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How to help children deal with the latest pandemic wave

All of the recent upheaval can translate to stress for children, according to mental health experts.

MINNEAPOLIS — The pandemic has once again thrown a COVID curveball at children hoping for a normal school year.

With the Omicron variant proving especially infectious, school districts throughout the country — and even throughout the Twin Cities metropolitan area — are having to respond by changing protocols and even, in some cases, returning to distance learning.

And all of that upheaval can translate to stress for children, according to mental health experts.

“One of the best things for our mental health is to be able to plan something, to know what’s in front of us, to have some predictability. As humans, we appreciate that. And when kids have been thinking, ‘This is going to be a school year when I’m going to be in person all year. I’m back with my friends.’ And all of a sudden that gets taken away, that uncertainty is really, really difficult for kids,” said Dr. Sarah Jerstad, a child psychologist at Children’s Minnesota.

Jerstad suggests that parents — and other adults in the village — support children by first and foremost stopping to listen.

“I think the first thing to do — and most important thing to do — is validate and listen. I think parents need to really take some time to hear those concerns that kids have, because if kids feel heard and validated it’s going to help them look forward,” Jerstad said, adding, “I think that will give your child a little bit more confidence in how they handle today and kind of knowing they can come to you tomorrow as well. That you’re going to be kind of that rock for them as they move through the uncertainty.”

Jerstad also encourages families to plan events and find routine — even amidst this latest COVID wave — where and when it still exists: small family gatherings and normal bedtimes and mealtimes, for example. And she encourages parents to still guide, discipline or redirect, as needed.

“It’s important to remember that, as a parent, your job is not only to love your kids and keep them safe but also to prepare them for the world. And giving them limits and boundaries and discipline when needed helps prepare them for the world,” she said.

And Jerstad encourages everyone in the village to support children with the healing power of humor and simple empathy.

“It’s ok to let your kids know this is hard for me, too. I’m having a difficult time. I wish I knew what was going to happen. I wish we could count on that vacation. That way, the kids can feel like their parent is really relating to them and can help them get through it together,” she said.

Finally, Jerstad reminds everyone children have proven themselves flexible and resilient these last two years. And perhaps given that, parents also need to give themselves a break when they can.

“Make sure you’re taking time to take care of yourself. Even if it means skipping someone’s performance or missing out on a little bit of time with your kids,” she said, adding, “When you can fill your own cup, you will be so much better to be available for your own kids.”

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