Lynne Cox and her husband already had a diagnosis of anxiety for their son, a 12-year-old who was attending middle school in Denton County before COVID-19 closed public schools in Texas during spring break.
“Of course the first couple of weeks, everything was novel,” Cox said. “It was all great. He was like, ‘I get to sleep late, I can eat whatever I want whenever I want.’ Then when we got back into school online, he started to fade a little.”
When Cox’s son was in fifth grade, an undiagnosed strep infection and a dramatic weight loss led to an anxiety diagnosis. Cox said she was used to watching her son’s habits, especially eating and sleeping. Two years later, and Cox said she felt like she knew what to look for.
When the novel coronavirus forced businesses and schools to close, Cox watched her son grapple with isolation. Cox has a 22-year-old daughter who moved back home along with her boyfriend, so the three-member household changed, too. While her son didn’t talk a lot about the virus, he did start marathon sessions of the video game Minecraft.
“It started out with a worry that someone he knew would get COVID and die. My parents are elderly, too, and he started to worry that somebody he loved would get sick and die,” Cox said. “He was kind of closed off. He was kind of apathetic. At one point, I told him, ‘We need to get out of the house,’ and the way he reacted, it was like old-person paranoia, ‘No, we can’t go.’”
She took him on a short trip to Sonic and let him snack and take in the change of scenery.
Cox isn’t alone. Several parents told the Denton Record-Chronicle they’ve noticed their children showing signs of stress. One mother of three said her youngest, a 5-year-old girl, cried on and off for days when a drive-by birthday party seemed to make her miss a favorite playmate more than ever. A father rearing two sons in Krum said his 9-year-old worries when his big brother sneezes, and has a new case of separation anxiety over his mother and grandmother. A father in Denton said his kindergartner has taken to doctoring her stuffed animals, and has emptied boxes of band-aids on their imagined scrapes and bruises. Elsa, from Frozen, is wearing her arm in a pink Tinkerbell bandana the kindergartner has fashioned into a sling. One week, a plush Nemo had lots of trouble with his gills.
“Over the last two months,” the dad said, “every single toy in her room has required some kind of medical attention. It’s adorable, but I wonder if we need to stop talking about COVID in front of her?”
Sarah Tucker, the clinic director of Denton’s Mindful Counseling, specializes in play therapy for children ages 3 to 10 and teaches at University of North Texas.
Tucker said grief after birthday caravans, playing doctor to suffering toys and withdrawing from typical play and interests is familiar.
“That pretty much lines up with everything I’m seeing in kiddos across the board,” Tucker said.
For young children who are still in elementary school, play is how they figure out the world and how they process their emotions.
“Children that age are really expressing themselves through play,” Tucker said. “The little girl who was doctoring all her stuffed animals, that’s how a child expresses her feelings. She’s taking care of her toys. Children need to process these things in very concrete ways. It doesn’t mean that they are experiencing clinical anxiety. It’s more that they’re trying to get a sense of control with it, with the way they play. She’s able to care for these stuffed animals, and that helps her express her feelings about what’s happening around her.”
Because young children can’t always tell adults how they feel, Tucker said that parents should pay attention to behavior. If a playful child stops playing, they could be anxious, sad or angry. Young children might act out, or they might withdraw because they haven’t been able to play with other children. If their parents are having difficulty during the pandemic, they will notice and absorb that, too.
For children in fifth and sixth grade, play is still a big part of their world, Tucker said.
“Certainly that age is a tipping point,” she said. “There’s still a lot of play, and it tends to be more structured. Sometimes, when kids are going through something like what we’re seeing, they might not engage the way they normally do. You might see withdrawal, apathy, low motivation. That could be a sign that they’re having difficulty processing what’s going on. And adults sometimes forget that, in the context of everything, children don’t have the time to reflect on. Adults have experienced difficulty, and they have a handle on the time things might be uncertain. Adults know that this isn’t permanent. This might last a year or two. Children don’t have that experience.”
Think of it this way: Parents often feel that, after Thanksgiving, they’ve barely taken a breath and Christmas has arrived. For children, the anticipation is much more drawn out, Tucker said. For kids, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas feels like a lifetime.
Cox said the COVID-19 pandemic has been another reminder that every child is different. Her daughter still deals with uncertainty by meeting it head-on.
“She’s worked the whole time, in food service. She’s very much ‘Let’s just get this done.’ She wears a mask and gloves up. She was like that even as a kid,” Cox said. “Not my son. His sleep is interrupted. He’s a kid who always was fully dressed all the time, and now he’s walking around in shorts and no shirt. The other night, we saw a snake on the front porch. We think it was a copperhead. But he had trouble sleeping. He was worried the snake would somehow get inside, up the steps and bite someone. It’s things like that.”
Children and preteens don’t necessarily come out and tell adults what’s bothering them. Instead, Cox said, concerns come out in moods. Irritability strikes, or exhaustion leads to long naps or broken sleep.
“We already had the diagnosis, so I was already watchful,” Cox said. “That’s my frame of reference: changes in motivation, changes in behavior. I don’t think I worry about every little thing obsessively. But I am watching.”
Denton County parents and their children are facing a lot of uncertainty about school. Like a lot of parents, Cox said her family opted to do academics online. Her son will either walk or ride his bicycle to participate in athletics and band, although Cox said the school hasn’t explained how students will play sports and music and practice social distancing.
“We really talked about it. We sat down, and I said, ‘How do you feel about wearing a mask?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, I can wear a mask.’ I asked him, ‘Do you feel like you can practice social distancing?’ He said he could. Then I asked him if he thought the other kids would wear masks and practice social distancing. He wasn’t as sure about that,” Cox said. “It’s middle school. Someone is going to take off their mask, lick their hands and chase someone down the hall.”
Tucker said there are things parents can do to help their children cope with the pandemic.
“I think the first step is for parents to take care of themselves,” she said. “It’s like that saying about putting your own oxygen mask on before you help the person in the next seat (on the airplane). That can be difficult when you’re worried about your child and it feels really big and unregulated. But if parents can take care of themselves, they can help their children regulate their emotions.”
Parents teach their children through talk and action, Tucker said.
“You’re constantly modeling,” she said. “Kids are constantly taking in everything all around them. When you’re child can hear you — or when you think your child can’t hear you — they’re taking in everything. That household is their world. I worry that parents might go too far the other way, thinking ‘oh, I shouldn’t be anxious around my kids.’ It’s OK to feel intense emotions around your kids.’”
So what’s a parent to do when their child is still crying after the birthday caravan, or when their middle schooler is losing their temper?
“Something that can make all the difference in the world is what we call reflective response. If you can validate what your child is telling you and experiencing, that can go such a long way. It seems so simple, but so many parents struggle to do it. But really, when you’re child is having an experience and is talking about it, if you reflect that back to them, it just goes a long way to helping them feel better. Like the story about the boy with the snake, a parent could say ‘you were really worried about people getting hurt.’ And with a child who is acting out, saying something like ‘I can tell you’re really frustrated,’ and then maybe following up with ‘I wonder if you’re frustrated because you haven’t seen your friends in a while.’”
Tucker said parents shouldn’t avoid counseling for their family if they feel it is needed.
“I would really encourage parents to trust their gut,” Tucker said. “Every parent knows what’s in the realm of typical behavior with their child, and when something has been going on outside of that realm of the typical consistently – like more than a week. Parents tend to notice the external stuff, the aggression and acting out, and bring them in faster. They don’t always notice the internal, the low energy, sleeping longer. If they can pay attention to the internal, too, counseling can help with that.”