As children and youth hear about the COVID-19 pandemic, they can feel just as nervous, scared, confused, or worried as adults. However, children and youth express emotions differently than adults. Therefore, it is important to know when a child needs help.
Possible Stress Responses in Children
- Infants and toddlers do not completely understand when something bad is happening. However, they may sense changes in their caregivers’ mood and behavior. They may express this through crying, or hyperactive, aggressive, or withdrawn behavior.
- Children, 3–5 years old, may be able to understand the effects of COVID-19. If they are very upset, they may have trouble adjusting to their new routines. As such, they may rely on adults for support more than usual.
- Children, 6–10 years old, may have trouble paying attention and struggle with schoolwork during the current transition to online instruction. Some may become aggressive for no apparent reason. Others may act younger than their age, by asking to be fed or dressed by their parents or caregivers.
- Youth and Adolescents, 11–19 years old, may struggle to cope with the anxiety that may be associated with hearing and reading news of COVID-19. Older teens may deny their reactions to themselves and their caregivers. They may respond with a routine “I’m okay” or even silence when they are upset. They may also experience some physical symptoms because of anxiety about the pandemic. Some may start arguments at home and/or at school, resisting any structure or authority.
How to Support Children During the COVID-19 Pandemic:
- Be attentive and listen. Children may need help expressing their emotions through conversation, writing, drawing, playing, and singing. The majority of children want to talk about things that make them anxious and cause them stress and may simply need the opportunity. Accept their feelings and tell them it is okay to feel sad, upset, or stressed. Crying is often a way to relieve stress and grief.
- Allow them to ask questions. Ask your teens what they know about COVID-19. What are they hearing about COVID-19? Try to watch news coverage on TV or the Internet with them. Also, limit access so they have time away from reminders about COVID-19; although limiting access to older children may prove difficult, access may be limited by encouraging positive activities. Don’t let talking about the pandemic take over the family or classroom discussion for long periods of time.
- Encourage positive activities. Adults can help children and youth see the good that can come out of the pandemic. Heroic actions, families, neighbors, and friends who are assisting with the response to the pandemic, and people who take steps to prevent the spread of all types of illness, such as hand washing, are examples. Children may better cope with the pandemic by helping others. They can write caring letters or emails to those who have been sick or lost family members to illness. They can be a source of support to their friends (at a distance). Children may also be encouraged to have virtual play dates.
- Set a positive example of taking care of yourself, set routines, eat healthy meals, get enough sleep, exercise, and take deep breaths to handle stress. Adults can show children and youth how to take care of themselves. If you are in good physical and emotional health, you are more likely to be readily available to support the children you care about.
Tips for Talking with Children
Infants, Toddlers, and Preschool Children, 0 – 5 years old
- Speak to them calmly, in a way they can understand.
- Tell them that you always care for them and will continue to take care of them, so they feel safe.
- Keep normal routines, such as eating dinner together and having a consistent bedtime.
Early Childhood to Adolescence, 6 – 19 years old
- Ask your child or the children in your care what worries them and what might help them cope.
- Offer comfort with gentle words or just be present with them.
- Spend more time with the children than usual, even for a short while.
- If your child is very distressed, excuse him or her from chores for a day or two.
- Encourage children to have quiet time or to express their feelings through writing or art.
- Encourage children to participate in recreational activities so they can move around and play with others.
- Address your own anxiety and stress in a healthy way.
- Let children know that you care about them—spend time doing something special; make sure to check on them in a nonintrusive way.
- Maintain consistent routines, such as completing homework and playing games together.
Much of this information came from the National Commission on Children and Disasters.