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Q&A With Dr. Phil: Helping Kids Cope With 'School' During the Pandemic

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John Whyte, MD, MPH - Blogs
By John Whyte, MD, MPHBoard-certified internistOctober 02, 2020

“School” is back in session, and whether your child is back in the classroom or doing virtual learning at home (or a combination of the two!), this school year is unlike any we’ve ever experienced. Many parents are concerned about the impact these drastic changes will have on our kids, both in terms of education and mental health.

I recently interviewed Dr. Phil McGraw (of course, you know him as “Dr. Phil” from his popular TV show of the same name) for the Coronavirus in Context video series, and we had a great conversation about the impact of COVID-19 on our children. After the interview, I asked him to talk with me a little more specifically about this “new normal” as it relates to school and our kids’ health. I have two young boys myself, and I was interested to hear Dr. Phil’s perspective.

Here’s what he shared with me (in his trademark no-nonsense style):

WebMD: How do parents manage conversations with their children when a child’s friend may be attending school in person but they are not?

Dr. Phil: The very first thing you want to do is LISTEN. Hear their comments, questions, and complaints. Ask questions. Are they worried about their friends? Are they upset because their friends get to go to school but they don’t? Don’t assume you know what they are thinking or feeling. You may pick up on their overall mood but misread the why.

You want to “meet them where they are.” Don’t judge them. Once the why is determined, be empathetic, validate the legitimacy of their feelings, remembering that their brains are not fully developed yet and foresight is one of the last abilities to reach full function neurologically and experience-wise. Sometimes it can be cathartic for them to just “vent.”

Assure them their lives will eventually return to some semblance of normal and let them know the most important thing right now is to do whatever we can to all stay healthy and safe.

This can be an important teachable moment about such life lessons as prioritizing what really matters, delayed gratification, and patience.

If they feel lonely or left out, encourage them to stay in touch with their friends through texting, phone calls, email, etc., to find out how their friends are doing and share their experiences. They might be angry or act out because they blame you for being stuck at home. Do not argue or debate. Keep the parenting message simple: “You know, when I love somebody as much as I love you, I am willing to let you be angry at me if it is keeping you safe.” Even if they are still angry, they will feel your love, not your judgement.

WebMD: What is the impact on children as well as parents when schools reopen and then a few days later they close? How does that impact anxiety and stress?

Dr. Phil: These are uncertain times, and we can expect to make changes based on the best information available to us. Businesses have closed, then opened, only to close again. Returning to school is a health experiment many of us are unwilling to risk. There is just too much we still do not understand. As parents, part of our job is to help manage the expectations of our children. This is the time to teach our children that things change and become unpredictable and we have to make the best choices we can, even when we want to do something different.

If your kids are anxious and fearful, let them know this is normal. But at the same time, people of all ages feel better when they believe they have some control over their lives and what happens to them.

Emphasize they have a tremendous amount of control over their own safety and well-being by adhering to guidelines we have all been practicing during quarantine. Remain responsible at school and control your own destiny. You are not passengers.

WebMD: How should parents talk to their kids about the disruptions that the pandemic is causing in their school lives as well as their personal lives?

Dr. Phil: Honestly, openly, and confidently. Our children will follow the emotional tone we set. When they see us in control, they will tend to mirror those emotional cues. It is fine to be uncertain and to not have all the answers. But if we act out of fear, they will pick up on it and they will worry and be fearful. And those feelings can persist and become increasingly irrational. No good will come from this.

As parents, do your homework and know the scientific facts about the current state of affairs.

WebMD: What advice do you give parents when children ask, “When will things return to normal?”

Dr. Phil: Tell them the truth. But also point out all of things that are still normal in the family. Mealtimes, playing games with the family, watching movies, working on projects, and household chores. In fact, if the family is not already engaged in these behaviors, then let the children or teens participate in picking activities that can be shared by the family.

Some habits and ways of life might change forever, some for better, some perhaps not. If we carefully use this time and these unusual circumstances, we can capitalize on this experience to focus on the really important things in life, some of which get overlooked during the course of our normal days. I am talking about family values, personal responsibility, empathy, patience, and good old-fashioned living, loving, and laughter. There may not be a better time to help our kids develop character and resilience.

WebMD: How do you address children’s disappointment when they might not be able to play sports or participate in the activities they normally would be enjoying during the schoolyear?

Dr. Phil: CONTEXT, CONTEXT, CONTEXT!!! Acknowledge their feelings of disappointment (for about 3 minutes), then, depending on the age of the child and their ability to understand, explain to them the following (Based of course on age):

Almost 200,000 people have died. Millions of people have lost jobs, and many will lose their homes. Many people do not have enough food to eat.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, and we need to focus on what we all have to do to get by. Missing an opportunity to play sports for a season, while disappointing, will hardy be a part of the story when they tell their kids about this part of their life. My dad used to tell me, “Count your blessings, not your troubles.” This is a moment in time when we can teach our kids the difference between gratitude and attitude.

WebMD: Are schools putting too much focus on the impact of infections and less of an impact on mental health?

Dr. Phil: Both the physical and mental health impact of this virus cannot be overestimated or separated. Because the mental health consequences are not as immediately identifiable, the psychological consequences have received less attention. This is a serious mistake. The mental health effects of living in the shadows of this epidemic have disrupted the normal development, physically, psychologically, and educationally for our children.

Disruption of the normal educational process will likely have consequences we cannot even predict. There is a tremendous burden and responsibility for schools to develop curriculum (overnight) to minimize the negative effects of being out of the classroom and the lack of direct contact with professional educators. Next to parents, teachers are the most important role models and source of encouragement in the lives of our children. No one likes to talk about it, but there is a segment of the student population subjected to abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and sexual molestation that previously had some measure of protection by being under the watchful eyes of caring teachers who are mandated reporters of such abuse. These students will eventually return to the classroom having suffered greatly, and in silence. The long-term consequences are inevitable.



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About the Author
John Whyte, MD, MPH

John Whyte, MD, MPH, is a board-certified internist and the Chief Medical Officer at WebMD, where he leads efforts to develop and expand strategic partnerships that create meaningful change around important and timely public health issues. As a popular health writer, he has been published extensively both in medical and mainstream publications.

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