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How to Help Children Handle the Stress of Coronavirus

Four experts weigh in on child and family behavior amid the global pandemic.

A child draws angry faces on a piece of paper.

Put yourself in a child’s shoes: The coronavirus pandemic is worrying for us all, but for kids — no matter the age — it’s probably the biggest fear they’ve ever faced. How can we as parents and adults help them best cope with the mental and emotional stress raised by the pandemic?

We spoke with four experts from a range of specialties to gather insights and inspiration:

    • Timothy Culbert, MD, is a developmental/behavioral pediatrician in Minneapolis and cofounder of NaturalMentalHealth.com. He’s the coauthor of a series of books on self-care for kids, including Be the Boss of Your Stress.
    • René Sternau, PsyD, is a psychologist working with children, adolescents, and families in Minneapolis.
    • Anne Fishel, PhD, is a family therapist at Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate professor of clinical psychology at Harvard Medical School. She’s cofounder of Harvard’s Family Dinner Project, author of Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun, and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids, and coauthor of Eat, Laugh, Talk: The Family Dinner Playbook.
    • Henry Emmons, MD, is integrative psychiatrist in Minneapolis. He’s the author of The Chemistry of JoyThe Chemistry of Calm, and Staying Sharp; cofounder of NaturalMentalHealth.com; and Experience Life’s Natural Mental Health columnist.

Here’s what they had to say:

Experience Life | What can adults do to help children understand and cope with such a large, unknown, complex issue like the coronavirus?

Timothy Culbert | Children need information — at a developmentally appropriate level — to first understand some facts and then to move toward successful coping strategies for the COVID-19 situation. Ask general questions of your children, such as “What questions do you have about coronavirus?,” and follow their lead. It is important to be available to talk a few times a day.

Don’t overshare and provide too much information; keep it simple and brief. It may be best to keep exposure to news media limited: You might watch the TV news, read the newspaper, or catch up on breaking COVID-19 news in private and then summarize any new information for your child or teen, rather than having cable news on all day in the background in the family room.

There have been some nice explanations for kids available on the New York Times podcast “The Daily” and a “town hall” special on CNN featuring Sesame Street characters. Only use trusted and respected sources for factual info, such as the CDC website.

Also, for information on how to support kids and teens during the pandemic, see www.childmind.org. And for ideas about activities for kids and the use of electronic media, see www.commonsense.org.

EL | Should we strive to accept that it’s normal for kids to feel stressed, confused, sad, scared, or angry right now?

René Sternau One of the things we have to teach is that there’s always a certain amount of uncertainty and discomfort in everything we do. This ambiguity creates a lot of anxiety, and the more anxious or compulsive a child is, the more afraid they’re likely to be.

Anxiety creates rigidity: Some children become anxious and don’t want to go outside. An antidote to rigidity is helping a child learn flexibility. In my practice, I have suggested that kids do flexing exercises to go from tightness to relaxation, tightening every muscle in their body, then slowly letting go.

In situations like this, we all — children and adults — often revert to global thinking: This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me! What we need to do is deal with this in bite-sizes. We don’t eat sandwiches in one bite, because we’d choke. There’ll eventually be a vaccine; we just have to be patient. We need to take care of ourselves by washing our hands and face. We don’t want to touch our eyes, nose, or mouth without washing. That helps children and adults break things into bite-sized parts that we can handle.

Timothy Culbert | It’s normal to see kids struggling with emotional reactions in the context of all of the change and fear associated with the pandemic. When we’re stressed, we all must learn to deal with strong, often unpleasant emotions.

Kids may manifest anxiety and depression differently than adults. For example, children and teens may seem overly sensitive, easily distracted, socially isolated, angry, or less interested in their normal hobbies as an emotional response to all that is happening. Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, loss of appetite, or trouble sleeping may all be markers indicating sadness or worries.

We don’t actually want to avoid or deny intense, negative, intrusive thoughts and feelings about coronavirus, whether it’s anger, fear, sadness, or agitation. Ideally, we just want to step back from them, observe them, and be curious about them in a more neutral, mindful fashion. Otherwise they can prevent us from seeing things clearly and making good behavioral choices.

EL | What recommendations do you have for dealing with day-to-day life? Does it make sense to keep routines in place to have a sense of normalcy?

Anne Fishel | Adults as well as children need rituals, like family dinners, to provide stability and meaning during times of uncertainty. If families can manage one shared meal together each day, when everyone has a chance to talk and feel listened to, and if at that meal there are a few laughs and a shared sense of “This is who we are as a family,” that will be a great balm for adults and children alike during this pandemic.

In the last 20 years, there have been dozens of studies showing that regular family dinners are great for children’s body, mind, and spirit — their mental health. By “regular,” researchers mean five or more meals a week — and these can be dinners, breakfasts, lunches, or even intentional snacks.

Family meals are associated with lower rates of eating disorders, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, anxiety, depression, more resilience, higher self-esteem, and a feeling of being more connected with parents.

René Sternau Children like consistency, predictability, and routine. I recommend all kids, young or old, keep a schedule: What time you get up, when you eat, brush your teeth, get dressed for school, do your online learning. And then when you’re done, you can change into your play clothes.

