LEXINGTON, Ky. – With much of Kentucky still facing stringent COVID-related restrictions and protests raging in cities and universities across the state, many parents are struggling to adapt while trying to make things have as little an effect as possible on their children.

What You Need To Know

  • Trauma affects people on many levels

  • Children of certain ages react differently

  • Parents' mental health just as important as children's

  • New routines vital to lessening potential problems

Uncertainty, confusion, and fear related to the ongoing pandemic has changed the lives of many families – the way the parents work, the way the children are educated, and how they all spend their free time. 

With many children already attending school at home through distance learning, protests in Louisville and Lexington over the decision in the Breonna Taylor case created yet another hurdle for families to navigate, as the outdoor activities that had become an escape for people in at least those two cities were abruptly halted.

Dr. Lisa King, a clinical psychologist at Bluegrass Care Navigators in Lexington, said the trauma involved with what children are experiencing creates many levels of what a child might feel is overwhelming and could therefore hamper his or her ability to cope.

“With trauma, we think of specifics like child abuse or neglect,” King said. “But trauma is any event or events that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope. From birth to age 18, that’s a lot of different levels of might overwhelm someone. If you're an extrovert, being quarantined or being confined to your home may be very traumatic, because you get your emotional energy from being with people so being relegated to your home may be very traumatic, and that’s when personality characteristics come into play.” 

Social connectedness versus social isolation varies with a child’s age, King said, which means young children who are more likely to be at home with parents or grandparents may not be as affected by a quarantine as teenagers. 

“Teenagers’ whole goal is creating their own identity, which they do through peer contact, and through separation from their parents,” King said. “If they're stuck at home, this can be very troubling. Obviously, if there’s a history of trauma or mental illness, that’s going to make a child more vulnerable to a stress reaction during this time as well.” 

Many parents have not been able to return to work either because of pandemic shutdowns, their children’s distance learning at home, or both. King said some parents are more socially isolated than they were before the pandemic because of staying home and taking care of a child already separates them from everyone else. 

“Many parents have removed themselves even further by doing doctor’s visits virtually and things that you would normally get out to do they are doing from home, so parents are more socially isolated, which increases their stress,” King said. “We, as an agency, are trying to address that, but just by talking to colleagues who work with kids and families, they're seeing a lot more anxiety and a lot more depression, both in children and adults.”

The current state of things is a lot for children to process, King said.  

“Look for signs it is just getting too much,” she said. “We might notice new fears or anxieties that have never been there before, such as difficulty sleeping, changes in self-esteem, irritability, crying, or fussing. Also, if a child already has some behavior problems but they seem to be much worse than they were before, counter some of the negativity with new activities or new experiences. There’s a good deal of research that shows an attitude of gratitude, or counting your blessings, literally can rewire our brains.” 

Many parents worry about the time their children are spending online as the pandemic and unrest force them to spend even more time indoors, and King said there are ways to make being stuck inside feel less confining to a child.

“There are lots of new activities you can add to your routine aside from turning off the TV and phones,” King said. “Sit down and play a game, do a puzzle – anything you can do to counter all of the negativity. Is there any way that they can give back to the community? It might have to do specifically with what's going on in the news or it might just be something they value. Call that organization and ask if there is anything they can do from home to help. If there's any way they can volunteer time that has some built-in sense that yes, there’s a lot of things I can't control out there, but I will work on the things I can control.”

Parents’ mental health is of the utmost importance while they deal with the effects COVID and unrest may have on their children, King said. If parents are overly anxious about the pandemic, their children are undoubtedly going to pick up on that and become anxious in turn – so it’s vital for parents to address their stress if it is becoming too much to handle.

“I tell healthy adults they have to take care of their own mental health first,” King said. “Kids are the mirror of what's going on in their home – if a little kid sees mom, dad,  grandma or grandpa can’t handle what’s happening in the world, kids will think, ‘How on earth am I supposed to do it?’ Take care of yourself first. If you've ever ridden in an airplane, the instructions are if the oxygen masks drop, put one on yourself before assisting somebody else – you have to take care of your own mental health needs and your own emotional needs before you try to take care of any of your family members’ needs.”

Another reason parents should address their mental health first is it models an appropriate reaction for the child, King said.

Bluegrass Care Navigators clinical psychologist Dr. Lisa King.

 “If I'm overwhelmed, I seek help from my pastor and my spiritual mentor. I seek help from a mental health professional or my doctor,” she said. “It's OK. We don't always have all the answers and we don't always have the solutions, so we seek out and use a wide range of ways to take care of ourselves. That teaches the child to do that as well.”

Children over age 3 likely know something strange is happening in the world and are worried. King suggests watching for tell-tale signs, which can include sleep disturbances, clinginess, bedwetting, nervous twitches, and excessive handwashing. Such changes can be soothed through reassurance from the parents, but it is also important to meet children’s concerns in an age-appropriate way. 

“Monitor how much time your child is watching these events unfold, and if at all possible, talk to the child first at a level that's appropriate for the child,” she said. “If there is an event, and a lot of people get hurt it'll be on the news a lot. Have conversations, sit down and watch the news together during the commercials, mute it, ask them if they have any questions, and listen to their concerns. For some kids, it's going go right over their heads; for some, they're going to have to process it for a while and they may not have questions right away. Make sure they know you're always available and willing to talk about it. Ask them what they've heard on social media or wherever, and if there's information you need to correct, correct that information.”

Staci Smith, of Georgetown, is the mother of a son, 2-year-old Easton, and 15-year-old daughter, Lynzee. She said Easton’s daycare being closed early in the pandemic caused him to miss out on the socialization important in early childhood.

“Fortunately, I work for a great company that has allowed me to be home with Easton,” she said. “We have play dates with family and spend a lot of time outdoors.”

Smith said Lynzee opted to complete her sophomore year of high school virtually and she has had to skip several opportunities to travel with her dad, an over-the-road truck driver, because of riots and looting.

“Lynzee has a pretty good understanding of current events, so staying home to stay safe from rioting and protesting has not been an issue for her,” Smith said. “She has kept herself busy this summer working outside with her dad around the house and kept up with her school work. She has actually gotten herself ahead and will graduate early next year. The challenge for her has been understanding the value of wearing masks. As with most kids, it’s been a challenge.”

Amanda Burton, of Morehead, has two daughters that have dealt with being home in different ways. She said her 8-year-old, Sophie, has struggled with some aspects of pandemic-related shutdowns and cancellations, while her 14-year-old, Lilly, has adjusted fairly well. She said the virtual learning was an adjustment for everyone, herself included, but she has done what she can to provide some sense of normalcy for both children.

“We started a gardening project right as COVID hit,” she said. “We had never gardened before, but we did a huge gardening project over the summer and that helped a lot because they were home and they wanted to check on their plants; it kind of gave them something to look forward to every day.” 

Burton said she has had several conversations with Lilly, who is a freshman in high school, about the protests in Kentucky and riots in cities across the country. 

“She watches the news with us just like an adult,” she said. “We were in Mt. Sterling the day the shooting happened at Fayette Mall in Lexington and she freaked out and wanted to go home because she said it’s a lot safer there.”

Burton anticipated her children having a more difficult time being stuck at home. 

“I thought my kids were going to drive me bonkers and be really upset that movies are canceled, games aren’t happening and everything’s gone,” she said. “It's made Lilly more of a homebody – she would rather be at home than out with her friends on Friday night. But Sophie has had some problems. She cried because girls’ basketball at her elementary school got canceled and she doesn’t get to play this fall. She has really been upset over that. It's a scary time to be alive and is a really scary time to be a kid.”