SciLine interviewed: Dr. Erlanger Turner, an assistant professor of psychology at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, and president of the Society for Child and Family Policy and Practice—a division of the American Psychological Association. His research and teaching explore psychopathology in kids and mental health among racial and ethnic communities, among other topics.
How might kids be experiencing and understanding the pandemic differently from adults?
ERLANGER TURNER: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think one of the things that we know is that, obviously, for many adults and parents, financial stressors are a major concern for them during the pandemic. I think for children that sources of stress oftentimes may be the result of thinking about lack of contact with their friends and peers, not being able to visit their parents, their family members, grandparents, relatives and thinking about the stress of attending a virtual school. And so those are some significant concerns for many children. And that’s according to a recent survey from the American Psychological Association that found that about 75% found that the pandemic was a significant source of stress for them.
What kinds of behaviors in kids might show that they’re having a hard time coping with changes brought about by the pandemic?
ERLANGER TURNER: I think there are a few things that parents and adults can look out for when it comes to understanding stress and how children may be handling life events such as the pandemic. As child psychologists, oftentimes we know that when kids are impacted by life challenges, they may experience difficulties with sleeping. For younger children, you may see some regressions in behavior in terms of, like, toileting or potty-training behaviors.
Adolescents may exhibit difficulties with worrying, depression or sadness, which may look like isolating themselves from the family, you know, constantly being locked away in their rooms and maybe using their smartphones constantly. And those are some difficult things that may be experienced by them. And also, thinking about difficulties with eating. For some children, when they experience stress, they may engage in overeating or having a lack of appetite. And so if you notice those concerns as a parent, you do want to make sure that you get some help.
What does the research say about how to best communicate with kids during stressful times, especially when talking about difficult news in the pandemic?
ERLANGER TURNER: I think one of the most important things to think about when talking with children about difficult news is that you do want to make sure that the conversation is age-appropriate. And so for little kids specifically, you don’t want to give them too much information because that can be extremely overwhelming and make handling that news much more difficult.
So I think one of the important things to think about is making sure that whatever news that you’re discussing with them that it is age-appropriate for them. I think timing is also important, and so when to deliver that news, to have that conversation with your child is important. And so avoiding having a conversation around bedtime is really important because having them sort of think about these worries and concerns right before bed may make them continue to think about those difficulties, and that may also result in some sleep difficulties for them throughout the night. I think you want to be honest. For most parents, sometimes we want to shelter kids from reality. I think it’s important that you are upfront with them and that you also let them know how you feel about the situation so that they can understand, you know, Mom and Dad may be stressed out or having some difficulties as well.
But then you want to also make sure that you give them some hope and let them know how to cope with these difficulties. And part of that may be demonstrating for them and modeling as an adult – how do you cope with situations that may be difficult?
Are there any psychological coping mechanisms that may help families continue to navigate the pandemic?
ERLANGER TURNER: You know, as a psychologist, I oftentimes talk with children as well as adults about what are some healthy ways to get through life. And that could mean a lot of different things, but specifically to the pandemic, I think that it is important that you continue to have a positive outlook and use what we refer to as, you know, positive self-talk – and so being able to remind yourself that, you know, I can do this. I’m doing a good job. I’m managing things OK, given the situation. All of those things are really helpful, as opposed to having, you know, these negative thoughts that you may have about, whew, this is going tough; I’m never going to get over this.
That’s going to be really less helpful to allow you to be able to effectively get through your day. I think that for parents, you want to make sure that you reward and reinforce appropriate or desired behavior. So if it’s like cleaning up your room, if it’s doing the homework on time, if it’s helping out with dinner, all of those things can be rewarded in some way, which can be, like, giving them an extra break or, you know, allow them to pick a favorite movie or a game night with family or even, if possible, I think just the wording sometimes, you know, telling them they did a good job or I’m proud of you – those little things also really helpful for children as well.
And then I think another strategy that’s really helpful is making sure that you are staying active as possible. And so when we talk about difficulties such as isolation, sadness, those things that are really common when you can’t, you know, navigate life the way that you typically do is that sometimes we sort of get stuck and don’t want to do anything. And so I think it’s really important that you encourage your child to be active, you know, even if it’s just moving to a different room in the home, going outside for a walk by yourself or even with a parent – those things might be something really helpful strategies to get through the pandemic.
Especially when large family gatherings may no longer be an option, can you suggest any ways to help kids enjoy the holidays despite the pandemic?
ERLANGER TURNER: For the holiday season, we do have to really be creative to make sure that children can enjoy the holidays. One of the things that I think many people have done is using things like Zoom to sort of connect. And I actually did that for my family this year for Thanksgiving.
And so being able to spend that time together, you know, talking and eating via Zoom or playing games is something that can be really helpful to maintain that connection. One of the things that I think is also helpful is to think about virtual gift-giving. So mail packages out early before Christmas, and then you can be able to open them on Zoom and be able to sort of share those experiences and still have some sort of personal connection with your family. And then I think other ways of engaging in virtual events or activities like movie night with families, where you can be able to watch a movie together and maybe chat about it – I know that there’s – Netflix has, like, a platform – and I’m sure there are many others – where you can be able to watch a movie and stream things together and enjoy those moments and memories, that you can make new memories during the pandemic.
What resources are available for those striving to support kids’ mental health this winter?
ERLANGER TURNER: You know, I think it’s important to be mindful of resources that are available. So particularly for navigating during the pandemic, the American Psychological Association has created a COVID-19 resource page that has information for both adults and parents to be able to manage and cope with symptoms of stress and anxiety. So you can go to apa.org to visit that website. If you’re curious about difficulties that your child may be experiencing in terms of mental health and not sort of knowing whether it warrants working with a mental health professional, you can look at Effective Child Therapy, which is a website that’s created by psychologists and mental health professionals that provides evidence-based information around mental health. And this was created by the Society for Clinical Child Adolescent Psychology, which is a division of the American Psychological Association.