Coping with COVID: Supporting kids in these trying times

HARLINGEN — She’s into everything.

Bianca Rios, 11, is student council president and a familiar face in the musical theater scene, singing and dancing in such powerful performances as “Frozen” last October.

This young lady is all about face to face contact with friends and teachers — but she can’t do any of that right now because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Safety measures put in place have closed school campuses for the rest of the school year and require everyone to stay home as much as possible and practice social distancing in public.

The sudden change in societal norms has blindsided everyone, including parents who had no way of knowing this was coming, much less how to get ready. Sara Robertson, child life specialist at Valley Baptist Medical Center – Harlingen, offers a number of tips for helping children of all ages cope with the situation.

One of those tips is the importance of accurate sources of information.

“ Your primary sources shouldn’t be social media,” Robertson says. “Go directly to the CDC or local health department website to find out the facts so you’re equipped by the experts.”

That’s exactly what Nora Ann Cantu, a fifth grade teacher at Long Elementary, is telling other parents, her students and her son Alejandro at home.

“ I limit a lot of the news in my house just because it’s really hard,” Cantu said. “We’re supposed to teach kids in school ‘What’s misinformation? What’s a valid source? Are you evaluating where you’re getting the information from?’ So that’s been a really big life lesson I think my son had to learn.”

Parents face the new and much unanticipated challenge of helping children survive the era of social distancing.

“ I guess one of the things that they can do is remain calm and reassuring,” said Sandra Tovar, director of guidance and counseling for the Harlingen school district.

“ The children will react the way they see their parents react,” Tovar said. “So parents shouldn’t be afraid to discuss what’s going on with their children. Of course they don’t want to share too much information because it could be overwhelming.”

Overwhelming seems the operative word for many, especially for children like Bianca, a fifth grader at Lee Means Elementary. Bianca misses her face time with her fans, fellow actors, friends and teachers, said her mother Rebecca Rios.

“ She talks about, she’s student council president, and she says, ‘Mom, we still haven’t done our song for the school, we still have to bring in new student council representatives for next year. We’re not even going to get to do that,’” Rebecca Rios said. “She’s thinking of the loose ends on her end of what needs to be done. And I say, ‘You know what? It’ll get done. Maybe not right now but it’s gonna get done.’”

She said she’s being honest with her daughter, to a point, because “I think it’s beyond overwhelming for even kids like her, who is always on the go, go, go, go constantly and interacting with other people,” she said. “I’ve been trying to be very supportive of her, you know, ‘Things are going to get better.’”

Composure during such stressful times can result in survival and even success. Parents should present confidence to their children during this period of uncertainty, Robertson said.

“ Our kids need to hear and feel that they are safe,” she said. “We do this by engaging with them, spending time playing with them, listening to them. Don’t worry too much about saying the right thing. Just be present and honest.”

If the burden becomes too heavy for a moment, parents can take their own time out, Robertson said. They can reach out to friends, write in a journal, go for a walk, or just step away for a moment and take a deep breath.

“ Model positive coping skills and you’ll begin to see your kids emulate them as well,” Robertson said.

This is a perfect time for families to bond, Tovar said.

“ They can do activities together, maybe after work,” Tovar said. “They can read to their child, doing a science activity together or bake a cake. I’ve been amazed at some of the things I’ve seen that kids are doing. Like, ‘Wow, that really does work. I really can create something with my hands.’”

Cantu remembers her 11-year-old son’s reaction when it appeared her husband would be furloughed. The boy was concerned about their house, paying bills, and other important matters. She quickly stepped up to the challenge.

“ I’m a teacher so I’m practical,” she said.

They sat down and looked at their budget and her income as a teacher. After some discussion they learned they would be OK and that made a big difference.

“ Fourth grade and above, they understand the way the world works,” she said. “They understand the conversations they overhear in their house. So for me, honesty is the best policy. We just kind of tell him there may be changes, there may be adjustments that we need to make. But just try to stay positive.”

That’s what Rebecca Rios is doing.

Among other things, Bianca was looking forward to two trips to Schlitterbahn Beach Park, once with the student council and the other for being an Accelerated Reader.

“ She was talking about the field trip and I go, ‘You know what? We’ll just get you all together and your friends, as many as you can, and we’ll do a field trip after things calm down. You know what I mean?’”

Plans for tomorrow are vital at this time. The era of social distancing and closed campuses won’t last forever. Bianca is one of many talented kids in the district who have already been accepted into the Gutierrez Middle School of Arts and Sciences, which will begin its inaugural season in the fall.

As the bards of theater like to say, the show must go on.

twhitehead@valleystar.com