“Helping Children Cope” is the second Q&A in this three-part series where we provide expert advice about protecting children and helping families deal with COVID-19.
Q: How can I comfort my child in these unprecedented times?
A: Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations, and children and teens are likely to respond more strongly. As public conversations around COVID-19 increase, children may worry about loved one’s becoming ill with COVID-19. Parents, family members, school staff and other trusted adults can play an important role in easing concerns in an honest and compassionate tone.
Stress during an infectious disease outbreak like COVID-19 may include:
• Fear and worry about one’s own health and the health of loved ones
• Changes in sleep or eating patterns
• Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
• Worsening of chronic health problems
• Worsening of mental health conditions
Remain calm and reassuring.
• Children and teens react, in part, to what they see from the adults around them. When parents and caregivers deal with COVID-19 calmly and confidently, they can provide the best support for children. It is important for adults to also recognize their own fears and concerns and openly share with their kids. Let them know it is okay if they feel upset.
• Preparing for conversations is key to providing reassurance and staying calm. It’s important to recognize that children will react to both what you say and how you say it. They will pick up on both verbal and non-verbal cues from conversations including body language and tone.
• Be a role model. Set a good example for your children by managing your stress through healthy lifestyle choices, such as eating healthy, exercising regularly, getting plenty of sleep and avoiding drugs and alcohol. Connect with your friends and family members. When you are prepared, rested, and relaxed you can respond better to unexpected questions or events.
• Try to keep up with regular routines. If schools are closed, create a schedule for learning activities and relaxing or fun activities.
Make yourself available to listen and to talk.
Set aside time to talk and remind your children that you are prepared to keep them safe. Follow your child’s lead and make sure they know they can come to you with any questions or concerns. Kids notice when you are sad, mad or avoidant and can pick up on your own concern. Be mindful of this. If they are worried about family or friends, video chat may help them feel better.
Avoid language that might blame others and lead to stigma.
Remember that viruses can make anyone sick, regardless of a person’s race or ethnicity. Treat everyone with respect and avoid making assumptions about who might have COVID-19.
Pay attention to what children see or hear on television, radio or online.
Consider reducing the amount of screen time focused on COVID-19. Too much information on one topic can lead to more fear and worry, or children may misinterpret what they hear and become frightened.
Provide information that is honest and accurate.
• Give children information that is truthful and appropriate for the age and developmental level of the child. Keep it simple. See development chart below.
• Talk to children about how some COVID-19 stories may contain incorrect or exaggerated information.
Teach children everyday actions to reduce the spread of germs.
• Remind children to keep their distance from people who are sick, especially those who are coughing or sneezing.
• Stress the importance of coughing or sneezing into a tissue or their elbow, then throwing the tissue into the trash.
• Discuss any new actions that may be taken at school to help protect children andteachers (e.g., more handwashing, cancellation of events or activities).
• Get children into the habit of washing their hands often.
• Teach them to wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after blowing their nose, coughing, or sneezing; going to the bathroom; playing outside; and before eating.
• If soap and water are not available, teach them to use hand sanitizer. Hand sanitizer should contain at least 60 percent alcohol. Watch young children when they use hand sanitizer to avoid swallowing.
Q: Are there different coping mechanisms I should be aware of post-COVID-19?
A: Here are some unique strategies to think about post-COVID-19:
• Provide children with opportunities to talk about what they went through or what they think about it.
• Encourage them to share concerns and ask questions.
• It is difficult to predict how some children will respond to difficult events and illnesses such as COVID-19. Because parents, teachers and other adults see children in different situations, it is important for them to share information about how children are coping after these tough times.
Q: What behavioral changes should I watch for in my child?
A: Not all children and teens respond to stress in the same way. See development chart below. Some common changes to watch for include:
• Extreme crying or irritation in younger children
• Returning to behaviors they have outgrown (ex: wetting the bed)
• Excessive worry or sadness
• Unhealthy eating or sleeping habits
• Irritability and “acting out” behaviors in teens
• Poor school performance or avoiding school
• Difficulty with attention and concentration
• Avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past
• Unexplained headaches or body pain
• Use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs