Helping Children Cope with the Stress of the Coronavirus Crisis

Children can grow anxious from a disrupted life, listening to news being played as background or from fear for their parents who have to still go to work.

A Rutgers mental health expert advises parents on how to manage their children’s anxiety and maintain a sense of normalcy

As the mental and emotional toll of the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, parents are learning how to create a new sense of normalcy at home for their children while maintaining social distancing and remote learning. 

The key is to create routines, have age-appropriate conversations and validate children’s concerns, says Kelly Moore, a licensed clinical psychologist and program manager for the Children’s Center for Resilience and Trauma Recovery at Rutgers University Behavioral Healthcare.

She explains some guidelines for parents:

What is the most important thing families can do during this time of significant disruption?

Children tend to feel anxious when there is less predictability in their lives. The more that families can do to create new routines for their children while they are home, the better. Even though the kids are out of school, have them get up — maybe a little later than usual, but not at noon — continue their normal morning hygiene routine, change out of their pajamas and eat breakfast. Try to create a loose schedule everyone can follow during daytime hours. It doesn’t have to be strict, but you should be able to repeat it each day.

Here’s an example:

9-10 am: Middle- and high schoolers check teacher emails; parents check emails from elementary age teachers. Start work that is most appealing to the child. For example, if they love math, do that work first.

10-10:15 am: Break

10:15-11:15 am: Back to work (this may be the time to do the work they may not like as much. Get it out of the way rather than end your day on it).

11:15-11:30 am: Break

11:30 am-12:30 pm: Back to work 

12:30-1 pm: Lunch

1-2 pm: Free time, recess

2-3 pm: Reading time

What should I do if my children feel scared about COVID-19?

If your children are scared, it’s probably because they have been listening to or watching the news with the adults at home. Even when we think they aren’t watching TV, they can still hear it. If we do nothing else as adults, let’s limit the consumption of the news if possible. Use your earbuds and don’t leave the TV on in the background. Share information based on age-appropriate conversations. Reassure your children and be present. If you do not need to leave the house, don’t. If your work is essential, let your children know the measures you are taking to be as safe as possible. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has other helpful tips on helping families cope. 

What do I do if my child’s preexisting condition of anxiety or depression escalates during this time?

It is very common for all of us to feel anxious right now. We want to normalize this for our children. Even when people have a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder or depression, they can still experience healthy levels of fear, worry or sadness just like everyone else. If you are concerned that it is becoming excessive, try the following:

  1. Have them write down their worries, fears or sad thoughts in a journal and then review it with them during the day. Sometimes, just writing it down and having someone listen is helpful.
  2. Remember that social distancing isn’t the same as social isolation. If you are working from home, try to work in the same workspace that your kids are working. Use Facetime so they can do homework right along with their classmates over the phone.
  3. Contact a mental health provider to see if they can provide telehealth support for families. Many practices are using this more during this time of crisis. Consult with a provider to see if your child’s worries or mood requires formal therapy sessions via telehealth during this time. 
  4. Distraction can be helpful, and family time helps to engage kids who are inclined to isolate at home. Play a family game. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu or regular TV also can be your ally during this time. Introduce them to shows you used to love, and watch old sports games being aired in place of current sports. 
  5. Go outside! At this time, there aren’t any restrictions against going outside our homes, whether it’s for a walk, to play in the yard or just to the porch for some fresh air.