As months of social distancing, mask-wearing, and COVID safety protocols have worn on, you may have noticed oddities in your child’s pretend play. First, you begin finding your child’s dolls with makeshift masks on. Maybe your child obsessively pretends to take the temperature of family members. Perhaps your sweet son or daughter spends all day creating magic potion cures for coronavirus. Now that you’ve noticed, how do you respond?
First, the appearance of the global pandemic in your child’s play is not necessarily a negative thing or something to spend an excessive amount of time being concerned over. Research has shown that children process traumatic events through play.
Traumatic experiences are primarily stored within the sensory networks of the brain and the body resulting often in profound dysregulation. Traumatic events are often not saved as verbal memories, resulting in a lack of narrative memory and rational thought about the experience (Gaskill & Perry, 2012; Ogden & Minton, 2000; Porges, 2004; van der Kolk, 2014).
In short, children are not wired to respond and articulate trauma verbally the way that adults are. Thoughts and feelings are often projected onto toys, which provide children with a safe forum to explore fears and reactions to a traumatic event, in this case, the current global pandemic.
Parents can assist children in processing trauma by focusing on three key strategies.
Key Strategies for Processing Fears and Emotions Surrounding COVID 19
Ask open-ended questions of your child.
“How does wearing a mask make your doll feel?” or “What might happen if sister has a temperature? What should we do?” This will encourage your child to verbalize his or her thoughts and feelings. Open-ended questions also give your child a chance to clarify your own misconceptions about what your child may be thinking or feeling. Maybe your child is scared. Maybe he or she is confused about what is happening in the world and attempting to reason through it.
Develop your own toolkit of sorts to help your child cope.
Have your son or daughter draw or craft, and pay attention to what is displayed in their artwork. Help them to find a physical outlet of sorts, such as dancing or a competitive sport. You might notice that working up a sweat calms your child considerably and keeps worries at bay. You can also practice mindfulness and journaling. Not only can these be distractions for your child, but they can also be powerful means to process big emotions. Much can be revealed about your child by watching how he or she chooses to cope with stress.
Finally, maintain a safe structured environment in your home.
Attempt to keep routines consistent. Make sure your space is calming and inviting for your child to relax and escape the scary situations happening in the world around him or her.
For more advice on creating a structured environment at home during the Covid-19 pandemic, you may find Brandy’s recent article “Bearing the COVID Burden: Lightening the Load for our Children” to be helpful.
Most importantly, try not to be alarmed by this newfound fascination with the medical world. Your child is merely attempting to make some sense of this new phenomenon we are battling that has us all confused. This too shall pass.
Gaskill, R. L., & Perry, B. D. (2012). Child sexual abuse, traumatic experiences, and their impact on the developing brain. In P. GoodyearBrown (Ed.). Handbook of child sex abuse: Identification, assessment, and treatment (pp. 30–47). Wiley.
Ogden, P., & Minton, K. (2000). Sensorimotor psychotherapy: One method for processing traumatic memory. Traumatology, 6(3), 149-173. https:// doi.org/10.1177/153476560000600302
Porges, S. W. (2004). Neuroception: A subconscious system for detecting threats and safety. Zero to Three Journal, 24(5), 19-24.
Van der Kolk, B.A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Viking Press.
About the Author: Brandy Browne
Brandy Browne is an early childhood educator in the United States, as well as a family coach and blogger for UnStuck (www.unstucks.com), her family coaching service aimed at helping families develop positive habits and breaking the cycle of generational trauma and poverty.
Her education is in early and elementary education, and she also has a masters degree in parenting and child/adolescent development. Brandy is a wife to her high school sweetheart of fifteen years, and together they share three children, aged ten, seven, and five. In her free time, she enjoys reading, gardening, writing, and distance running.