Don’t be surprised if you hear your child mentioning the dreaded word “COVID” during their playtime with dolls or action figures — it’s actually a way for them to handle stress.
Children across the country — like adults, too — are dealing with the stresses of the pandemic. Some are stuck at home having classes on Zoom. Others get an hour with their youth sports team, where they’re forced to wear masks and use hand sanitizers. Video game like “Among Us” may bring young ones together — but even that might not be enough to offset the weird year they’re experiencing.
Not only that, but children can get the novel coronavirus, too. As of Nov. 19, about 1.2 million children have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Part of handling the stresses of the pandemic includes adding into daily playtime. A child might be performing an operation on a Barbie doll and say, “you’ve got COVID.” Or maybe a child’s GI Joe figures are working to fight off the virus.
Either way, experts say parents shouldn’t panic about this.
“Adults process stress verbally,” Laine Young-Walker, the chair of psychiatry at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, told The Washington Post. “They’re able to talk to their loved ones about their fears and concerns. But young children don’t have that ability so you’re more likely to see a behavioral response to stress or to see the stressful or traumatic event coming into their play.”
Behavioral responses include less sleep or irritability. A flat response might mean bringing the stressful events into their playtime.
Some children may experience both because of the pandemic. Maybe they sleep less or there’s some sort of change in their toileting pattern.
There are youngsters who might want to talk with their parents or professionals about what’s going on. Others will channel their anxieties, questions and fears right into heir playtime, according to The Washington Post.
“While children may exhibit age-appropriate speech and language skills, they may require time and guidance to nurture their emotional intelligence or ability to monitor their own emotions and link these to preceding situations and resulting behaviors,” said Leela R. Magavi, regional medical director for Community Psychiatry, California’s largest outpatient mental health organization, told The Washington Post. “Consequently, rather than directly speaking with their parents about sadness, anxiety and anger due to COVID-19, children may express their feelings by using their trusted toys.”
Psychologists told The New York Times back in the summer that all this is normal. Putting COVID-19 into playtime helps them understand what’s going on and work through the intensity of the pandemic.
“Play helps modulate their mood,” Sandra Russ, Ph.D., a professor and psychologist at Case Western University, told The New York Times. “They can express these things in little bits in ways that are manageable for them.”
Stories can be an important part of this, Russ said.
“They integrate it, including their fears, and build a story around it,” she said. “That narrative is really important.”