Family, Kids & Relationships

Expert Advice: How To Help Kids Experiencing Loneliness or Grief During the Pandemic

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As part of our ongoing efforts to support families through the challenges and stressors of these unprecedented times, ParentsTogether has created a Facebook group, Coronavirus Parents: Parenting in a Pandemic. Here, parents are finding valuable support, ideas, and resources to address issues ranging from homeschool struggles to staying connected with loved ones.

But our real strength, as always, is in our members, and one such member recently provided some helpful insights into another growing problem parents are facing: How to support kids who are suffering from loneliness, grief, and other tough emotions brought on by the social isolation and stress.

As Rebecca Weston, LCSW-R, JD, a Clinical Social Work/Therapist in New York City, explained in the group, “Every single attachment issue – separation, loss, intimacy, disconnection, space, withdrawing, engaging … it’s all amplified” as we all learn what it means to shelter-in-place for extended periods.

So, how can we recognize these emotions in our own kids—and, if our kids are struggling, how can parents help? Weston sat down with us (virtually, of course) to answer some of the biggest questions parents have about helping our kids through this tough time.

In your original post in the Facebook group, you said, “While each family is emotionally absorbing all of this differently, there are also real patterns emerging. In some ways, they mirror stages of grief.” Can you say a little bit more about how these patterns are manifesting among families?

Response from Rebecca Weston (RW): Well, I don’t want to overstate things, as we are still in early stages, I think. But I think there was initially a kind of manic denial that this was going to be hard and a lot of chipper project doers. Cooperation, bike rides, on-line classes, connecting in new ways with technology.

Then the anger started settling in…at the world, at politics, at each other for not living the pandemic as we want. One may be more prone to needing lots of information, another may want to avoid that. One may be more energetic, while the other may be lethargic. These differences in how to handle anxiety, loss, uncertainty, isolation, forced togetherness—these can clash. There can be more conflict and that can feel scary. Especially when kids are reacting. So there is anger.

And too, I think as things move on, there is grief. Real grief about how the family is faring, fear, the real loss of social and physical interaction. The duration of this. A mourning for what we all are losing, both individually (graduation rituals, weddings, easy dinners out, death) and as a society. I think no one believes there will be “normal” again and that means mourning whatever that was in reality and in our minds.

What are some things parents can look for that might indicate their kids are struggling with these emotions? Are the signs different for kids of different ages?

RW: To know whether a kid is struggling depends a lot on the age of the child and how they handle stressors from other parts of their lives. Either way, there are some kids who will show they are struggling by trying to be extreme “helpers” in the household. Picking up on their parents’ anxiety and fearful to cause “more stress,” they may actually become more helpful and responsible then they otherwise would. While these are good tendencies to a point, they can also indicate that the child is internalizing the general anxiety, a way of trying to control things internally. For such a child, it may be helpful to talk directly to how they are only expected to do their share of helping, and that they also get to have their share of getting the comfort of play time or non-worry time.

Other kids may show they’re struggling by becoming vastly more irritable, defiant or isolating. Depression in children and adolescents can look like any of those things. Especially for older kids who are extroverts, this time can represent the opposite of what they are most yearning to do—differentiate, identify with their peer tribe, etc. In this context, it’s important to remember that at this age, it is developmentally appropriate for adolescents to be spending more time in their rooms—cultivating a sense of autonomy within the safety of the family space.

What can parents say or do to help their kids express those feelings, or find out what’s really bothering them under the surface?

RW: In this regard, again, kids are different. If a child is quite verbal, then just asking open ended questions and being open to any answer is vital. For kids who are less verbal or younger, [parents can sit] with the kid and do what they do to create the space either for conversation or drawing stories.

In [play therapy], the parent can set aside a given space where the child is explicitly given permission to do as they do … within the comfort/tolerance zone of the family, no mess off limits, no types of drawings, no words. And that can become a place for unspoken feelings, thoughts.

And finally, if a kid doesn’t want to “talk,” it’s an important time to remind ourselves that just “being with” is the most vital thing of all. “Being with” them however they are, showing up to whoever they are at that time.

