A young child wearing a mask sits on school steps with a backpack beside him.
Photo: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

Tania Johnson says navigating childhood during a pandemic can be tough, but adults like parents and teachers can help bolster resilience and psychological wellness when armed with the right tools.

Helping provide those tools is what she hopes to do this weekend. The Alberta-based registered psychologist and play therapist is co-founder of the Institute of Child Psychology. The organization is hosting an online fall conference this weekend for parents, teachers, and other professionals. About 2,500 people are expected to participate.

“What we’re hoping is to empower the people in a child’s village with the tools to actually create shifts,” Johnson said in a recent interview.

“Instead of me being the therapist holding all of these tools, I believe that it’s the parents and the professionals who should have these tools and go, ‘Oh, I get to see this child every single day and I can be the agent of change for this child’s life’ because really all we need is one adult to change the course of a child’s life in terms of resiliency.”

Registered psychologist, play therapist and co-founder of the Institute of Child Psychology Tania Johnson. Photo: Contributed

This weekend’s conference includes keynote presentations and workshops led by a roster of professionals and world renowned speakers, including Dr. Gabor Maté, Dr. Daniel Siegel, Dr. Shefali Tsabary, Julia Cook, and Michael Ungar.

Topics that will be covered over the weekend range from navigating stress to trauma and depression to issues around screen time.

Johnson said mental health has frequently been cited as the second global pandemic, and she believes this to be true.

“I believe wholeheartedly that many, many, many of our children and our adults are going to continue to struggle. I think the biggest thing that we’re going to see is a build-up of stress,” she said.

“What we’ve been through are tiny traumas, but enough of those traumas, enough days at home, enough days of uncertainty, eventually those small ‘Ts’ we know add up to a big ‘T,’ a big trauma.”

That trauma, she said, needs to be processed, and it will take “a while” for many people. That’s why one of her key pieces of advice for parents is that if they’re struggling, deal with their own issues first before seeking therapy for their children.

“Generally, coverage for therapy is limited and therapy can be expensive so I always say to parents ‘If you only have a little bit of coverage, put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you put it on your child.’ Go for therapy first, work with your own stress,” Johnson said.

“If I see a child in my office once a week for play therapy, but they’re going home to a household that’s highly stressed, I’m not going to create the type of shift that I need. We need the parents to be healthy in order for the children to be healthy.”

‘Stress that’s pushed down becomes toxic’

Johnson said the data shows the group struggling most with pandemic-related mental health issues are those between ages 15 and 25, although she believes younger children are also being impacted. In her own practice and at the Institute of Child Psychology where they do training for professionals and parents, there has been a noticeable increase in levels of stress, anxiety, and depression in adolescents.

“Beforehand those stressors were there, but there were lots of different arenas to express that stress — I could go over to a friend’s house, I could go to hockey practice,” Johnson said.

“Whereas for many of our youth, there isn’t that same arena of expression and so it gets kind of stuffed down and eventually what happens is stress that’s pushed down becomes toxic.”

Johnson said it’s important for parents to “hold space” for their children during times of uncertainty, regardless of age. She said parents want to make it better, tend to talk a lot, and jump in quickly with solutions. The key, she said, is stepping back and allowing your calm to “be contagious” so they can speak their fears and ask difficult questions.

“We talk way too much as adults, so when we quieten our response to kids that stress response, the amygdala response, quietens and they’re able to actually utilize more of their prefrontal cortex, which gives them that ability to consider different perspectives, to problem solve, to think rationally through an issue,” Johnson explained.

“When we talk a lot, we see that their stress response goes up. So that holding space really is literally being quiet, being warm, really watching what your nonverbals are doing and just allowing lots of space without feeling like we actually need to fix it.”

Despite the anxiety some parents have watching their children struggle as a result of the pandemic, Johnson said she’s hopeful for the future and parents should be too.

“The brain is constantly developing and changing as the world changes, and with the right supports around our children, with a village that is healthy, the brain will change and adapt as the world changes and adapts,” she said.

“I have so much hope for all of our children. I do believe that we will get through this. And for many of our children, when the adults are strong, I believe that our children will be more resilient.”

The deadline to purchase tickets for this weekend’s conference is Thursday at 3pm. Those who would like to participate but can’t due to financial constraints can apply for a 50% subsidy by emailing conference@instituteofchildpsychology.com for more information. Those requests are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.


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Yvette d'Entremont

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor, covering the COVID-19 pandemic and health issues. Twitter @ydentremont

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