Tracy Tredennick urges the young people she counsels to exercise, watch their diets and meditate among options for handling the stress that has resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic.

But she offered a twist on the notion of that now common phrase: social distancing.

“I prefer to say physically distanced rather than socially distanced,” Tredennick, a licensed therapist with Pediatric Care Specialists Behavioral Health Services in Johnstown, said during a virtual forum Tuesday evening.

The event – “COVID Questions: Helping Kids and Families Cope” – was sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, In This Together Cambria and The Tribune-Democrat.

The panel also featured Martha Faust, program director for Beginnings Parents as Teachers in-home visiting program, and Heidi Niebauer, a family advocate with Magellan Health.

Faust, who works with younger children, offered this sobering fact: “Because of the pandemic, 2-year-olds have spent half of their lives in quarantine.”

She recommends “grounding” techniques when stress is elevated, including deep breathing exercises, or tensing and then relaxing muscles.

Niebauer, who works with individuals age 13 to adult, said people of all ages are feeling grief over what they’ve lost during the virus period – from loved ones to traditional experiences.

“Asking for help is important,” Niebauer said. “(Young people’s) feelings are valid. It’s OK to not be OK.”

Tredennick said families and children should use safe online sites – such as Zoom – to practice “social connectedness,” noting that some families are “overwhelmed” by the loss of many activities and routines.

She urged parents to watch for signs that their children are experiencing high levels of stress or anxiety:

• Poor performance in school;

• Changes in appetite;

• Shifting sleep patterns;

• Injuring themselves intentionally.

In some situations, clinical intervention might be necessary, Tredennick said.

“Kids self-harm because they’re experiencing uncomfortable feelings,” she said.

Panelists reminded parents that they can access the Cambria County Mental Health Crisis Line by calling 877-268-9463 or by sending a text message to 741741.

The “COVID Questions” forum series will continue at 7 p.m. Feb. 23, with a discussion featuring area medical specialists.

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