Certain words and actions can help them greatly.
As the coronavirus crisis deepens, many adults are wondering how they can help kids be less anxious and support their mental health until things improve. Fortunately, there are many simple things you can do to support their resilience.
1. Be calm and positive
Act as calm and positive as you can around your kids, even when you feel anxious, fearful, or depressed. Kids pick up signals about adult feelings and reactions to events, which in turn affects how they feel and react. So, appearing calm and optimistic even when you don’t feel that way, can help ease their distress. Channel your inner acting ability if needed. One way is to imagine yourself in a place that helps you feel calm and relaxed while deep breathing. Teach your kids deep breathing and visualization using our YouTube feel calmer video if you’d like! Try using it as a family activity to help you all feel calmer.
Point out the good things happening. Talk about how people are helping each other stay healthy and safe. Praise kids for being part of this, by using good hand washing, not touching faces, and sneezing or coughing into the inside of their elbows or using tissue and then throwing it away, and by not being around other people right now to protect them from getting sick. Talk about acts of kindness, like teachers and others working to make sure needy children still get meals, and how getting through something like this together will make the nation and the world even stronger. Reassure them that most who catch the virus will not get severely sick, especially children. Helping others feels good.
While kids can learn healthy communication from hearing adults problem-solve with calm discussions, it lowers their sense of security when they hear arguments between caretaker adults in the home, especially parents. If disagreements get heated, it’s best to handle them away from the kids.
2. Talk about the coronavirus outbreak with your kids
When you talk about corona virus with children, start by asking what they’ve heard about what is happening with coronavirus. Praise them for accurate information they share and gently correct exaggerated, negative thoughts in a reassuring way. Welcome and answer questions and concerns as you can. Dismissing or minimizing their concerns—such as by saying, “You don’t have anything to worry about since you’re young, so just relax”—can reduce trust and worsen anxiety because kids know there is something bad going on. Kids need adults to listen to and validate their concerns.
Give honest information in limited amounts using words you think they can understand, and ask if unsure. Leave unnecessary details, such as fears of hospital beds shortages out of the conversation unless they ask. Parents report to us that a common reason they delay difficult conversations about safety, is that they may not know the answers to questions kids ask. But you don’t have to have all the answers—you just need to keep having short conversations. You could praise them for asking a tough question and research it online together. You can say we have many smart doctors and other professionals who are working to figure that out too.
What about money talk? If you need to make adjustments to spending, living situations, etc., make plans in family meetings. Address them in a calm, practical way without emotion but with empathy for disappointments.
3. Show empathy for how kids’ lives are changing
Speaking of empathy, show it to older kids and emerging adults who must now miss what might seem like minor events to us, such as parties or concerts, and lifetime events such as sports seasons, tournaments, graduations, proms, family vacations, or friend trips. Listening to and validating feelings can help, but dismissing frustrations or sorrows or belittling kids for not being “tough” can be very harmful. Expect more moodiness in response to stress, and cut them a break.
4. Reassure your children about the coronavirus
Children also need your reassurance—that you will always take care of them and try your very best to keep them and your family safe. Talk about steps being taken by people to keep us healthy and support families through this. When the crisis ends, they’ll get back to school, friends, and their usual activities.
5. Limit exposure to news coverage of coronavirus for youth
While we adults want to stay informed with honest, up to date, comprehensive information, young brains are less able to process crisis information without negatively affecting their mental health. As a side note, self-care for adults during a crisis like this can include taking breaks from the news too.
6. Boost coping by taking special care of the family during the coronavirus crisis
Family care during the coronavirus crisis helps you maintain the limits and stability kids need. So, continue schedules, routines, education, and chores as much as you can. Use together time at home for family activities like games, organizing and planning, crafts, music, reading, hobbies, and cooking. View uplifting or humorous entertainment media, avoiding apocalyptic, scary, or violent content. Share funny posts and stories that highlight overcoming adversity, empathy, and kindness to lift spirits and distract from worries. Do home exercise, going for walks and bike rides as safety allows. Share back rubs and relaxation methods to quell stress, such as given in the above video. Doing family-size emotional and physical self-care boosts child resilience through adversity.
Family care includes relationship care. For families not used to this much together time, irritability and tempers may flare (no, really?). Setting and enforcing rules for calm, respectful interactions in your home promotes critical stability and mental health in your kids.
While social distancing as recommended or required, make a plan to stay in contact with extended family, friends, and religious communities in other ways, by speaking on the phone, or using social media or Internet websites. However, because social media and the Internet can be very harmful to youth, especially when they spread inaccurate information, fear, and hate, or are used to cyberbully, limit and monitor their use, and encourage youth to show you anything that makes them feel bad or worried.
As you talk, keep in mind that many kids already had significant worries before this crisis, such as bullying, grade pressure, climate change, poverty, friend problems, domestic violence, and other safety issues. Warning signs that your child needs professional psychological help include becoming unable to function or interact with you, and warning signs of self-harm.
As your child’s front line defense against threats to safety and mental health, you can make a strong protective impact. Prioritize and be proud of your efforts to protect your children’s mental health. Kids always need stability and the sense that adults are taking care of problems, but these are especially crucial at this time when so much is changing in their lives. Emphasize that changes are temporary, and for a good reason—to help keep people from getting sick. Even when you’re anxious about the future, tell your kids that you’re confident your family will get through this!
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (2020). “Parent/caregiver guide to helping families cope with the coronavirus disease 2019(COVID-19)”