Comforting children in the hour of COVID-19

Tips from a clinical psychologist

Comforting children photo image
Despite its therapeutic playroom being empty due to COVID-19, Under the Rainbow continues to counsel children and teens by phone and online. Call (773) 257-4750 if you need to speak with a therapist about your child.

Children, especially emotionally fragile ones, need close relationships and stable routines. Sadly, both are in short supply during a pandemic, especially one that requires "social distancing" and closes schools and playgrounds. 

At times like these, we turn to the experts for guidance. Dr. Greg Staszko, Psy.D., is the program director of Under the Rainbow, the outpatient therapy and psychiatry program at the Sinai Health System for those 18 and under, and their families.  

Children benefit from the structure of attending school all day, and the interruption of normalcy has challenged everyone-but is particularly hard on children, who are creatures of habit. Helping children get through this strange time is a delicate balancing act. 

"Routines and predictability are soothing for children. So, maintaining some consistency and structure during the day helps children to regulate themselves," Staszko said. "However, we have to also acknowledge the difficulty of the uncertain times we are living in, so being flexible and adaptive to our children's needs is also essential." 

Despite not being able to be in the same room with their patients during the current crisis, Under the Rainbow staff are determined to help their patients through this, by any means possible. The program's physical offices are closed during the outbreak, but its therapists-working from home-are still providing audio and video therapy sessions by phone and online, and still helping families connect to available services.  

For parents of children stuck at home during the pandemic, Staszko offers the following advice: 

  1. Discuss the situation. Having a "Let's just not talk about this" attitude can backfire. Ask children what they are thinking, honor their thoughts and feelings, and answer in age-appropriate ways.  

  1. Follow a routine. Structure and predictability can counter feelings of uncertainty. Keeping bedtime routines from before the crisis is especially reassuring. 

  1. Stay flexible. Even within a structured framework, go with the flow and don't expect perfection. 

  1. Look for the positives. Families often don't spend as much time with each other as they are now- but that can be a good thing. Relax and enjoy it. 

  1. Monitor news exposure. "We have a real problem with information now, in that it's not all good information," both in the professional and social media realms, Staszko notes. Sorting out what's reputable is hard for adults, he adds, and doubly hard for children; they also cannot always tell news from satire.  

  1. Take care of yourself. Children can pick up on parental anxieties and mindsets. Practicing self-care is calming and sets an example for children. 

  1. Enjoy the extra free time. Go outside. Be aware of small, overlooked things, like the ways nature changes with the seasons. "Notice what's close," Staszko encourages, "and pursue creative outlets" like music and cooking. 

  1. Be forgiving. Acknowledge that this situation is unprecedented, and forgive yourself and others as you go. As Staszko puts it, "Have grace-no one is good at this!"  

Under the Rainbow's direct line is (773) 257-4750. Sinai also offers a COVID-19 hotline, 7 a.m.-7p.m., Monday through Friday: (773) 257-COV2 (2682). Messages left during off hours will be returned within 24 hours. 

Sinai Health System is a partner with JUF in serving our community. 

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