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Kids overcoming mental health obstacles—karate style

Kids' mental health has become a top issue during the COVID-19 pandemic. Activities like karate are just one way to help kids cope with pandemic-related stress.

WAUKEE, Iowa — As Iowa schools prepare for 100% in-person learning next week, some parents are looking for more ways to teach their kids important skills in life. 

Parents in Waukee are turning to karate for the first time to help with that. 

Vivian Clutts, 11, has learned some pretty neat karate moves so far, like board breaking. 

"Board breaking, there's boards over there, and we just use our hands and just break them," Vivian told Local 5's Jon Diaz. "And it really hurts, but it's really fun." 

The orange-belt started at Dojo's Family Martial Arts a few months ago. 

"I don't think it's been too hard for me," Vivian said about the pandemic. "I'm a kid. And I've gotten used to all of this, the masks, social distancing." 

That positive mindset is exactly what instructor Mustafa Jahic is trying to instill. 

"The biggest thing is positivity," Jahic said, "with mental health being such a big issue right now, being positive in everything they do... even if there is a tough obstacle in their way." 

But what if the obstacle is a global pandemic? Experts say activities like karate is exactly what kids need right now. 

"First of all, [I like to] say that I think things like karate and other things that you can do that are structured exercises that are good for the body and mind are fantastic," said Dr. Carl Weems, chair of the Human Development & Family Studies department at Iowa State University

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Weems said the pandemic has taken its toll on some children. 

"It's all those stressors, traumatic and otherwise, that build up over time that change our physiology, affect our brain development and those kinds of things," Weems said.

However, Weems said experts still don't know the long-term effects this pandemic may have on kids. 

"We could see some long-lasting outcomes for kids in terms of their social development if this is hitting some critical periods where they would be normally getting to interact with their peers and learn emotional control, emotional regulation in those difficult social situations, in those conflict situations," Weems explained. 

That's why parents are bringing their kids to places like karate studios. 

"It is so imperative to have physical activity in addition to mental health wellness," said Lisa Barcelo Davis, a parent. 

As for Vivian, she said she is one of the lucky ones. 

"I know that some people have it worse, like they don't even get to come anywhere," she said. "They have to sit in their house and do online... I know I have it pretty good the way I am." 

Weems said talking to kids about getting creative is the best way to start the conversation. He said sometimes kids don't understand or respond to questions like "How do you feel?" or "What are you thinking?" 

Instead, Weems suggested asking kids questions like, "Who did you eat lunch with today?" or "How was that karate move?" to get the conversation flowing. 

If there is a child in your life who needs help coping with pandemic-related stress, you can visit On Our Sleeves, an organization dedicated to addressing the challenges kids face with mental health.