Talking to Children about COVID-19 and Managing their Social and Emotional Needs
COVID-19 has introduced a host of new life stressors for many, including employment changes, financial insecurity, separation from support systems, and home-schooling responsibilities.
All of this can be especially overwhelming if you are working remotely and still are trying to give your children the attention they need. These times are hard, and there is a real emotional cost to all of us. We are all trying to do our best.
As a child psychiatrist for The Children’s Guild Alliance, one of the questions I am asked most often these days by parents is how do I explain this COVID-19 to children when adults are having such a hard time grasping the enormity of what we are living through. We hope the following information is helpful to you in talking with your child and helping them cope emotionally with COVID-19.
– Sanaz Kumar, M.D., Assistant Medical Director, The Children’s Guild Outpatient Mental Health Clinic
Talk with Your Children
Determine what your children know about COVID-19 and show interest in their responses, as this will guide your conversation. Project a calm and confident tone to reassure your child, as children are quick to pick up an adult’s anxiety. Be sure to keep both your language and content age-appropriate and remember too much information can be overwhelming. Always be truthful and present facts, including positive information, such as the measures being taken to keep everyone as safe as possible. Look up facts together on reliable websites, especially with older children. Also emphasize action-steps that you as a family can take to stay healthy and safe and praise your child when they take a positive step. Show interest and ask about specific concerns your child has. You may be surprised at their answers. This shows your child that you are listening and keeps the lines of communication open.
Create a Schedule for Children and Stick with Routine
Structure and predictability help children feel secure and understand expectations. Create a daily schedule for your child that outlines specific times for meals, distance-learning, leisure activities, and family time. To encourage buy-in, include your children in the process of designing the schedule and posting it in the house. Consider front-loading the day with tasks that require more motivation, like schoolwork or household chores. Screen time and family time may come later. Sprinkle the day with movement breaks.
Without the pressure of getting up early for school, it’s easy for kids to fall into irregular sleep patterns like staying up late and sleeping past noon. Practice good sleep hygiene, or habits that promote good quality sleep. Wake your kids up at the same time in the morning. Encourage a reliable bedtime routine (brushing teeth, taking a bath, reading a story), and avoid stimulating activities (exercise, electronics use) in the hours before bedtime. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule will facilitate transition back to school.
Incorporate Light Exercise into your Routine
Exercising during the day will help your family spend energy and improve sleep at night. Get creative if you can. Take children for a stroll through the neighborhood, stream yoga clips online, or host an indoor dance party.
Embrace Family Time
While your day may feel overwhelming, it’s likely that one day your child will look back and fondly remember all this time they spent with you. Engage your child in non-screen time activities such as meal preparation, arts and crafts, and board games. Even though you may be spending most of your day with your children, having dedicated family time offers everyone a chance to unwind and reinforces your family’s bond.
Remember that everyone navigates major life changes differently. Give yourself permission to experience whatever feelings come up for you: anger, sadness, anxiety, and/or loneliness. Be compassionate with yourself during this process. Remind yourself that you are doing your best, this situation is temporary, and that we often underestimate our own resilience.
It’s completely normal for us to focus on what we have lost since this pandemic began. If you can, make a concerted effort to refocus on positive aspects of your life at present time. Doing so will boost feelings of optimism and empowerment. Every day have each family member list three things for which they are grateful – the more specific the items, the better. For example, you might appreciate the colorful flowers you saw on your walk, laughing during your FaceTime chat with a friend, or your child’s impressive ability to navigate technology. Over time, your mind will automatically attend to these small pleasures, and you will feel more hopeful.
Continue Social distancing, Not Social Isolation
Many people report feeling lonely and isolated during these times. Luckily, modern technology offers various opportunities for video check-ins with family and friends. Schedule virtual playdates so that children have something exciting to anticipate. Your children can engage in a range of activities – singing karaoke, playing online games, eating meals – with friends and relatives in this new digital space.
Continue to Check in with Children and Monitor their Emotional Health
Regularly check in with children to explore how they are feeling and coping. Let them know that it is OK to feel sad or angry during these life changes. Children will take their cues from you, so continue to model for them that these circumstances are manageable. Remember that they will learn flexibility and problem solving from you.
Sanaz Kumar, M.D.
Sanaz Kumar, M.D., is a psychiatrist with board certification in child and adolescent psychiatry, adult psychiatry and forensic psychiatry. After graduating from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in 2009, she completed a general psychiatry residency at The George Washington University. Subsequently, Dr. Kumar completed a fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry at The Johns Hopkins University and then an additional fellowship in forensic psychiatry at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Dr. Kumar has practiced in a range of settings including community mental health clinics, schools and correctional institutions. Currently, she serves as the Assistant Medical Director of The Children’s Guild Outpatient Mental Health Clinic and also as a staff psychiatrist at The Children’s Guild School of Prince George’s County, a special education day school. In addition to her clinical work, Dr. Kumar teaches and mentors psychiatry residents and fellows. She is a Clinical Assistant Professor within the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at The George Washington University School of Medicine.