The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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When the News Is Scary: 4 Ways to Support Children During the Coronavirus Outbreak

child washing hands with soap and waterAs the mother of four children ranging in age from 5 to 17, I think I’ve heard it all when it comes to the coronavirus COVID-19: every rumor and misunderstanding that gets shared at school and on social media about where it came from and how it spreads. In gently redirecting my children toward the truth--and helping them manage their well-founded anxiety--I’ve leaned on my knowledge of social and emotional learning (SEL).

As the director of Open Circle, an evidence-based SEL program for school-age children, I know that it’s important to help kids develop skills to recognize and manage their emotions. It’s also important for them to feel safe and cared for, especially in the midst of a crisis. Effective SEL strengthens our ability to understand, name, and manage our emotions all while building healthy relationships with others that foster increased empathy and community.

Here are a few things I’ve kept in mind while having conversations with my children about COVID-19, which might be helpful to anyone who has similar conversations with kids in their lives--whether their families or those they interact with in a professional capacity.

Children take their emotional cues from adults.

Kids look to us for how to react to a crisis, so it’s critical that we mind our words and actions when in their presence. We should convey calm and compassion, and focus on the facts available. Familiarizing ourselves with what’s known about COVID-19 and how it spreads allows us to ensure we’re conveying factual information to the children around us. Displaying an overly anxious or fearful affect is “contagious,” and causes children, in turn, to become overly anxious and fearful. We need to remain calm and reassuring as much as possible--and to lean on the other adults within our communities when we need to share our own fears and concerns.

“Othering” behavior and speech must be interrupted.

An unfortunate by-product of this scare has been the othering of Asian American communities, which has led many Chinese restaurants and businesses to lose customers. I’ve heard children say things like “Chinese people caused this” or other disparaging remarks. It’s important for adults to immediately and firmly interrupt these types of comments and othering behavior.

Calm breathing and mindful pauses can help.

At Open Circle, one of the threads woven throughout our curriculum is calm breathing and mindfulness. Teaching children to take three slow, deep breaths or a one-minute mindful pause throughout the day helps them develop the tools to cope when they’re feeling anxious.

It’s OK to say you don’t know.

None of us have all the answers to questions children may ask about COVID-19, and that’s OK. Sometimes these questions do have an answer, and we can find it for them by utilizing the resources available to us: our doctors, school nurses, reputable online sources. Some questions simply can’t be answered with any definitiveness. In those cases, all we can do is help children understand that life comes with gray areas, and not all questions have a straightforward answer. What’s most important is for them to understand that the adults in their lives--whether at school or at home--will be there to protect and assist them, no matter what. As Mr. Rogers’ mother used to say, when there’s a crisis, “look for the helpers.” Knowing that there will always be helpers may go a long way toward relieving children’s worry.

Kamilah Drummond-Forrester, M.A., CAGS, is the director of Open Circle, an action program of the Wellesley Centers for Women that equips elementary schools with evidence-based curriculum and training to improve school climate and teach children essential social and emotional skills.

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Guest — Yashi srivastava
It is very important to follow these mindful steps and each and every person should help each other to be safe by the correct ways... Read More
Monday, 16 March 2020 01:20
Guest — Mark Philip
WHAT TO DO IF THERE IS A RISK OF EXPOSURE TO THE VIRUS? • Respect the incubation period and stay in quarantine, symptoms can take ... Read More
Monday, 23 March 2020 04:17
Guest — Pavithra Suresh
Good. Nice analysis with the different angle of thinking, of course the children and mild and young are people are confuse with th... Read More
Monday, 27 April 2020 11:50
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Separating Parents from Children: A Policy of Abuse? Research tells us the negative consequences are lifelong.

This article was posted by Amy Banks, M.D., on June 19, 2018 in her Wired for Love blog on Psychology Today.

