Raising children is difficult enough without having to deal with a pandemic.
“We are dealing with a lot of stressors in our lives,” school counselor Leslie Smirniw said. “We’re stressed by these things, and we know that our children are stressed by the changes that they’re facing. So it’s hard for us to know how can we best help our kids.”
To help provide some guidance, she joined Tracy Scanlon, clinical director at Outreach Teen and Family Services in Mt. Lebanon, in presenting “Coping During the Crisis,” a program conducted online Wednesday by the Youth Steering Committee of Upper St. Clair.
Both are mothers of school-age students, and they cited attitude as one of the keys to steering youngsters through challenges they had never encountered before COVID-19.
“Even if you’re not feeling positive about how the school setup is going, about the COVID numbers or the many issues that are stressful in our world, keep that tone with your kids positive,” said Smirniw, who counsels at Streams Elementary School. “We’re going to find the positives in this situation versus focusing all of our attention on the negatives.”
Scanlon stressed the importance of taking time to concentrate on the activities of children, and in her case, that means her son.
“He needs my attention. He needs to know that I’m paying attention to what’s happening. And then I can watch him and I can help gauge what emotional kind of situation he might be in,” she said. “It also alleviates some of the angst that I feel, and I think you would feel that way, too.”
As far as dealing with emotionally adverse circumstances, Smirniw recommended taking an empathetic approach rather than telling a child, “I’m so sorry you have to go through this. This is just awful for you.”
“That’s sympathy,” Smirniw said. “Empathy is: ‘I know. This is tough. But this isn’t something you can’t handle. I’ve seen you handle these things before. We can do this together.’ We don’t want to treat our kids with sympathy in this situation. We want to have empathy and compassion, but not feel sorry for them.”
That type of action, in turn, can assist children in building resilience.
“This is just another stress experience that they’re going to get through and be successful with, and have it to look back on and say, ‘I made it through that.’ And you’ll be able to look back on it and say, ‘I made it through that,’ because we will make it through this,” Smirniw said.
In Scanlon’s counseling services, she is a proponent of mindfulness-based stress reduction, which she discussed during Wednesday’s program.
“You incorporate ways to teach people how to be mindful and present, even when all around you is in chaos,” she said. “It’s a way of sort of being more full in your thinking and a way of not just thinking, but connecting your body and your thoughts and your emotions.”
She described an activity along those lines, “a simple tool that you could use that really, a child can then adapt and do without you being there,” with the steps forming the acronym STOP: “We’re going to stop. We’re going to take a breath. We’re going to observe, and we’re going to proceed.
“STOP is as simple as, let’s close the lid on the laptop. Let’s sit. Let’s stop for a moment, no noise, no talking, nothing,” she said. “And then once we stop all of the stimuli that’s floating around, do a couple of deep breaths.”
Then comes the observation of how the child’s body is reacting, and once it returns to being somewhat normal, it’s back to schoolwork.
“It can happen in 90 seconds,” Scanlon said. “You can do it that quickly. And I think that helps during the day when things get a little rough.”
Taking other kinds of breaks can help, too, even if you’re an adult.
“I find I know I need a break when I start to get distracted and I’m finding other things to do than the task that I need to do,” Smirniw said.
For youngsters, she suggested their breaks be limited to 20 minutes or so, during which time they avoid the likes of televisions and electronic devices. Instead, they can do something purposeful, such as getting a bit of exercise.
“Maybe it seems like going for a walk or having a snack or just walking outside is overly simple,” Scanlon said. “But in all instances, when we are critically distressed, moderately distressed, it is the very simple things that bring us back to our baseline.”
Smirniw offered similar perspective.
“These tips seem so simple, but they really are the research-based coping skills for managing stress,” she said. “We never lose our ability to improve our coping skills. We don’t reach a peak age of, well, this is as resilient as I’m going to be. We can constantly be adding to our toolbox of skills.”
She added words of encouragement on behalf of “Coping During the Crisis.”
“We’re doing a great job at this job of helping our kids with these new challenges, and they are going to come out on the other end with some really surprising skills that we probably never thought our kids would have,” she said.