This helps differentiate the times of day and create structure. Children who get up at 10, wander around, then sit down with a screen, their anxiety levels are often much higher. When summer comes, parents have to figure out a summer schedule.

It’s also a good idea for parents to create tasks for kids. In our culture, kids rarely participate in taking care of household needs — many never cook a meal or help with chores. Let’s build and tend a garden together, let’s cook meals together, let’s repair bicycles together — let’s do things we used to do naturally as human beings. Don’t just do it for them, but really show them how to do it and then ask them to do it.

Families have to figure out what kids can do by themselves at what age and encourage them to use their creativity. Creativity is the building block for determination; when you’re creative you have to think outside the box: “I get stuck, I have a barrier, how do I get over it?” This will apply to the pandemic as well.

I think there’s an exceptional need for connection and for nurturing our fondness for each other in these difficult times. We need to do it both verbally and behaviorally. You can let them know that if they need help, you’re there so they have support. We as parents don’t want to pick up their bricks, but we want to help support them picking up their own bricks.

There’s a lot of opportunity during these times to connect with kids.

EL | What advice do you have concerning screen time?

René Sternau | It’s one of my beliefs that the more time we spend away from screens, the more creative we become. It’s OK to tell your children, “Yes, you can have screen time with your friends from 7 to 9 at night; just tell your friends you’re not available until 7 p.m. We’re going to have dinner at 5:30 p.m. so we’ll have enough time to clean up and get ready to play. Then it’s your free time; do what you want with it.”

Screen time can be very addictive, and whenever you’re giving up an addiction, there’s always a withdrawal symptom, which can be irritability or tantrums. However, we soon get beyond this. When kids tell me they’re bored, I say, “What is that telling you?”

The boredom is there to teach you that you don’t like just sitting around and you have to find a way to entertain yourself. Generally, that can lead to creativity. The more children get away from the screen, [the more I notice] a reduction in family irritability.

Timothy Culbert | Many parents are concerned that during sheltering-in-place their children spend too much time utilizing electronic media. This is an important concern, but a helpful perspective is to remember that not all media is created equal.

Thirty minutes watching a silly cartoon or playing a video game is not the same as 30 minutes spent engaging in interactive activities that bring a sense of wonder, awe, and real inspired learning. Time spent learning to draw or watching a travel documentary or researching a topic your child or teen has a passion for all can be very positive.

EL | Are there things that might help children to calm anxiety or anxiety attacks — breathing, activities, exercise, meditation?

René Sternau | There’s a lot of evidence that one of the antidotes to depression is physical exercise. I have been recommending clients go outside twice a day for at least a 30-minute walk. Walking purposefully for a half-hour builds serotonin and a sense of well-being.

Timothy Culbert | There are useful self-regulation tools such as paced diaphragmatic breathing (taking slow, deep belly-breaths), progressive muscle relaxation (squeezing and relaxing different muscle groups), and mental imagery (such as imagining you’re in a favorite place).

Mindfulness activities can also be helpful. “Mindfulness” in kids’ language is kind of like “exercising your attention muscle.” Being mindful is the opposite of rushing or doing lots of things at the same time. When you’re mindful, you’re taking your time. You’re focusing in a relaxed, easy way on all the details of the situation you are in.

Maybe that means building a LEGO kit, doing homework, or doing a chore like cleaning your room. You can be mindful while you are washing your hands for the recommended 20 seconds or while wiping down and disinfecting surfaces, as is recommended for the coronavirus-prevention strategies.

EL | How can we be models for our kids in dealing with situations like this pandemic?

Henry Emmons | Luckily, children seem to be relatively spared by this illness, . . . but they may become carriers, so it is still best to have them do the same healthy practices that we should all be doing.

And children can pick up on fear around them, so keep doing your best to be reassuring to them, dealing with your own fear as best you can and showing them that you are up to this. You can face big challenges in your life with a calm mind and a steady hand. Think about what you’d like to see in our leaders and try to be that for your own children.

Timothy Culbert | Kids count on adults to be in control, especially when kids are anxious or upset. Parents can model their own stress-management strategies to their kids. You can tell them a story about a situation when you felt anxious and what you did to cope.

Kids not only listen to what their parents say but how they say it. They are acutely tuned in to your tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions. Take a five- or 10-minute break as needed before you talk with your children or teen to compose yourself and balance your nervous system so you can converse with them in a patient, kind, and calm fashion.

EL | What can we do to help our kids and ourselves look toward a brighter future?

Timothy Culbert | Sheltering-in-place may eventually create some friction between families in close quarters for prolonged periods of time. For parents, this is not a time to expect perfection. You may get frustrated, you may lose your temper.

Allow yourself to be more flexible with the rules, and, within reason, move along the path of least resistance as needed to avoid conflicts and emotional meltdowns with your children.

Occasional parental frustration and anger is natural and normal in this situation, so be kind to yourself and practice self-compassion. For parents, take mini-breaks every day for a few minutes and get some alone time to rebalance your nervous system. Meditate, breathe, take a walk, listen to music, or eat a healthy snack to keep your emotional and physical batteries charged.

Recall that this is an exceptional time in our lives and even if you don’t get everything done on your to-do list every day, appreciate the time taken to just be present with your kids and teens, and enjoy the chance to develop your relationship with them on a deeper level.

is an Experience Life deputy editor.

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