Many of us, as parents and caregivers, find ourselves now at home, juggling our children’s school requirements, our own work obligations, and the added stress of trying to stay healthy and safe during a pandemic. We want to be supportive and encouraging, but simultaneously we struggle with how best to address the dangerous realities of this virus. Now, perhaps more than ever, our kids are looking to us for guidance and reassurance. And our interactions with our kids, how we talk about and respond to the current conditions, make a tremendous difference in how they address these challenging times.
There are mountains of articles and reports to sift through offering advice. What follows are highlights of three helpful resources – one from the National Association of School Psychologists and National Association of School Nurses, one from Psychology Today, and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. These, like many resources and experts, stress the importance of offering an age-appropriate response.
For young children it is important to keep your discussions of COVID-19 brief and simple. It is helpful to let young children know that adults – including their family members, teachers, and community leaders – are working to keep them safe and healthy. Within this age group, stress and anxiety may show up as loss of appetite, clinging to parents/caregivers, thumb sucking, or regression in developmental milestones.
We should anticipate more questions from later elementary and early middle schoolers. They may ask questions about COVID-19 cases in their area or school, the chances that they will get sick, and what is going to happen when they return to school. Given the uncertainty that exists around many of these questions, we can help these children by giving them the facts that we do know. Talk about how the disease is spread and what everyone can do to reduce their risk. Practice handwashing and putting on face masks. Discuss what national, state, and community leaders are doing, such as issuing stay-at-home orders, to manage the spread of the disease. Irritability, poor concentration, nightmares, and clinginess are all common signs of stress with kids in this age group.
COVID-19 issues and concerns can be discussed in greater detail with older students, such as those in grades 8-12. Again, it is important to steer them to factual information and credible sources. This group is likely to be getting information form a variety of sources, such as friends and social media. We can play an important role in helping them sort out facts from rumor, speculation, or opinion. Sleep disruptions, loss of appetite, increased conflicts and aggression, and physical complaints are common among teens under stress.
Limiting access to screens, including television, internet, phone, and social media, is advised for all age groups. Yet, this has become increasingly challenging with stay-at-home orders, e-learning, reduced alternate activities, and time demands of parent work schedules. We can all monitor how much time our children spend watching COVID-19 updates, as too much information can increase fears, confusion, and anxiety.
We can help children and youth stay active by encouraging them to play outside, take a walk, or go for a bike ride. Even a small amount of outdoor time can significantly help mental and physical wellbeing. Taking breaks from schoolwork can increase focus and reduce fatigue. Let your child lead their movement breaks – jumping jacks, dance moves, and stretching are all easy options. We have seen countless creative ways children and families are playing together during this pandemic.
Above all, we want all children to feel supported and cared for during these unusual and uncertain times. We want them to feel safe and comfortable sharing their frustrations, fears and concerns. Lost time with friends, sports seasons, musical performances and graduations are understandable reasons for our kids to be angry, disappointed, and sad. We need to hear and validate these emotions. At the same time, we can also use this time to model flexibility, patience, creative engagement strategies, problem solving, resilience, and compassion. All caring adults have the opportunity to help our children through this crisis – and our kids are counting on us to do just that.
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