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Joan Green: Therapist offers insight

Therapist offers insight by LARA JO HIGHTOWER NWA Democrat-Gazette | May 3, 2020 at 1:54 p.m.
"Kids experience things in a very personal way. Interestingly, the children that I work with, most of them are not overly concerned about getting sick or someone they know getting sick unless they know someone's who's had the virus. ... But they are struggling with things that in their world are very large to them," says therapist Joan Green. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)

In this new world we all find ourselves in -- the world of a global pandemic, where sheltering-in-place has become the norm -- there's no doubt that stress is an ever-present factor for adults. Anxiety over jobs, our health and the health of our loved ones and the sinking economy is difficult to ignore. Parents have the additional stress of juggling their new jobs as homeschool teachers with their own duties as they work from home.

But how much of this stress is filtering down to children? Licensed professional counselor, counseling supervisor and registered play therapist and supervisor Joan Green answered that question and a host of others while providing solid advice on how best to navigate the next few months in a way that helps keep your whole family as emotionally healthy as possible.

Green says she has always been called to work with children. When she was in high school, she babysat for extra spending money. Before becoming a counselor, she worked as a preschool teacher.

"I've just always loved children and the way children think and experience the world," says Green, who has been a counselor for over 30 years. She works with children as young as 2, as well as teenagers and adults. "It's always been full of wonder and miraculousness for me. I connect really well with children, and I enjoy being with them. So for me, it just makes sense. Children are so full of possibility -- they're becoming who they're going to be -- and I find it really rewarding to be a part of that."

Can you talk a little bit about play therapy and why you gravitated toward that in particular?

The idea of play therapy really is that, for children, play is a much more natural expression of their thoughts and feelings in their world than language. They are learning language, but they are not comfortable in language the way adults are. And their way of interacting with the world is much more immediate and sensory. They use play and touch and taste and sight and hearing to experience everything instead of cognitively processing first. So if you play with children, and you let children lead the content of the play, they will show you all of their fears and hopes and dreams and worries and what they love and what they're angry about. So that's the basic premise.

Play therapists are trained to be with children in that way and let children communicate with us in that way. For example, a child whose parents are in the midst of a divorce where there is a lot of discord might have two armies in the sand who are battling each other, and there's some treasure or an animal in the middle of that battle. And so they can do a lot of work processing their parents fighting over them in that metaphorical way, in that story. And what we find is if then we say, "Well, that's a lot like your family, isn't it, Mom and Dad are fighting over you," that's when they stop talking and shut down. So I give them all of this permission to explore and express within the story that they aren't able to do when they talk to me about their real situation. They might tell me, "Everything fine. Yes, Mommy and Daddy are not together, but I'm used to that. Everything's OK." But what I see in their play is the real story of what's going on and how they feel about it.

Moving on to our current situation: As a parent, I sometimes forget how stressful this must be for my kids. Can you talk a little bit about what you've noticed about how this stress is hitting children?

Kids experience things in a very personal way. Interestingly, the children that I work with, most of them are not overly concerned about getting sick or someone they know getting sick unless they know someone's who's had the virus. Those are the only children I've talked to that seem to be struggling with that a lot.

But they are struggling with things that in their world are very large to them. If this was the last year at whatever school they're at, suddenly they're not going to have a chance to see their teacher again or see any of their classmates from this school year again. And, for lots of kids, you know, if it's their senior year or the last year before they moved to a new school, they're grieving the loss of all those experiences of their prom and their graduation and, for younger kids, ending their time at that school. So I think kids are experiencing a lot of grief.

A lack of routine is really profound for children. Being at home and trying to do school at home, particularly in families where the parents are trying to work from home while their children are present, sounds like a good opportunity to have a lot of lovely times together as a family. But it ends up being quite stressful because kids need contact with adults, and adults are being pressured to be in Zoom meetings all day or jumping on calls. So that can be really hard.

I think, honestly, the most difficulty I'm seeing with the children that I'm interacting with is that there is so much stress in the adults in their world. I think almost all of us are walking around with this low to high level of stress fluctuating all day, every day, as we watch the news or we read something or we find out that we may have to go back to work or feeling at risk that we may lose our jobs entirely or that we thought we were going to get some kind of assistance and it turns out that it's not going to happen. Many of us are walking around in kind of a state of fear and anxiety, and children are very sensitive to that.

Kids get their sense of safety from watching us as adults, and if adults aren't feeling safe, children feel this kind of low level threat, I think, all the time. And then their behavior is worse, and they're not sleeping well. And all of that ramps up the level of stress for families.

So stress is almost like a virus itself.

Yes. I think, for parents, the most important gift they can give their children right now is to find ways to manage their own stress better.

On that same subject -- I really struggle with how much I should share with them about what's going on right now. Should I be shielding them from most of it or explaining it in detail?

Limit your own listening [to] and watching news. Your children can hear, and they can get very flooded with information that they don't understand. The only children I've been seeing who have a lot of distress about the actual virus are kids whose parents are listening to a lot of news, and they are hearing it. So they're hearing words like numbers of deaths, those kinds of facts that they can't put into any kind of context. And so those kids can get very scared that their parents are going to die, or they're going to die. I have had a lot of parents, especially single parents, saying, 'What do I say when my child says, "If you die, where will I be? Who will take care of me?" So it's important to limit what you're listening to, not just because your children might overhear, but also because of your own anxiety.

Otherwise, what I would say is that kids need age-appropriate information. They don't need a lot of detail. They need to know, in general, that there's an illness going around that is pretty contagious. And that's the reason we're all staying in our houses, and we're wearing masks when we're out to make sure that we don't catch it or that we don't spread germs from person to person. So all kids need that much information.

And what I find is that kids will ask you the questions they need to know the answers to. If you're giving them more information than they asked for, you will see that they're not listening anymore. Kids are pretty good at tuning out when they're done. I would tell parents to watch for those cues that that's all the information needed at that time. Sometimes they really want the five-word answer to their specific questions. And I think it's important to tell them that, "Any time you're worried or you're wondering about anything, it's OK to ask, and if I don't know the answer, I'll find out the answer."

Earlier, you mentioned a routine, and I noticed right away that my kids were very sensitive to this. They do not like not knowing what's coming next in their day. Is setting up a routine important?

Absolutely, and I think having your kids participating in deciding what kind of routine you need and what will work is really helpful. If they can have some input: "How long can you sit and do school work before you need to get up and do some physical things? Let's make a list of all the things we could choose for that break time. Do we jump on the trampoline? Do we have a hula hoop contest? Relay races in the back yard? How long do we need to do that before you'll be ready to come back and do schoolwork again?" And that's going to vary for every child. One of the wonderful things about being home is that you can change the schedule to what works for your child and build in lots of fun intervals between the school work, because they're not used to doing school work at home.

The other thing I would say is really be careful of that screen time. It's very easy, especially if you're trying to work from home, to use a screen as a kind of a babysitter. When you need to do that, you do need to do it. And there are times that that is very helpful, and it gives kids a break too. But I would say just be careful that's not happening for hours on end. Be intentional and mindful about that, so kids know you get to watch an hour of TV in the afternoon, or give your kids choices about some TV watching or Internet usage that at least has some educational value.

We've been very anti-social media for our 9-year-olds, but we did let them sign on to Facebook's Messenger Kids app, because it seemed like an easy way to keep in touch with some of their friends whom they were missing so much. Do you think that was a mistake? Or is it more important that they stay in touch with their friends in some way?

One of the things I'm seeing is that a lot of children are just feeling really lonely. Siblings are great, but they aren't your friends. They do need to maintain that connection. And I think they feel very scared when everyone else is able to connect, and they are not -- that they will lose their place in their social groups. So I think in times like this, look at the adults: I've Zoomed with people, and I've FaceTimed with people quite a lot. Normally, I almost never do that, but that's a way that I can keep in touch with my friends and stay mentally healthy -- make sure that we're not losing connection. And so, yeah, I really don't even count that as screen time. I think that's a separate thing. That connectivity with their buddies is really crucial.

Along that same line, I've fretted to my husband that this isolation, this lack of connection, could really change their personalities in a fundamental way, in a negative way. But kids have a certain elasticity, a certain flexibility and resiliency, don't they?

Well, you know, different kids have different amounts of resiliency. Some of the kids that I work with, a lot of them have less of that ability to bounce back than a typical kid, maybe because they've had some stressors in their lives already that they struggled to deal with or had limited ability to deal with, things like that. I guess what I have to say is that this experience will be part of who they are, part of the story of their life, and you can't erase the fact that they experienced it. The question is, "Can they learn some good things through this time? Can they use some of these experiences in their lives to help them be more empathetic or to help them learn to draw on their own resources more?" I think there are a lot of good things that might come out of this for people, as well as some things that are stressful or some things are challenging. And so it's not really a question of whether they'll be OK or not. The question is, you know, "How will they use this experience in their lives?"

Do you have any advice for parents of children who were already exhibiting a lot of anxiety before the pandemic?

Kids with anxiety just need some sense of manageability and control. Often, kids who are anxious will ask the same questions over and over, and that's an attempt to feel that they understand and can manage what's happening. Answering their questions and letting them know that you can tell they're feeling a little anxious and talking with them about that helps them feel safe . Also, helping them find words for what's worrying them -- all of these are really helpful things to do. For the most part, I think that establishing some sense of normal, even if it's a brand new normal, is really, really helpful.

I think the only other thing I would say is, even though it's hard, especially for parents who are working from home, it's really important to find some time to play with your kids and have fun with your kids. Go out, squirt the hose, or go for a walk, however your family likes to connect . It's really important to stay connected and make sure you're leaving time to be playful and let go of all of the worrying and have fun, which will actually benefit parents and kids during this time.

That's a great thing to remember. I caught myself saying -- it was around 6 p.m. and my daughter had asked me to play a game -- and I said, "I can't right now. I've got to finish this," and she said, "But I want to do something with you." And I said, "We've been together all day." Later, I thought, "Well, yes, but that was me saying 'Go outside' or 'Lower your voice so I can have an interview' or 'Can you go in the other room so I can finish this story?'" You think, "My gosh, I've seen them 24 hours a day, seven days a week," but you're not connecting with them necessarily. You're not playing with them.

Yes. What you just said: that's what you need to put in your story. That's a beautiful story because I think it's happening a lot. I had a FaceTime meeting with one of the kids I work with, and her eyes were sparkling, and she was beaming. I said, "Something happened that made you really happy." And she said, "My mommy took two hours off work this afternoon. We just sat on the couch and ate popcorn and watched a movie together. And that's the first time we've really had time, just the two of us." And I thought, "You know, all this time they've been home together, and mom is so frantic, because she's a single mom. She's trying to keep her job, keep all the balls in the air. How precious it was to this little girl that her mom just sat and watched a movie with her."

NAN Profiles on 05/19/2020

Print Headline: Kids and covid-19


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