More than ever, children might be feeling stuck, anxious, and stir crazy. Here’s what parents can do to create calm amid chaos
Even the littlest kids are noticing life is different than it was just a few weeks ago. Schools are closed, mom and dad are home, and all those everyday routines? They’re a thing of the past.
Behavioral health experts are reporting that children, from toddlers to teens, are having a tough time—and parents are wondering about the best ways to help them through it. First things first: Check your own anxieties—they can be contagious.
“It’s important for parents to manage how they’re responding to the coronavirus fears because that has a big impact on how their children respond,” says Miyume McKinley, L.C.S.W., a licensed clinical social worker who treats children and adolescents in Los Angeles. “Kids see and hear everything we think they don’t notice.”
If you feel your child—or you—would benefit from professional help, reach out to your family pediatrician or doctor. You can also text GO to 741741 to reach a free and confidential crisis counselor.
Second, acknowledge that social distancing and sheltering in place is hard. No one is expecting you to become a professional child psychologist overnight, but you most definitely can adopt some of their best strategies for easing your child’s fears.
Stay-Calm Strategy #1: Follow Your Child’s Lead
“Refrain from discussing all the details with children—gear your conversation toward their developmental level,” suggests McKinley. “Check in with kids about what they know and try to respond to their specific concerns. They might be worried about Grandma, or they might just be wondering if their game will be canceled.”
Tweens and teens in the house? Now’s the time to ask them what they’ve heard about the coronavirus. Equally important—follow up with ‘Where did you read or hear that?’ You don’t want their only line of information to be TikTok or a string of memes on Instagram. Steer them toward news sources you know to be reliable and current.
Keep the lines of communication open and tailor the information you provide to your children’s anxieties.
Stay-Calm Strategy #2: Seek a Silver Lining
In the midst of all the worrisome news, try to find a positive message. “Instead of saying, ‘Schools are shutting down because of coronavirus,’” says McKinley, “you might say, ‘The school is concerned about our safety—they want everyone to take time and rest at home and take care of themselves.’”
Nobody’s sure how long all this will last, so try to model a positive attitude for your kids. “Don’t act like everything in life is on hold,” suggests Brandon Eddy, Ph.D., professor of family therapy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“There are so many things we can do from home,” Eddy says. “Let’s embrace this quiet time together and try to make the most of it. There are lots of challenges, including financial concerns, but try to view this as a time to connect more closely with your children.”
Stay-Calm Strategy #3: Empower Them to Find Solutions
Let your kids know that no matter their age, there are tangible things they can do to help right now. “Treat this like you would other emergencies,” suggests Kerrie Smedley, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Annville, Pennsylvania.
“With a snowstorm, for instance, you’d make sure you have shovels, gloves, and hats on hand,” she says. “For coronavirus, your kids can focus on washing their hands and following CDC guidelines. Finding one solution and living with it can help during all the uncertainty.”
Other ways kids can feel like they’re part of the solution:
- Make face masks for family members and neighbors. Find two simple, no-sew patterns on the CDC’s website. Or watch the U.S. Surgeon General turn an old T-shirt into a mask using just a couple of rubber bands.
- Send artwork and encouraging notes to local first responders and hospital workers.
- Make care packages to send to nursing home residents.
Stay-Calm Strategy #4: Make the New Normal, Normal
Try to keep life as familiar as possible. “In times of disruption, we cope by having a sense of stability,” says Michelle Paul, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and director of the Practice, a community mental health clinic in Las Vegas.
“After all, humans—especially kids—are wired for sameness,” says Paul. “When routines break down, we’re not sure what’s going to happen next, and that feeds into the anxiety mechanisms in our body.”
Schedules, on the other hand, bring a sense of order and predictability to our days. Work with your kids—even the youngest ones—to create a routine for your family’s new normal. Together, make a poster spelling out your daily timeline, suggests Paul, and include everything from study sessions to reading breaks and even some screen time.
“An important part of routine is building healthy coping skills and promoting a sense of control,” she explains. “Anything we can predict and have some control over can help to conquer that free-floating sense of anxiety.”
Stay-Calm Strategy #5: Tap Their Inner Picasso
Encourage your kids to express their concerns creatively—from painting a picture of a germ to making a sketch of a doctor helping a patient. “Art is a mechanism for kids to express what they’re thinking and feeling about everything that’s going on,” says Paul.
“Pull out all the art supplies you have around the house and say, ‘Let’s make a city with boxes and scissors and glue—and then let’s play out how our community is helping each other keep coronavirus from spreading too much.’ Kids can process their anxieties through art and play.”
Painting isn’t the only way to express oneself, of course. Journaling, writing poetry, photography, making videos, even building with Legos can help kids process the changes taking place right now.
Stay-Calm Strategy #6: And Their Inner Olympian
One of the best ways for kids—and adults—to ease anxiety is to move. Multiple studies show that exercise decreases feelings of depression and anxiety. So make sure you build some exercise time into your kids’ daily life.
“If you’ve got a backyard, let the children go outside and play,” says Eddy. “Or take a daily walk as a family—just remember to keep safe distance from anyone you meet along the way.”
Need ideas for indoor play? Challenge each other to wall sits or planks. Or make screen time, sweat time: Fitness pros, dance teachers, and yoga gurus are leading live workouts and posting YouTube videos of sessions that parents and kids can do together.
A few to check out:
- PE with Joe, The Body Coach TV: The London–based YouTube fitness instructor is streaming 30-minute, kid-friendly workouts every weekday.
- Cosmic Kids Yoga: Even though these combined yoga-storytelling sessions are aimed at the younger crowd, we won’t tell if you pull up a mat to join in.
- 305Fitness Cardio Dance Party: High schoolers can get their heart rate up during these 55-minute, high-intensity dance workouts streaming live twice a day.
“Anything to get children moving can help to ease their levels of anxiety—and yours,” says Eddy.
Stay-Calm Strategy #7: Create Connections
Just like you, your kids are social creatures, so use platforms like Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom to reach out to grandparents and other family members, as well as friends and teachers from school.
“Social connection is very healing,” says Paul. “Help your children ease their anxiety by fostering that sense of belonging.”
No matter how long social distancing lasts, she says, it’s important for everyone in the house to actively find ways to keep living their lives.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time and posting. Because the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, we encourage readers to follow the news and recommendations for their own communities by using the resources from the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department.