When the coronavirus outbreak began a little over a year ago, who could have predicted how much it would change our lives? With school closings and new financial pressures, we’ve all struggled to navigate this new way of living. What’s more, our families have been forced to adapt to the pandemic so quickly that we’ve hardly had time to process its mental and emotional ramifications. And while about 27 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, so many more have been grappling with the social isolation and mental distress that it continues to leave in its wake.
Over the course of the pandemic, many of our clients have expressed that their families have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. After all, there is a glaring lack of support for parents caring for children with special needs during a once-in-a-century pandemic.
Below, we’ve compiled some resources designed to make life just a bit easier for families and children with special needs.
Mindfulness and Routine for Daily Calming
Guided imagery is a form of mindful relaxation that has been shown to improve coping with uncertainty and anxiety. Often used to help people prepare for medical procedures, adapted versions of this technique can be used by children to calm their bodies and minds. A 2017 study by Anna Ridderinkhof of the Research Institute of Child Development and Education, University of Amsterdam, shows that mindfulness-based programs can benefit the emotional and social development of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). CHOC Children’s guided imagery page consists of short audio visualizations for kids to help with relaxation, stress management, easing worries, and gaining peace of mind.
While now is as good a time as ever to begin practicing mindfulness, its benefits can outlast the pandemic itself. This therapeutic technique can also help manage your child’s special needs related to pain management, breathing, and sleeping. Scroll to the bottom of the above link to access free guided imagery scenarios read by pediatric psychologists. Your child can listen on their own, or they can play them aloud and practice together with you for a mindful family moment.
Developing and keeping a routine, especially for children with ASD, is also an important way to bring a sense of normalcy and grounding to your child’s daily life. This can help your child’s mental health, as well as your own. Here is a YouTube playlist from Dr. Lisa Beth Carey of the Kennedy Krieger Institute that shows different ways to make visual schedules – but keep in mind these were made by teachers with access to school supplies. You can adapt these methods to the resources you have on-hand – whether that means making a Google Doc that your child can access on a tablet or laptop, or simply using a pen and paper!
Movement and Art
Getting in those daily steps is especially hard during COVID. But physical activity is closely connected to our children’s mental and emotional well-being. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, regular physical activity can improve your child’s cognitive health, social skills, and self-esteem, which are especially important when your child is learning from home. Socially distanced and masked walks can help with feelings of isolation from friends and classmates, in addition to helping your child’s overall physical fitness. And for the moments when you can’t get outside and walk, YouTube’s Yoga with Adriene has a playlist specially made for kids (and adults!) who are now distance learning. In addition, GoNoodle has a website and app that provides physical activities and games for your child to take advantage of any time at home.
Finding a creative outlet is another way for children with special needs to release some energy while quarantining. It can feel especially challenging to find ways to occupy our time during COVID-19 – and the small size of many New York City apartments certainly doesn’t help. While you or your child may have experience with more formal art therapy, creating art at home can bolster mental health by alleviating stress, stimulating the mind, and offering a sense of accomplishment. This can be especially helpful for children with executive function disorder (EFD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), ASD, and dyslexia who are experiencing boredom, frustration, and anxiety during COVID-19. So, grab the Play-Doh, pull out the crayons and paper, or listen to your favorite song and encourage your child to choreograph a dance!
As adults, we need to remember that it’s important to take care of our own mental health, too — not just for our sake, but also because children pick up on adult cues. Easing your own anxiety is one of the best ways to help your child feel settled, according to Dr. Abi Gewirtz of the University of Minnesota.
Telehealth therapy can be very beneficial in overcoming your own anxiety and fear during COVID. The American Psychological Association’s (APA) COVID-19 Information and Resources provides frequently updated and research-based content specific to teletherapy and stress management. The APA has also produced a podcast on managing your mental health during COVID. NYC Well has free counseling services available via text, phone, or online chat, as well as an app library with suggestions specific to COVID-19 anxiety. New York’s COVID-19 Emotional Support Hotline is 1-844-863-9314. You can also sign up for video sessions with privately run services that match you with a therapist that you can text, audio message, or video chat for a fee – these can be located by an internet search.
Scheduling regular calls with family and friends can also help reduce feelings of social isolation, as can engaging with online forums like Understood’s COVID-19 Resources & Support. There, you can ask questions and read insights from other parents about family and home life, distance learning, new routines, and self-care during COVID. This is not a special education-specific resource, but it can be helpful to develop a sense of community with other parents.
Research by the Yale Child Study Center’s Amanda Mossman Steiner (2010) indicates that parenting a child with special needs can strengthen your flexibility and problem-solving in times of uncertainty. In such unprecedented times as these, your relationship with your child can be a source of resilience to embrace. You are probably dealing with the chaos better than you think, so don’t forget to give yourself a break, too.
• Glynnis Olin, Office Administrator