March 20, 2020

Helping kids cope during the uncertainty of coronavirus

With constant news on the pandemic, closures and cancellations, along with constant messaging on how to avoid infection, to say this situation is overwhelming is an understatement. In fact, Dr. Marcia Slattery, UW Health Professor of Child/Adolescent Psychiatry and Pediatrics, and Director of the UW Anxiety Disorders Program, finds that the Coronavirus has created high levels of anxiety and stress for not just adults but for kids too. “It is out of the norm for everyone. The whole situation unfolded so quickly, leaving many people feeling shocked and in uncharted territory.”

How to help manage stress at home

So, what can parents or caregivers do to decrease stress at home?

Talk about it

It’s important to talk with kids about what’s going on and be realistic. It’s natural for kids to ask questions or even be afraid. While parents want to be reassuring, it’s important to listen and hear their concerns and not act like their fears don’t matter.

“Telling kids not to worry may make them turn to other sources for answers. It could also teach them not to ask questions in the future. Instead, engage them. Emphasize a positive approach to the problem. Help them think about what they can do, how they can be safe, and how to help others,” Slattery says.

She suggests starting the conversation with questions like, “What do you think is going on?” This can help parents learn what their kids are thinking and how much they understand. It might help to compare the situation to something familiar like the flu. Then talk about ways they have some control by:

  1. Handwashing

  2. Staying home and not getting too close to others

  3. Not visiting people for a little while

It’s also important to let kids be disappointed, angry and even grieve. As a result of numerous cancellations, kids are missing out on things they’ve worked hard for like tournaments, concerts and plays. They may be missing a fun Spring Break trip. Acknowledge the disappointment. Then encourage kids to think about what they can do next. Maybe it’s planning a summer trip. Maybe record the child playing their instrument or reciting a scene from their play to share with relatives. Plan a party with their sports team when the time for social distancing is over.

Other important steps to take during this time:

  1. Build Routine and Predictability

  2. Consider a Range of Home Activities

  3. Monitor Parental Anxiety and Communication

  4. Practice Social Distancing but Stay Connected

Build routine and predictability

“Avoid endless, open-ended days while kids are home from school. Just because we’re out of school or away from work doesn’t mean we can’t have a degree of structure,” says Slattery. “Parents should talk with their kids about creating a schedule at home for the day. Keep it simple. It could be as basic as scheduling blocks of time each day for different activities. Make it visual. Put the schedule on the refrigerator for kids to easily see throughout the day. Knowing what’s going to happen helps reduce anxiety. Be flexible—things may change during the day.”

Consider a range of home activities

Schedule time for physical activity, school activities or educational time, hobbies, play time, family activities, meals and bedtimes. Then, come up with options for each of those. “It will serve as a menu of choices for kids to do during blocks of time at home, including menus for physical activity (walk, bike ride, yoga), school-like activities (reading, math problems, word puzzles) and family activities (board games, movies, cooking). Write down the lists and post them with the schedule. These lists can evolve and grow too.”

Monitor screen time

“Some screen time is expected. Kids will use online learning sites, stay connected with relatives through video chats, or spend time together as a family watching movies or playing games. However, kids should avoid spending hours of time by themselves on their phones or other electronics. The isolation and extended unstructured time combined with the overflow of information about the Coronavirus can lead to anxiety.”

Monitor parental anxiety and communication

Slattery cautions parents to closely monitor their own anxiety and stress about the pandemic when with their children. “Kids are like sponges, if parents are anxious and seem frightened, kids will be even more fearful.”

Practice social distancing but stay connected

Parents should talk with their kids about social distancing as a way to prevent the physical spread of the virus, but that it does not mean avoiding social contact with others. “Reaching out and connecting with family and friends is critical during periods of anxiety and stress. The Coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity for parents to challenge themselves and their kids to connect in different ways including video chats, letters and drawings.”

And what about parents at home? 

“It’s not realistic to think that parents can do everything they would normally do in a workday, and manage kids who are out of school, while being socially isolated from the support of families, friends and caregivers,” Slattery says. There is a tremendous amount of pressure on parents during this time with kids being home from school and other normal activities, and many are navigating working from home.

She suggests trying to find a balanced routine with kids. Perhaps set aside blocks of time to help create some boundaries. Work for an hour and then take a break for the next 15-20 minutes. During the break, focus on the kids. Play a short game or take a walk together. Find ways to help kids feel accountable. “With school there is a chain of expectations – kids do schoolwork, turn it in, then get feedback from the teacher. It keeps kids accountable and engaged. Consider asking kids to do something like color pictures that they’ll send to relatives. Kids like to have a reason for doing something. They’ll do better and work harder if they know someone is interested and is going to be looking at what they’ve done.”

Stay calm and present

Until things return to normal, be flexible, be supportive, be creative, and be engaged with your kids. This is a rare opportunity to spend time together and reconnect as family.