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Keeping our kids emotionally healthy during pandemic

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IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (KIFI/KIDK) - Masks limit facial expressions, which can make it hard for younger children who are less verbal to understand nonverbal social cues.

Children begin picking up on facial recognition and reading emotional cues from birth. People typically read faces to pick up on emotion. Body language, eyes, and voices are other forms of communication. Another part of our psychological development is picking up on social referencing.

Psychotherapist at the Psychology Center of Idaho Falls, Renae Peterson says in this situation, it can be used as a strength to teach our kids how to be more attune to subtle emotional cues on a deeper level and to learn empathy for every person.

“Yes, our faces are going to be covered with masks, but there is so much more communicated through eyes, and through emotion and through body language,” Peterson said. “So if you’re acting calm, if you’re feeling at ease, then your children will feel at ease and be calm. If you’re fearful and anxious and afraid, that is what they’re going to pick up on,” Peterson said. “So during this really fearful time, being calm can really have a great impact on your children. They’re going to do what you do.”

From birth, infants will look to their caregivers’ faces and mimic the emotions that they see. When parents are put into a strange situation and react with fear, the child will learn to do the same. 

“There’s nothing like a global pandemic to bring us outside of the ‘me’ culture and into looking at other people and how we’re connected. Not just in our families, in our schools, in our communities, but as a state, as a country, and as a planet," Peterson said. "We’re all so connected and it can feel sort of frightening, but it also should feel empowering because the individual does have an impact on the whole, and you can do so much just by being mindful, instead of fearful, and making that conscious choice everyday.”

Humans are hard-wired to require connection with each other. It makes it difficult during these times to make sure those needs are being met. 

Children are physical by nature and returning to school will be an unprecedented adjustment. Even now, we may be keeping them from playdates, sports, and normal social interactions that children need to thrive.

Professionals advise we create opportunities to socialize and have an outlet in whatever ways we can right now. Symptoms of anxiety and depression show up differently in children and it is important to recognize any change in behavior in our kids.

Play therapy can be a great outlet for children. More interaction with family can also be helpful for kids to feel connected.

Peterson advises we find places we do have control in this uncontrollable situation.

“Letting your child pick out their mask can be a way that can help them feel a little bit more control over the situation, talking with them about these things, their feelings, because it can feel rejecting not to be able to have that physical interaction with the people they care about, their friends," Peterson said.

Another opportunity we have is to teach our children about boundaries. Right now, those boundaries are very strict and rigid. But we are also talking about it now more than ever. Opening that line of our discussion is something positive we all need and a bright side to the pandemic.

“I think this is a great opportunity for our younger generation to experience things that are difficult,” said Dr. Carol Anderson, a neurologist at the Psychology Center of Idaho Falls. “All of a sudden, you don’t have everything you want whenever you want. For some kids, this is the first time they’ve experienced that. We can come together and I think a lot of kids will do that with the opportunity to experience hardship...it’s such a great opportunity for teaching moments as parents and as teachers and leaders for us to help them navigate it. It’s not their fault that they don’t know how to do hard stuff on this kind of global stage, but now they do.”

“It can change us as parents and how we relate to our children,” Dr. Anderson said.

Peterson advices the best thing you can do for yourself and your children is to be aware of your own mental health. There are many patients who are seeking help right now who never have stepped foot in a therapy setting before and that is ok. 

“One thing that I’ve noticed and that my colleagues have noticed is that COVID is a great revealer, for better or worse,” Peterson said. “I think it’s revealing ourselves to ourselves, individually and as a society.”

Peterson says you should be aware of where you’re at right now in your own mental and emotional well-being. Making sure you are ok is one of the best ways to ensure your child is ok. After all, our kids watch and mimic us.

“I really believe that on the other side of this, we can have stronger families, we can have a stronger society,” Peterson said. “We can streamline things with our schools. There is an opportunity here if we can find it. I think every crisis offers that if we can look toward it.”

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Chelsea Briar

Chelsea is a reporter and producer for Local News 8 and KIDK Eyewitness News 3.

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