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8 tips to keep parents and kids sane and safe during the Michigan’s coronavirus outbreak

MLive - GrandRapids/Muskegon/Kalamazoo logo MLive - GrandRapids/Muskegon/Kalamazoo 3/24/2020 By Julie Mack, mlive.com
a close up of a chalk board: A child decorated the hike-bike path in Kalamazoo's Frays Park with chalk art on Saturday, March 22. © Julie Mack | jmack1@mlive.com/mlive.com/TNS A child decorated the hike-bike path in Kalamazoo's Frays Park with chalk art on Saturday, March 22.

As a Grand Rapids psychologist, Tory Seif has lots of patients stressed by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

And as the father of five, Seif also is experiencing first-hand how that stress is playing out in families.

“We run the gamut in our family from the kiddos who are like ‘a couple of weeks out of school!’ to others who are horribly worried,” he said. “One of my daughters actually cried herself to sleep the other night.”

So with children out of school and forced to stay apart from their friends, and the general anxiety that almost everyone is feeling right now, what can parents do to maintain a calm and happy household?

Below are some tips from Seif and other mental-health experts.

1. Recognize that your mood will set the tone.

“Kiddos take their cues a lot from us,” said Seif, who works for Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services.

“If we can maintain some balance and composure, that will go a long way in them staying calm as well,” he said. “The more we’re panicked, we’re upset, we’re continually frustrated, the more they will be as well. ... We can tell them, ‘Hey, we need to take this seriously, but it’s not terrible. It will be OK."

2. Develop a daily schedule.

It’s important to develop a new, consistent household routine; structure can be a comfort in an environment fraught with uncertainty, experts say.

“This is requiring some pretty big transitions for parents, especially those also trying to work from home," said Lindsay Volpe-Bertram, a psychologist for Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids.

“Developing a routine is really really important because kids thrive on routine,” she said. “There’s a comfort in knowing what’s going to come next.”

She suggests parents develop an hourly schedule with different activities during the day to fend off boredom and provide that sense of structure.

The schedule could include specific study times for math and reading; going outside or otherwise burning off energy; screen times; group activities such as games; alone time that people spend in their rooms; meal times; bedtime.

And make sure that schedule includes time for parents to take a breather, if possible, experts say.

Adults are under a lot of stress right now, and “it’s super important for parents, if they’re able, to take breaks,” Volpe-Bertram said.

3. Take advantage of the time together.

One silver lining of the coronavirus outbreak is that’s provided time for busy families to bond. “This is a wonderful opportunity to reconnect,” said LA Barlow, a Detroit psychologist.

Now is the time to have board-game nights or get the children involved in craft or cooking projects.

Volpe-Bertram said her 5-year-old is thrilled to be having nightly dinner with both parents, something that doesn’t always happen in a two-career household.

“It’s just a really great reminder that, OK, there’s a ton of stuff to be grateful for right now,” she said.

4. Get outdoors and encourage physical activity.

In that daily schedule, make sure to include going outdoors and physical exercise -- from a walk around the neighborhood to bike-riding to playing ball outside.

Exercise is a great way to get the body to produce endorphins, a hormone that generates positive feelings, and research shows sunlight and fresh air also can improve people’s moods.

However, be careful about using public playground equipment, which could be a vector for coronavirus.

5. No play dates.

For many children, one of the toughest aspects of the coronavirus outbreak is the strong encouragement from public-health officials to limit social interactions to household members. That means no play dates or other social outings with friends.

Seif said his children have had to cancel a number of events, including one who had to postponed her birthday party. It’s especially hard for adolescents, he said.

“It makes for interesting conversations for teenagers who want what they want,” Seif said wryly. “They think this is dumb anyway and they’re looking at it as a four-week spring break where they should be allowed to do anything. Now we’re just telling them ‘well, you got to do some schoolwork and stay at home,’ and we’re really killing the party.”

6. Get creative on ways to stay connected with others.

But you can encourage children to stay connected with friends by phone, text or using FaceTime or Facebook messenger -- even old-fashioned letter-writing.

Shari Botwin, a psychotherapist in metro Philadelphia, described how she kept her child entertained last Friday by encouraging him to go on FaceTime and do a math worksheet with a friend.

7. Turn their questions into a teachable moments.

As schoolchildren ask questions about the current crisis, there’s a chance to turn the conversation into teachable moments.

Have them research coronaviruses and how how they work, or the history of vaccines. Have the conversation about the issues that coronavirus is raising about the public good vs. individual rights. Children often become more interested in a topic when it seems relevant, and now that kids have time on their hands, all the more reason to do an age-appropriate deep dive into the scientific, political, historical and ethical aspects of the pandemic.

Such research also might calm children who particularly anxious about the pandemic, Barlow said.

“If there’s a concern, if they’re hearing different stories, talk about it," Barlow said. “Do a little education, a little research to figure out, is this really true?"

8. Manage expectations -- yours and theirs.

“Once we can get our expectations adjusted, we’re are all going to do a lot better with acceptance of what is happening,” Volpe-Bertram said.

That includes letting children know the current situation is fluid, and it’s hard to know when schools will re-open and life will return to normal.

“Kind of prepare for the long haul," Seif said. But remind the household this won’t last forever.

Read all of MLive’s coverage on the coronavirus at mlive.com/coronavirus.

Additional information is available at Michigan.gov/Coronavirus and CDC.gov/Coronavirus.

PREVENTION TIPS

In addition to washing hands regularly and not touching your face, officials recommend practicing social distancing, assuming anyone may be carrying the virus. Health officials say you should be staying at least 6 feet away from others and working from home, if possible. Carry hand sanitizer with you, and use disinfecting wipes or disinfecting spray cleaners on frequently-touched surfaces in your home ( door handles, faucets, countertops ) and when you go into places like stores.

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©2020 MLive.com, Walker, Mich.

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