Finally, as I’m seeing more and more … there are lots of kids who are thriving in this moment. Neuro-ayptical kids, kids with social anxiety, kids who’ve battled bullying—for these kids, it may be a time for them to feel in sync with a quieter world, a more anxious world away from the demands to be socially structured and responsive. That should be honored and in fact, used as a way for ourselves to see that kids have unique strengths and that their way of being is just as vital and adaptive. Other kids may be struggling more than they are and that is a beautiful silver lining for self-appreciation and acceptance. In this regard, it might be good to work with such kids to draw up real lists of all the ways in which things are BETTER for them now. Let them own that.

Do you have any advice for how parents can help support a child who’s feeling grief? Loneliness? Fear?

RW: I think it is again different by age. And the emotional maturity of the kid and their history. A child who has faced loss and deprivation may react differently—perhaps with a sense of futility. A child who hasn’t may feel anger and a lost sense of understandable entitlement. I think the most important thing is to try to be open to—and not talk kids out of—the feelings they have. You may just want to observe out loud that [your child] seems angry. And be open to why, without trying to make it all better. Acknowledging them is often the most important thing. And in an age appropriate way, sharing that adults have those feelings, too.

I think the most important thing is to try to be open to—and not talk kids out of—the feelings they have.

Rebecca Weston, LCSW-R, JD

Once those [feelings] are acknowledged, a different kind of space can open up to talking about ways to manage the grief, the lonely, the fear. Regarding fear, I think it the open-ended questions are crucial:

  • “What are you afraid of?”
  • “What is the worst thing you can imagine happening?”
  • “If this went on for a long time, what do you think things will be like?”

They can answer in drawings, games, words. Those can help generate the kids’ internal world and what they are focused on. And we have to be prepared for their answers—which means acknowledging those feelings in ourselves, too.

You said, “To help kids, we need to help parents.” What advice would you give parents right now for how to best care for themselves, so they can care for their kids?

RW: This is hard. I think all of the pre-pandemic dynamics between parents will emerge, here, too. There is often a fantasy that new situations and stress will change people radically, but often when we are most stressed and anxious, we resort to those tried and true ways of making ourselves feel safe, more in control.

There is no judgment in that. But I think one big way to take care of ourselves is to get rid of the expectation that this will be easy, that there won’t be arguments or feelings of disconnection or rupture. And that other homes and other houses are going through the exact same thing, despite the way people choose to present on social media.

I think in this moment, it is really worth the time to acknowledge these new dynamics and to acknowledge that no one came prepared for family and work life in a pandemic—and things will take time to settle.

Rebecca Weston, LCSW-R, JD

That said, I think it is vital that parents find ways to set aside time to be together that feel comforting. Reliable. And to create spaces to have the talks about fear and worry. Shoving those away will create a pressure on both parents and kids to avoid the feelings.

More concretely, I think parents are likely facing role changes in their homes—some are out of work and so doing more child care, others are working from home and trying to create new boundaries. One parent may need more connection because of a lost community environment, while another may need to close the door for work space.

I think in this moment, it is really worth the time to acknowledge these new dynamics and to acknowledge that no one came prepared for family and work life in a pandemic—and things will take time to settle. For new ways of living together to emerge. And that will feel bumpy and strange. So I recommend a lot of grace and generosity.

Additional Resources

In ParentsTogether’s Coronavirus Parenting Facebook group, many parents asked for more information about play therapy. Weston shared these parent-led play therapy ideas, as well as resources available from the Fred Rogers Center to help with talking to children about coronavirus, learning with children through play, and more.

Parents in the group also have lots of their own suggestions for helping kids deal with loneliness and sadness:

  • Plan family games and activities, so kids have something concrete to look forward to.
  • Make a list of things kids can do for comfort (for example write in a journal, paint a picture, watch a favorite movie or show, or cuddle with a pet). 
  • Encourage them to communicate with friends. Set up Zoom or Google Hangout video chats, where they can do fun things like learn some new dance moves and have a dance-off via video or have a virtual sleepover (complete with a talent show).
  • Let them know that hugs from you are always allowed—during Zoom calls (assuming that won’t get you in trouble at work), during dinner prep, any time they need a little reassurance.

We hope you find these ideas and insights helpful. Please join us on Facebook to share your own experiences and get additional support.

Robyn is Editor-in-Chief at ParentsTogether and is co-author of several NYTimes bestselling anthologies. She lives in southern Michigan with her husband and five children.