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Dr. K here,
I am very concerned with how the COVID crisis is affecting children. Though adults and the elderly are disproportionately affected by COVID, I believe it will be the children of this generation (already deemed “Generation C”) who will bear the emotional and economic scars of this pandemic. As the acute medical crisis wanes, the emotional toll has not, and in fact continues to grow. The adrenaline has now worn off, and exhaustion and overwhelm are beginning to overtake doctors, nurses, parents, providers and especially children.
In this article I will share some resources for parents and caregivers to help children through this stressful time.
How to talk to your children about COVID-19
Do talk to your children about coronavirus. Children may be hearing things about COVID-19 from news, radio, and overheard conversations between adults. It is very important to understand that children do not have the same concept of the world as adults do. Children certainly do not understand the basics of human anatomy, physiology and virology. (For that matter, many adults do not either.)
When speaking to children, especially in times of crisis, it is important to speak simply, directly and literally. Do not use analogies or lengthy explanations.
Be honest and be factual. Without honest facts many children imagine the situation to be worse than it actually is. I highly recommend watching this video about how to speak to our children in times of crisis.
Clearly tell children about germs and how the virus is spread. This “just for kids” cartoon about Coronavirus is a great place to start the discussion, as it clearly says the facts about the disease. Save discussions of controversy and politics for older teenagers. Younger children simply cannot comprehend the vastness of this discussion and will quickly become confused.
Limit news and media that is discussing the coronavirus. Remember that children can overhear and easily misinterpret commentary intended for adults.
Your child’s behavior
It is normal and natural for children to express their anxieties and fears in a variety of ways. Some children may seem “fine” or have normal behavior for hours or days before an outburst of anger, tantrums, defiance, crying, or more.
Some children may show signs of depression, including sleeping more than usual, seeming withdrawn, showing lack of interest in activities, change in eating behaviors, and more.
Some children may show signs of anxiety, including irritability, trouble concentrating, muscle tension, difficulty sleeping, not wanting to be apart from caregivers, or displaying more overt fears and worries, sometimes over trivial things.
Let your child feel emotions.
More importantly, tell your child that it is normal and okay to feel emotions. If we do not let children feel emotions they may hide from us when they do feel sad, scared, anxious or depressed. This video is a great resource for discussing emotions.
Let yourself feel emotions, and speak about them freely.
Sickness, death and economic devastation should make us feel sad. Take care of yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually.
“Look for the helpers.”
Positive stories have a big impact. Share stories of healthcare workers, community members, ambulance drivers, scientists, and especially other children who are helping.
Share this quote from Mr. Rogers with your child: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.”
Supporting your child’s healthy eating
Remember that it is a normal stress response to crave high fat and carbohydrate containing foods. Many of us have found ourselves reaching for cookies, cakes, and “comfort” foods. It is important to never shame our children for their eating behaviors. That said, high sugar foods very frequently lead to an increase in insulin leading to a subsequent blood-sugar spike, followed by a blood-sugar crash about 90-120 minutes later. Blood-sugar fluctuations like this very often lead to a worsening of irritability and anxiety in children (and adults, too).
Simply teaching this to our children can be helpful. “Your body wants sugar right now. But when you eat a lot of it the amount of sugar in your body goes up really fast, and then comes down really fast. When it goes down it makes your brain grumpy. When you eat lots of fruits and vegetables and proteins it keeps the sugar in your body steady. So we are going to eat lots of fruits and veggies and protein today. We are going to eat (cookies/cakes/treat) foods at ______ time (or ________ day), just not all day.” As a parent you get to decide what treat foods are appropriate for your child and when.
Feed yourself and your children at the same time each day. This allows the body to settle into a normal circadian rhythm and prevents the irregular blood sugar leading to carbohydrate cravings and “hangry” children.
Develop a daily routine
Children feel safe and secure when they have clear and consistent boundaries and routines. (See this article titled Setting a New Routine COVID-19 Checklist)
Set a daily schedule, including wake-up times, mealtimes, play times and learning times. Remember to schedule time for personal hygiene, including tooth brushing and bathing. (Yes, we have seen issues with this lately!)
Schedule time for your child to Zoom, Facetime or Skype if they are missing friends or relatives. Make sure to tell your child clearly what time this starts and ends.
Clearly tell your children when their “free-play,” screen time, snack time, and other “fun” activities start and end. Letting our children roam free all day with unlimited snacks and screens is a recipe for dysregulated, unpredictable behavior.
Set expectations that are realistic. Children will have meltdowns. (Adults most likely will too!) Don’t surprise your child with punishments when you reach the end of your patience. Instead clearly let your children know what your limits are. And when you do lash out, or melt down (trust me, it happens to everyone) – come back together as a family, explain how you are feeling, apologize and move on. This is a great time to practice emotional intelligence. I highly recommend the book Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life.
Find time for self-care and spiritual practice
Parents need self-care too. (Other than alcohol and Netflix!)
Take 5 minutes and a journal and write down what values are important to you. Next write down what spiritual practice is meaningful for you and how you can connect (or reconnect) with your own spirituality. Finally, write down what you hope will permanently change in your life because of this.
In the midst of frustration, heartache and distress now is the best time to build a spiritual practice to benefit yourself and your children. See this article: Building your spiritual life during changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic Remember, many faiths and denominations have online services, resources and ways to connect online.
For self-care and managing our own emotions I highly recommend Unlocking Us, a podcast with Brene Brown.
Finally, some more excellent resources
I hope you find at least some of the links above helpful. Here are some more fantastic resources.
Helping Children Cope With Changes Resulting From COVID-19:
Unicef resources for how to help your child/children through this time:
How to talk to your children:
Time to Come In, Bear: A Children’s Story about Social Distancing:
Stay healthy, safe and sane in this crisis,