Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Coronavirus Disease 2019

Kids' Sadness About COVID-19 May Not Look Like Sadness

Your child throwing his or her math book may not be about the math problems.

One kid put it well: "My life has been canceled," he said. He was sobbing about not going to baseball practice, not seeing his friends, not going to school, not going to Grandma's, and being stuck home most of the day. In an instant, his life had been upended.

On top of their lives being canceled, kids tend to take on their parents' emotions like a sponge. Many parents have lost their jobs, have reduced hours or paychecks, are overworked, or are trying to work from home while being expected to homeschool. They are worried about money, Grandma and Grandpa, getting infected or getting treatment, getting their kids to complete packets and websites of haphazard schoolwork on time, and having enough toilet paper. Many are upset about not getting a break and feeling like life as they knew it is over.

Kids are sad to begin with and are extra stressed because their parents are having a hard time, too.

Kids' sadness may not look like sadness and may even be mistaken for "naughtiness." We're all wired to protect ourselves from vulnerable, uncomfortable feelings. Just like "paper covers rock," children's sadness is often covered by anger, frustration, boredom, numbness, or acting-out behaviors.

Kids' sadness can be disguised as:

  • Anger: an annoyance with the world or elements in it (e.g., "This stupid remote doesn't work!")
  • Resistance: refusing to go along with the "new order," trying to get power and control in a world that feels out of control (e.g., "I'm not doing four math pages; I'm only doing one!")
  • Displaced frustration: being frustrated at the situation (e.g., social distancing), but taking it out on something entirely different (e.g., yelling about a bedtime, yelling at a sibling, yelling about what they're having for dinner)
  • Roughhousing: taking out feelings in a physical way (e.g., pile on top during a football game)
  • Boredom: saying "I'm bored" (often code for "I'm sad")
  • Numbness: checking out, wanting to sleep or zone out to TV, wanting to "veg out" on electronics or otherwise ("I don't want to go for a walk! I'm tired!")

Therapists often talk about the art of "holding space" for someone who is grieving. "Holding space" means supporting someone without trying to cheer them up, tell them how good they have it, give advice, or talk them out of what they're feeling. It involves listening with an open heart and staying grounded and compassionate while someone shares deep and uncomfortable emotions.

Source: ErinLeyba/Canva

In theory, it sounds easy to "hold space" for kids' feelings during this difficult time, but in practice, it's incredibly tough. Why?

Before we can hold space for our kids, we need to hold it for ourselves. Acknowledging our own deep sadness about everything that's happening right now can help. We need to give ourselves time to meditate or pray, talk things out, take a bath, process, talk to loved ones, use humor, go to therapy (via videoconference), get fresh air, and breathe. We need to take expert care of ourselves.

When kids whine about completing math packets or yell about something dumb, instead of getting frustrated, we can acknowledge that (under the surface) they're in crisis, just like we are. They're dealing with uncomfortable, sad, and frustrating changes in every part of their lives and picking up on what we're feeling too.

We can hold gentle, firm, unyielding space for them, the kind of space that can be incredibly healing.

More from Erin Leyba LCSW, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today