Coping with children’s feelings of isolation during pandemic times

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Part III of a series

MANITOULIN – It is normal that children and youth may be anxious or upset during the COVID-19 outbreak. Young people that were already at risk prior to the pandemic may be disproportionately affected by the media saturation, school closures and additional stressors that are being experienced during this time. There are numerous online resources available that provide support, tips and links to services for families and youth, including Children’s Mental Health Ontario at cmho.org, and Jack.org, a partnership between Jack.org, School Mental Health Ontario and Kids Help Phone. Both resource hubs contain easily accessible education, tools, support and reliable information.

Locally, Compass is the lead agency providing mental health services and supports for children, youth and families in Northeastern Ontario. While Compass does maintain an office in Little Current with three full-time clinicians and one child and youth worker, they are working from home during COVID-19, providing services by telephone and video conferencing. The best way to access Compass services is by calling 1-800-815-7126, said Alana Jackson, clinical manager with Compass Northeast.

Compass’s walk-in clinic, MindSpace, is currently a virtual walk-in clinic, she said. Calling the 1-800 number will connect you with a clinician who will determine what is going on, what strengths exist already and how Compass can help. The service is available from 9 am until 6:30 pm Monday through Friday. 

Call volumes have actually decreased during COVID-19 but what has increased is the number of parents reaching out for support, particularly parents with young children. “The lack of structure or routine or even just a change to structure and routine can cause some significant impacts for our little people,” explained Ms. Jackson. “We do often receive calls from teens and older youth looking for support and we actively encourage that but parents can call as well. If they’re struggling with behaviour, if they’re struggling with routine, anything really, we can likely support it.”

There have also been a number of calls related to COVID-19. “How do I speak to my child about COVID, or how do I give them information that is age appropriate? What should I share and what shouldn’t I share?” are some of the questions parents are asking, Ms. Jackson said. “What’s going on in the media is impacting our young people and our children, so we encourage families and parents to be very mindful of what their little people are seeing and being exposed to when we listen to the news and we’re scrolling through Facebook. Remember, there are little people who may not be able to understand some of the information that is being expressed there.”

The most important thing is for parents to validate their child’s concerns. That means taking the time to talk to them and discuss their worries. “Make sure you are giving undistracted attention to you children. Have some open time that is just child-focused,” she recommended, adding that anyone who is struggling with what to say or how to say it should call their 1-800 number and Compass can provide guidance. “The other thing is to arm yourself with the most accurate and up to date information, being very mindful of your source.”

Parents also need to be mindful to provide information that is age appropriate. “Children have different capacities so what may work for one child may not work for another. You may have children in your home who have different needs and different requirements.”

COVID-19 has impacted  everybody, said Ms. Jackson, and has changed the way we are living, working and socializing. Families and how they are functioning right now have changed as well, and those families or young people who were struggling with additional stress prior to COVID-19 are now dealing with even more because of job loss and social isolation may not have an infrastructure in place that supports and protects them. 

“Our organization is there to support you,” Ms. Jackson said. “I wouldn’t want to hear that any young people aren’t reaching out if they’re able. We can be really creative in how we support you.”

Returning to school and social activities in the fall may cause additional anxiety and that’s natural, she said, and it can be beneficial to practice now those skills they might use when their anxiety is increased. Now is a good time to call Compass for guidance on preparing kids for going back to school, or for a young person to call to start learning and practising those skills.

Trauma is an individual experience, and while we can’t predict how people will live through an experience, teachers have a pre-existing relationship with their students and are able to compare post-COVID behaviours with their baseline prior to this. Some of the major things teachers can look for, and parents may notice even now, are significant differences in the child’s irritability; whether they are more withdrawn than usual; if there are significant mood changes, or changes in appetite or sleeping patterns, Ms. Jackson explained. “Teachers could be well versed in trying to speak to parents if they have a concern, but we do have a plan to provide support in the event that there is an influx of services being needed” post pandemic. Compass works closely with all Island schools, and teachers are well supported by school social workers and mental health leads as well.

Geography has sometimes been a barrier to accessing services for Island residents from more remote communities but a positive outcome of COVID-19 has been the addition of video conferencing. “We are providing a virtual walk-in clinic and we’re going to continue with whatever works for the family post COVID, whether by phone session or face-to-face or video conference,” she said. “I want to encourage people to use whatever platform works for them. The big takeaway is we are here. All we want to do is support children. We wouldn’t want the way they connect to be the barrier.”

Compass is offering free webinars to support youth and caregiver mental health this week. The June 10 topic is Youth and Substance Use, suitable for parents or youth over 12 years. June 11 is Self-compassion and Mindfulness for ages 12 plus. Parents and caregivers can learn about Nurturing your Child’s Mental Health on June 12. All webinars run from 1 until 2:30 pm. To learn more or register, visit CompassNE.EventBrite.com.