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Mental health professional gives tips for helping kids, parents through pandemic whiplash

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Posted at 8:12 AM, Aug 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-14 08:12:00-04

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — As schools and businesses continue to receive guidance from the Center for Disease Control and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, arrangements adjust almost daily causing students and parents to pivot back and forth between “normal” life to one that is nearly all virtual.

Dr. Meghan Marsac is a pediatric psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine. She encourages parents to dial back their expectations for themselves, as well as their children, considering the extreme circumstances of a pandemic. She also said parents should admit they do not have answers.

"I think it's really important to be honest with our kids, so that they know they can trust their parents and know that they that you're telling them the information that you do have. That you're not trying to cover it up – not trying to kind of sweep it under the rug. Avoid saying 'Oh it's no big deal. We'll just do this now.'" she explained. "But just saying, 'Yeah, you know, I wish I knew, I wish I knew what was going to happen next week. I really wish I knew if you were going to have your basketball season this year. But, you know, we're just going to have to take it one step at a time and focus on what we know for today.'"

Marsac suggested celebrating small victories such as an achieved reading goal or the fact that your child gave you an unsolicited hug to keep spirits lifted.

She also said one of the best practices for parents right now is to create consistency: bed time, wake-up time, scheduled meals, scheduled breaks and sitting in the same area for specific subjects.

She added that it’s crucial to keep an eye out for signs a child is struggling.

"If they're having trouble sleeping, if they're not engaging with you, if their personality is changing – those are things to reach out and get some extra help and there's a lot of virtual therapy possibilities. There's some online resources that we can potentially point to,” Marsac said. “So we want to support them if they are struggling and not ignore those warning signs, but also keeping in mind that kids are really resilient. Most of our kids can go through really, really challenging things and come out on the other side learning from these things and growing and doing really well. So you're not focusing on the doom and gloom event, necessarily, but giving them love and support throughout, so that we can support them and see them do well on the other side."

Marsac began a study in 2020 that has already shown out of 200 families, half the parents surveyed feel therapy would be helpful for their family.

"One of the things that we're trying to do on our research study is learn how can we best help our kids and parents through all of this?” she said. “And so what we're doing – what this study really focuses on our young kids our 1- to 5-year-olds who we often overlook in these kinds of situations because they're not verbally telling us they're stressed out, they don't understand the pandemic in the same way as some of our older kids. So we're trying to learn what does this look like for kids in that age group and their parents? So how are our parents doing how are our kids doing in that age group?"

Sign up here to participate in the University of Kentucky study one time or for 12 months.

For parents and caretakers who are concerned about the upcoming school year and whether their child is learning at the pace they should be due to virtual learning, Dr. Marsac said there is data worth considering.

"What we can do is look at what we've learned from some of the other natural disasters,” she said. “So there's research out there around some of the hurricane some of the things that swept New Orleans in the recent past where kids did miss, you know, six months, sometimes even longer chunks of school or were displaced from their home and doing different kinds of learning. And a lot of those kids are teachers, doctors, lawyers. You know, people have moved along have recovered from a lot of these really, really difficult events and are thriving."

Marsac acknowledged parents were not meant to be their child's teacher at home and the constant family time calls for adult or alone time.

"There's been a number of recommendations out there about creating social pods that you partner up with another family or two and you all practice similar social distancing and similar safety practices, but you get that social connection," she said. "I think for parents that can be particularly helpful because you might need to tag out at times and like have somebody take your kid for an hour or two. So trying to put in some supports for yourself too, and letting yourself take a break. So I think you know kind of those, those kinds of pieces can help us with our emotional health over time."

With that social connection comes conversation, which Marsac explained is understandably becoming tense much more quickly than it would for any personality.

"When we get really stressed sometimes our internal guide points become really strong. So that means some of our opinions we're kind of grabbing on to maybe we're less likely to kind of think about other people's opinions,” she said. “Also we have a lot at stake in this country right now both from a political standpoint, and, you know, with a pandemic and school choices. I think one thing to kind of keep in the back of our minds, is that everybody is coming from a different place and in a different viewpoint. As parents, a lot of judgment goes around and comes around. So trying to treat everyone with respect and know that they're coming from their own place and doing the best they can."

Marsac explained it can be helpful to surround yourself with a variety of thoughts but also make "sure that you get a balance of maybe advocating for your beliefs and advocating for yourself and advocating for your child with also support of people that might think a little more similar so that you're not ... fighting with people all day long."