become lifelong skills.