Helping kids navigate COVID

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

As the world cancels events and isolates, it’s natural to have feelings around these changes. 

Adults have experience dealing with life’s ups and downs and have probably developed some tools for coping. It’s something children, however, are still learning.

We asked a pediatrician, therapist, and school psychologist for their advice for helping kids through this.

“Kids, no matter what age, are constantly looking up to their parents to get a sense of how things are and if they’re going to be OK,” said mental health counselor Hollie Gonzalez, LMHC, NCC, CCM. 

It’s also difficult life moments like these when we grow. Parents have an important role to play: being supportive and loving as well as challenging their children.

“Learning experiences often really stink,” said school psychologist Nicole Smith, M.Ed., NSCP. “But these are the big teachable moments. These are what makes a person. Then, when a big disappointment inevitably happens in life again, they’ve had practice and they’ve learned.”

Talk about feelings

Gonzalez said that reading or watching a movie together and discussing the characters’ feelings can help children vocalize their own feelings. She recommended finding age-appropriate, reputable sources of information that don’t sensationalize news. From there, explain the situation.

“It’s important to let them know that the adults are working on a plan and will protect them the best they can,” Gonzalez said. “Being transparent can help, depending on the age and maturity of the child.”

She recommends this NPR podcast that explains the virus to children and this podcast for parents.

Pediatrician Dr. Neil Kaneshiro, MD, said he would first tell kids that this virus is generally like a bad cold for most people and they get better.

“I would also tell them that we should be proud to live in such a great society that we care so much about the most vulnerable/fragile people who might be our family, friends or neighbors that we will upend our lives to do our best to protect them as best we can,” Kaneshiro said. “We are the superheroes doing our part to protect those people who are at risk to get very sick from this disease.”

Find the positive

While things feel different right now, look for the positive. Is there something the family has been wanting to do that has been delayed because of traveling for gymnastics, working on homework, or meeting bedtimes? This could be a time to finally have that family cooking competition you’ve been talking about or introduce the kids to your favorite movie from childhood.

“Take advantage of this time you have with your family,” Gonzalez recommended. “It may never be quite like this again.”

Kaneshiro also recommended thinking about the future. It's a good time to hold a family meeting and talk about how you’d like to move forward. 

“Our schedules and routines are all upended, and we have a clean slate opportunity to create the family life we want now,” he said.

Model resilience

“I know that kids are struggling right now with what they’ve lost: their senior sports season, their tournament, their performance, their birthday party, their Disney trip. Allow kids to have their sadness for a bit,” Smith said. “Acknowledge their feelings. Their feelings are real and big.”

In these situations, think about what can be salvaged. Ask them what was important about that event and see what you can re-create safely.

For example, if graduation is canceled, you could plan a launching party in the fall, Gonzalez suggested. Make a big deal of it with invitations and slideshows.

She said with older children, it’s important to give them the space to make their own decisions or help with planning. 

“I think they appreciate hearing that we’re concerned and care about them and that it’s OK to seek comfort and support at times like this,” she said.

As a natural part of development, most teens are moving toward greater autonomy, so the current situation can feel like a step backward.

Kaneshiro recommended helping children keep up with their activities as much as possible. Even without a coach and team, kids can practice their sports at the park or in the backyard. Tutoring sessions or music lessons could be done virtually.

Take care of yourself

Taking the time to model good self-care, health, and hygiene will probably have a great impact on children during this challenging phase, Gonzalez said.

While it might be tempting to let things slip, do what you can to recharge yourself. Know that no one is grading your parenting performance. Everyone is doing the best they can. But, keeping up with mindfulness practices and physical activity can be good for the whole family.

“For most of us, the reality is that the kids will be getting additional screen time which is not ideal, but hard to get away from,” Kaneshiro said.

He reminded that getting outside to play is both safe and recommended—just keep a distance from large groups.

Kaneshiro also reminds the public to find calmness during this critical time. Follow public health instructions and know that systems are still working, like the food supply are still working. 

The development of these habits can help children build coping skills and increase their resiliency in a rapidly changing world.


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