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Helping kids cope during COVID-19

March 27, 2020

In the face of the COVID-19 crises, many parents, teachers, and care givers are wondering how best to support children and youth manage and maintain their physical and psychological well-being in the context of social isolation and distancing, closed schools, and the underlying anxiety and fear that the pandemic is generating. Children’s experiences of other disasters have taught us that the disruption and stress associated with disasters can have long-term implications and that children and youth may be more vulnerable to the emotional impact of stressful and traumatic events and the disruption and loss of routines that they often inspire.

Children and youth, even very young children, will take their cues from the adults around them, picking on the stress and anxiety, reacting to the loss of routines, predictability, and in the case of this virus, the loss of opportunities to play and hang out with friends. In this context, it is important to find ways to help kids stay busy, and to express and make sense of what they are feeling and thinking and observing. Art – creative expression – is one of those way. Give most children some art supplies and the space to be creative and they will jump in and parents are already sharing some of the COVID art their kids are creating. Art can provide opportunities for expressing what is difficult, or depending on a child’s age, impossible to express through words. Art can also be a way of processing feelings and thoughts and can open a door for parents to explore some of those emotions, answer questions, and just connect.

Check out this article in which I and other child and disaster psychologists share some insights on the role that art can play in helping children cope and stay healthy during this challenging time. Below are some other tips for supporting children during stressful times.

Other tips for parents during the COVID-19 crisis

  1. Every child is unique. There is no right way, normal way, necessarily predictable way that children are going to respond. The way children respond to stress and disruption, just like adults, is unique, varied and shaped by their context and by those around them. Some may become more demanding or clingy, some may withdraw, some may carry on and adapt with little to no change. Take your cues from your child, and as much as possible let patience, empathy, and curiosity shape your response.
  2. Help Kids stay Connected. Physical distancing and social isolation measures don’t have to mean losing connection. Caregivers can help children maintain connections through FaceTime, Skype, virtual playdates, and online game nights (check out the POGO app which allows groups to play games for free) or movie nights. Get your kids to participate in a neighbourhood shout out by creating window art that shares a message and a virtual wave with others when they are out walking in socially responsible ways. 
  3. Practice Patience and Positivity. Everyone is feeling the effects of the disruption, social and physical distancing, and fear. Recognize your own stress and find ways and times to take care of yourself. Remember to place the oxygen mask on your own face before helping others. This pandemic is a marathon not a sprint, and we all need to find ways of supporting and sustaining our physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing so that we can be present for those who rely on us. We all need to balance the sense of doom with a sense of hope and remind ourselves that we are a remarkably creative and innovative species. Search for previous or current examples of people especially other children finding ways of contributing in positive ways. Mentor positivity by practicing it yourself. Be a role model for practicing self-care by taking breaks, eating well, exercising while practicing physical distancing, and finding humour where you can.
  4. Routines, reassurance, and resilienceRoutines help children feel safe. They provide predictability and structure at a time when their world may feel very unpredictable and scary.  Don’t avoid the topic. Children will have questions and concerns so talk with them, answer their question with age-appropriate information, and acknowledge their fears and concerns. Reassure younger children that you are there and that keeping them safe is your job, and the job of other adults in their home and the community. Resilience is a real and under recognized quality that children demonstrate in the context of crises. Children and youth can demonstrate remarkable resilience and capabilities those characteristics are increased when they feel empowered to contribute and take action. Help children identify and practice what they have done in the past that makes them feel safe. Support them taking action to contribute to the household and help others. Children can draw and write messages of support and encouragement for health care providers and other front-line responders like grocery store and other essential service workers. Children can help package up food for local food banks or vulnerable neighbours. They can use technology to spend time with elders and other family or community members who are isolated and vulnerable. They can create comics, blog posts, video messages to share with other children who may be struggling. Creativity and coping go hand in hand.
  5. Manage exposure. It’s hard to avoid this crisis. Every news feed, social media channel, many conversations are focused on COVID-19 and what we are all doing to help flatten the curve and stay safe. Research has shown that over exposure, developmentally inappropriate exposure can negatively affect children's mental health in the short and longer term. Children's developmental state influences how they see and understand things, and especially for younger children, their ability to make sense of things, describe what is going on for them, and communicate their need for assistance coping. Unrestricted access to media coverage of the COVID crisis, or adult conversations about the worry and challenge of the economic, health or other consequences of the pandemic, can activate and prolong an unhealthy stress response. Take charge of how much exposure your children have, balancing it with a focus on other activities and topics. This doesn't mean avoiding it all together - over protecting children by pretending nothing is wrong can be just as problematic. It’s a balancing act. Share the facts about what is happening in an age appropriate way. Take opportunities to talk to children about what they are seeing, hearing, and feeling. Don't be afraid to not know - not having all the answers is not only realistic, it helps normalize the uncertainty and fear.