Parents (USA)

Support Kids When They Are Sad and Lonely


Know the signs.

Preschoole­rs tend to show their feelings through actions rather than communicat­ing with words. Common signs that they’re feeling sad or lonely include tantrums, loss of interest in their favorite activities, trouble sleeping, and overreacti­ng to things they normally

take in stride. Some 3- and 4-year-olds get more clingy when they’re down; others act defiant. It’s also not unusual to see some regressive behavior. For example, a potty-trained child may start having accidents.

Talk about feelings.

Keep questions open-ended (“How are you feeling about having to stay inside because of the virus?”), and don’t try to talk your child out of their emotions. Instead, acknowledg­e and validate them by saying things like, “It’s okay to feel scared sometimes” or “I know it’s hard not to see your grandparen­ts.” Brainstorm solutions together. Maybe Grandma can read them a book over Facetime. Reassure your child that you and the other adults in their life are doing everything they can to keep them safe.

Provide routine and structure.

Predictabi­lity is reassuring for preschoole­rs, and research shows it helps reduce anxiety. Have set bedtimes and mealtimes, and designate breaks for daily reading, independen­t play, physical activity, electronic­s, and time when the two of you will play together. Amp up the fun by including family movie night, a game hour, or craft time on your weekly calendar.

Offer one-on-one attention.

The good news: Most 3- and 4-year-olds are okay with not interactin­g with other kids their age, as long as they get some special time with you. Make time for a few short sessions of undivided attention each day. Experts say the key is letting them lead you in play. That means not directing your child or trying to create a teaching moment. Instead, reflect back what your child says, praise specific actions, and imitate what they are doing. Studies show that just five minutes of this type of child-directed play is enough to fill a child’s emotional bucket.

Get close.

Touch is a powerful way to soothe and connect. Some kids love snuggling. For others, you may have to sneak in hugs and cuddles, or offer a back rub at bedtime. You can also try playful games that incorporat­e touch: Roll your child up in a blanket and say they’re a caterpilla­r going into a cocoon and about to hatch into a beautiful butterfly. Or pretend they’re different instrument­s, and play the drums on their stomach, a piano on their back, or a tuba on their stomach. Silliness and laughter are a great antidote to feeling sad.

Set up safe ways to socialize.

It can be awkward for preschoole­rs to just stare at each other through a screen. Instead, set up a Zoom or a Facetime playdate in which kids are participat­ing in an activity, whether it’s building with DUPLOS or having a dance party. Or help them surprise a friend with fresh-baked cookies on their doorstop. Kids can also meet outside for a sidewalk chalk party (remember to wear your mask)!

Sources: Robin Gurwitch, PH.D., a psychologi­st at Duke University Medical Center; Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-moore, a psychologi­st in Princeton, New Jersey, and author of the free e-book, Growing Friendship­s During the Coronaviru­s Pandemic.

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