PORTLAND, Ore. --
April is Month of the Military Child — a time to honor the sacrifices made by military families worldwide, with an emphasis on the experience of the dependent children of military members serving at home and overseas.
As the month comes to a close, we focus on children and the possible impact of recent “stay at home” sequestration efforts in the wake of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) worldwide pandemic.
Any additional stress associated with “stay at home” advisories and orders issued by many states and communities is perfectly normal, says Heather Gauthier-Bell, Director of Psychological Health at the 142nd Wing.
“While we love our partners and family members, we are not used to being cooped up with them all the time. Being at home with them 24/7 can get overwhelming for everyone,” she says. “People tend to be fighting more, and are more emotionally sensitive right now.”
Gauthier-Bell recommends meditation and mindfulness, and staying active—all from the comfort of your living room.
“There are a ton of great apps that are free,” she says. “[There’s] a lot of guided meditations or relaxation music online. There are [also] many services offering free workouts including daily burn, beach body, YouTube work outs, Cross Fit, and trainers offering workouts or sessions via Zoom, and live Facebook workouts.”
But how do parents square mounting demands on them as employees, parents and now, impromptu teachers?
In a recent article titled The Parents Are Not Alright, published on Medium.com, parent advocate and author Chloe L. Cooney said the current situation related to COVID-19 underscores the unrealistic expectations that have been placed on parents and families during this stay-at-home period.
“Things are harder than they were at the beginning,” she writes. “Harder because we’ve all accrued anxiety, stress, and sadness over this period. My to-do list is longer and further untouched; my guilt and anxiety for the ways my son is not being engaged enough is greater; his apparent sadness for his whole world shifting is intensified as he regularly acts out; and our collective exhaustion grows deeper.”
“We ask individuals to solve problems that are systemically created, Cooney said in her article, published April 5. “My in-box, social media feeds, and countertops are filled with creative ideas for educating and caring for your kids. Workbooks, games, creative projects and experiments, virtual yoga, virtual doodling, virtual zoo visits, virtual everything.”
Cooney admits to feeling stretched too thin and being too exhausted to read through the suggestions—let alone try any of them. Gauthier-Bell agrees, adding that parents need to be realistic about their own limitations of time, education and experience.
“Recognize that you aren't a teacher or a caregiver as your profession and that's okay—nobody expects that to become your profession during this time,” Gauthier-Bell says.
In addition to being realistic, try something else, she says. Compassion.
“Have compassion for yourself and your kids,” she adds. “Do the best you can while understanding that its okay if things don't go the way you planned or the way they normally go. It’s not going to be perfect, and that's normal!”
Master Sgt. Anne Kyle, Command Support Staff for 142nd Operations Group believes striking a balance is an ever-shifting goal.
“Balance is a moving target,” Kyle says. “[You have to try and] maintain flexibility and patience. Letting go of the notion that one has to do it all at once is very helpful. It’s a juggling act.”
Kyle says her family has settled into a routine that works for them, but her children occasionally throw her curveballs. Keeping a sense of humor helps immensely, she adds.
“Until I need to make a phone call, then the kids suddenly want my full attention at that exact time,” she says. “I’m trying to maintain a sense of humor. It’s one of my favorite unsophisticated coping mechanisms.”
Gauthier-Bell says many activities are not just enjoyable, but are perfect for engaging the entire family.
“Engage in activities you enjoy - reading, movies, games, puzzles, art, writing, house projects, etc.,” she said. “Go on family walks — dogs love walks too, and it’s a great way to involve the entire family including the pets!”
One question many parents have is how to explain the pandemic to their children. Gauthier-Bell recommends empathy and honesty.
“Talk to your children about why we are doing this and why it’s important,” she says. “Explain to them that the measures that we are taking are important to keep people safe, but that they will end eventually.”
She stresses that it’s okay for children to be disappointed and upset and to want things to be different.
“Empathize with them and let them express their feelings,” Gauthier-Bell adds. “This goes the same for adults — it’s okay to have the dichotomy of understanding why we are doing this and [to respect] the social distancing while also being upset, disappointed, angry, and sad about what is happening, and things that you were looking forward to being cancelled.”
Kyle recognizes that children are attuned to adults’ stress levels, so keeping emotions in check during this stressful time is key.
“Kids soak up our emotional output, so trying to keep my visible stresses to a minimum is important to me, not to shield them from reality, but to take into account their ages and what they can absorb,” she says.
Kyle recommends addressing questions about the pandemic honestly, but in a metered way.
“Younger kids process stress and trauma like they eat apples—take one or two bites, then come back to it again later for another bite. We answer [their] questions honestly and ask them questions back to get [more] insights,” she adds.
Gauthier-Bell says this is also a good time for adults — be they spouses, partners or roommates, to talk to each other.
“It’s a good time to have conversations about coping skills and emotions,” she says. “What helps them to calm down when they are upset or mad? — do they like to have space or do they like to talk it out with someone? Respect what they need in those moments — if they need to go to their room and cry or scream into a pillow, then that's fine as long as they can come back out in a calmer state.”
She also recommends discussing self-care activities and how and when to practice those both individually and as a family unit. This is also a good time to discuss what happens when things don’t go as planned.
“Some days we wake up and tell ourselves that we aren't going to be upset about this or that and we are going to accomplish x, y, and z,” she says. “And then things don't happen that way or we only partially accomplish our plan and that's okay too.”
Above all, Gauthier-Bell recommends keeping current events in perspective.
“Try to take things one day at a time and recognize that this isn't going to last forever,” she says. “Recognize that this is hard but it will pass.”
For more resources for families, tools on taking care of children, or how to keep your children happy and engaged, visit the 142d Wing’s COVID-19 Resources page.