Kids may be resilient but are still dealing with stress and anxiety in the COVID era
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Kids are handling the strange new world of going to school during a pandemic well, said Lindsey Kohler, a licensed social worker and student family advocate for the Hayden School District.
There’s some resistance to things like wearing masks, she said, but students are mostly going through the day-to-day routine without difficulty.
On social distancing, Kohler said the school counselor did a great job explaining what it meant at the beginning of the year, especially for the youngest ages.
It isn’t always easy, but Kohler said students do understand if they want to be in school, there are guidelines that must be followed. And they do want to be in school.
In Hayden, kids attend school four days a week.
Alison Wither, a behavioral health interventionist at Steamboat Springs Middle School, said she sees kids who don’t necessarily have the skill set to be on their own schedule during Steamboat’s remote learning days.
Wither had one student who said they felt they were given too much power, saying, “I don’t know how to set my own schedule and do it all on my own.”
Kohler has found her kids, in general, are doing well adapting to new technologies, finding positives, staying engaged and showing up every day. They have surprising flexibility, she said, and are able to find ways to continue to do many of the things they love.
“I’m really surprised at the students’ willingness and ability to be flexible and accommodate this new model we all live in,” Wither echoed.
But Kohler also suspects there’s more going on than meets the eye.
When the kids left for a break, she had one student tell her they were nervous because last time they went on a break — last spring — they never came back.
“Underneath the surface, there’s a lot of worrying about the unknown and what may or may not happen,” she said.
Kohler’s own young child asked her recently if all the playgrounds were going to be shut down again.
Wither said she also hears “a pending fear of going back to fully remote — that constant fear and unknown is a constant source of stress for students and families.” Wither said she sees her students “very much want to be in the building. They are just so happy to be here.”
For older kids, things like losing their sports seasons and not having a homecoming dance have been devastating, Kohler said.
“The things that are important to them are being removed,” she explained.
Wither and Kohler said they don’t see students express fear of the virus or getting sick as much as they see a fear of being quarantined or having to go to remote learning.
That anxiety over the unknown is not very different than what many adults are feeling, according to numerous local mental health professionals.
And Kohler noted how kids handle the uncertainties is “very much dependent on how the adults around them are handling it.”
For parents, Kohler advocates age-appropriate communication and openness with their kids.
“We know kids pick up on things,” she said. “If mom that day is extraordinarily stressed but says nothing, that doesn’t mean the kids don’t know something is going on. … It’s not doing anyone any favors to pretend everything is fine.”
“Share what’s appropriate (depending on age), so they are not carrying the burden,” Kohler advised. “Everything has changed for them too — help them understand why we are doing what we are doing and making the choices we are.”
Wither said her students seem to have a pretty strong understanding about what’s going on.
“And that if we come together and do the things were are being asked, we get to stay in school longer,” she said.
Validate feelings, Kohler said, and let kids know everyone is working as a team. And finding things for which to be grateful can be powerful, she said.
“No matter what is happening in the world around us or what situation we find ourselves in, we can always turn to positive emotions to combat stress,” Tracy Metzler, family/school liaison and psychologist at Soda Creek Elementary School, said in an emailed interview.
“Parents can really set the tone for positive emotions at home, such as gratitude and joyfulness. When parents regularly express their own gratitude, for both simple and larger pleasures in life, it can be contagious within the family,” she said.
“Expressing gratitude for the naturally occurring events in our lives, such as coming home from a long day at work, enjoying a beautiful sunset, marveling at a new snowfall or the comfort and warmth of your bed at night, expands the possibilities for more joy and gratitude,” she explained. “We know gratitude and other positive emotions help the immune system, increase resilience, help with concentration and promote success and healthy relationships.”
That doesn’t mean negative emotions should be suppressed, Metzler said. Instead, people should focus on good emotions to balance the harder ones.
As families, find things to let go of, Kohler suggested, like allowing a little more screen time or having cereal for dinner.
Metzler stressed the need for self-care for parents.
“I encourage parents to take opportunities throughout the day to recharge, whether it be a walk, a two-minute break with deep breathing or calling a friend, so that when they get home they can provide that positive home environment that children so desperately need,” she said.
Pick what makes sense for your family, Kohler advises.
“We should offer ourselves some grace and offer that to others as much as we can,” she said. “We are in this together and have to make the choices that our best for our family. We’ve just got to get through it and come out on the other side.”
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the percentage of staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center that are vaccinated.