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Coronavirus Disease 2019

What Parents Can Do to Manage Coronavirus Stress in Kids

Six strategies to help kids manage fear and increase their sense of control.

The world can be a frightening place for kids. From global threats like climate change and terrorism to personal stressors related to family, academics, relationships, and more, today’s young people are growing up surrounded by sources of anxiety. With the threat of a pandemic now added to the mix, what can parents do to help kids cope with COVID-19, school closings, event cancellations, and the climate of fear?

1. Avoid Freaking Out!

Remember when your children were first learning to walk? When they inevitably stumbled, your gasps of concern likely triggered their tears while your expressions of encouragement inspired their confidence to keep going.

And so it will be with your reaction to the coronavirus.

Kids take their emotional cues from the trusted adults in their lives. During this time of 24/7 news coverage, rising infection rates, and shortages (of both test kits and toilet paper!), one of the most helpful things you can do as a parent is to remain calm and project the sense that your family can handle whatever comes your way as COVID-19 runs its course. Neuroscience shows us definitively that your calm brain can soothe your child’s anxious brain and that this experience of co-regulation is among the most powerful ways to de-escalate panic and fears.

2. Provide Structure and Routine

If your child’s school, day care, or other daily routines have been disrupted by closings and cancellations related to the coronavirus, take steps to provide as much structure, predictability, and normalcy into your child or adolescent’s day as possible. No matter how much they may seem to fight it, kids thrive on consistency. And so while you might be tempted to let your kids stay up as late as they want or to sleep in all morning when school's out, aim to keep their sleep schedule as normal as possible. Ensuring that kids get the proper amount of sleep for their age is vitally important to helping kids stay emotionally-regulated. Likewise, keeping mealtimes, exercise routines, play, bath times, and other household schedules as predictable as possible gives kids a much-needed sense of safety and security.

3. Show Kids Where They Have Control

There’s nothing like the word “pandemic” to make us feel vulnerable and exposed. Combat feelings of helplessness by showing your children where they have control in preventing illness. Teach kids how effective simple hand-washing is in stopping the spread of COVID-19. If it isn’t already, make frequent hand-washing part of your household routines—and make it fun! Show kids how to really lather up their soap, get in between each finger, and disinfect underneath their nails. Sing silly songs with kids to make sure they are washing for at least 20 seconds or put a timer by each sink so that everyone knows they are washing for long enough. Every little thing we do to increase feelings of control simultaneously diminishes feelings of helplessness.

4. Encourage Kids to Help Others Feel Better

Does your young person know someone who was exposed to or has contracted COVID-19? Help them think of what they could do to help the person feel better. While visitation is obviously not an option, could the child draw a picture, create a craft, send a text, make a video, or do something else to wish the person well? Together, could you run errands, drop off groceries or medicine, or otherwise help a sick family member, friend, neighbor, colleague, or acquaintance. Turn this time into an opportunity for your child to be a helper and to make a positive difference for others.

5. Use Facts and Logic to Combat the Instinct to Catastrophize

Our human brains have an amazing capacity for vigilance and self-protection. The amygdala—the brain structure responsible for the flight, flight, or freeze response to stress—is always on alert for dangers in our environment. While this natural hyper-vigilance efficiently mobilizes a human's response to illness or other perceived threats, our brain's tendency to catastrophize can sometimes be immobilizing.

When you notice that your child is getting stuck in thoughts of fear, panic, or helplessness, use facts to activate the logical, thinking structures of his/her brain. Talk to your kids about the fact that most coronavirus patients recover completely. Reassure them that their body's immune system is amazing and helps fight off germs and viruses on a daily basis. Explain how school cancellations and social distancing are logical actions we take to prevent our worst fears from coming true. Worry, by its very nature, makes kids believe that catastrophe is imminent. You, as their parent, can help them understand that with prevention measures and problem-solving, worst-case scenarios can be avoided.

6. Stress Less and Move More!

As much as we live for weekends and love vacations, having “forced” time off from school and work can create a lot of very real stress, even apart from the threat of illness. Focusing on the negative aspects, however, does not make the negative aspects go away. In fact, the more we fret, the worse we feel—and our mindsets just go downhill from there.

And so, be diligent about re-directing your thoughts away from stress and fear and toward health and togetherness. Use this opportunity to get outside with the kids, where the air is fresh and the germs are fewer. Movement is one of the very best ways to relax a worried brain and activate a sense of calm. Play, inhale deeply, exhale slowly, get your heart rate up, and take an active role in keeping all of the members of your household as healthy and as positive as possible during this time of uncertainty.

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More from Signe Whitson L.S.W., C-SSWS
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