Like many, I have been watching in horror the images of children taken from their parents, housed in caged containers, huddled under silver blankets. As the intellectual debate about whether this is sound border patrol policy or outright child abuse wages on, it feels urgent to share my perspective as a psychiatrist with twenty-five years of experience treating individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder from related childhood abuses. When you look through the lens of neuroscience there is no debate – ripping children from parents is extraordinarily traumatizing. In fact, the pain and impact of the separation is likely setting off the same biological alarm system that would be activated if they were being beaten in these cages. Let me explain.

When mammals evolved from reptiles millions of years ago something very interesting happened. Reproductive strategy shifted dramatically from mass producing eggs and hoping a few of the offspring survive to adulthood (like turtles) to producing offspring internally. Carrying a child internally for nine months meant a dramatic decrease in the number of children born to mammals and the infants created were immature and unable to fend for themselves making attachment to parents or caregivers essential to survival. To assure attachment a corresponding evolution of the nervous system occurred. Humans developed a “social engagement system” to assure that parents and children stay connected.

When separated from his parents, a child’s nervous system sends out a loud signal to signify that he is in grave danger. The child will become dysregulated, extremely anxious and stressed out – he will protest by crying out for his parent as a full load of adrenaline or norepinephrine is surging through his system. The child separated from his parent is terrified and because the brain function to modulate affect is built within this care taking relationship and is ongoing well into the late teen years, that child is also not able to calm the terror. Over time, if the parent does not respond (or in this case can not respond), the child will flip into a parasympathetic shutdown of his body creating a state of learned helplessness or despondency. At this persists, the child enters an extremely dangerous state called failure to thrive in the attachment literature.

This is not new information and certainly should be in the hands of anyone considering making public policy that adversely impacts children. It was learned back in the late 1950’s when Harlow set up an experiment where he placed an infant monkey in a cage with a cold wire monkey that provides milk and another wire monkey covered in a warm material that offered comforting contact. Repeatedly, the young monkeys chose the comfort of the cuddly mother over food. That is how important touch and holding is to primate children. One of the policies being reported at these centers is that workers are not allowed to pick up or comfort the children. The results for these children will be devastating.

Likewise, the Abnormal Childhood Experience Study (ACE Study), a twenty-year longitudinal research project on the health outcomes of children who have had traumatic experiences in childhood, suggests that a child disconnected from his/her parents (as one of only a few abnormal experiences) has negative impacts on health and well-being. Not only are mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse found to be higher in people with a high ACE score but also physical illnesses like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and even infections are increased.

Additionally, research by Eisenberger and Lieberman at UCLA (SPOT Theory)identified an area of the human brain – the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex- that is activated when a person is feeling socially excluded or disconnected. The dACC also happens to be the same area of the brain that is activated when a person is feeling the distress of physical pain. Essentially, SPOT Theory tells us that being connected to safe others is so important to human survival that it shares a neurological alarm with the distress of physical injury or illness. In essence, ripping children from parents carries the same risk as hitting them. To human beings pain is pain and so these children, their parents, and anyone who is witnessing this cruelty without disconnecting from it, is in deep, deep, preventable pain.

Given the clear science, how is it that some humans are not upset about this abuse? One explanation is found by looking at the neuroscience of "othering." Studies show that when I see someone as “not like me”, my mirror neuron system shuts down and I do not feel a physiological resonance with his suffering. Rather, I look at him through the area of my brain that helps me understand abstract ideas. This is a disconnected way of knowing another and heavily influenced by cultural stories and biases. This is not an excuse but rather a warning of the social impact of policies and rhetoric that divides people and communities into “us” and “them”.

The neurological bottom line is clear, separating children from their parents is child abuse. And anyone who has a sense of morality must do everything in his or her power to help it stop ASAP.

Continue reading the full article on Psychology Today in Amy Banks' Wired for Love blog.

Amy Banks, M.D., is a senior scholar and director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, a legacy project of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She has spoken throughout the U.S. on the neurobiology of relationship and has an ongoing passion to spread the message that humans are hardwired for connection.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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