News of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 seems to be everywhere. Understandably, there is a lot of uncertainty and anxiety about the pandemic. It can be overwhelming and frightening not just for adults but for children as well. But there are steps parents and caregivers can take to help children cope with stress during the outbreak.
Stress signs in children
Children may respond to stress in different ways.[i] Additionally, they might not recognize that they are feeling worried or anxious.[ii] You may notice changes in their behavior, such as mood swings, being clingy, new or recurring fears (fear of the dark, fear of being alone), or a change in sleep patterns, nightmares or bedwetting.ii,[iii]Other physical symptoms may include decreased appetite, headache, upset stomach or vague stomach pain.ii
If you notice that your child is feeling anxious, it may be a good time to talk with them. Let your children know it’s ok to share their feelings and to ask questions.[iv]
Tips for talking to your child about COVID-19
If you’re a parent, you may be wondering how to best talk about COVID-19 to your children, and how to help them cope with stress and worry during this difficult time. Here are some helpful tips:
- Let them share their feelings. Every child has his or her own way to express emotions. Sometimes engaging in a creative activity, such as playing, or drawing can help with the process.iii,[v]
- Be honest. Tell them the truth as plainly as possible, without exaggeration or speculating on what may or may not happen in the future. Don't offer more detail than your child is interested in. For example, if they ask about school closings, address their questions. But if the topic doesn't come up, there's no need to raise it unless it happens.[vi]
- Be calm. Children will react to what you say and how you say it and will likely notice if you’re anxious or panicked. Be calm, kind and reassuring when speaking to them.i
- Give accurate information. Children may have already heard about the virus on the news or social media. Let them know that some stories on COVID-19 on the Internet and social media may be based on rumors and inaccurate information. Use credible sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organizations (WHO) to get up-to-date scientific information about the illness. And don’t forget to give them information that is appropriate for their age and developmental level.[vii]
- Let them know how they can help. This can include frequent handwashing, disinfecting the home and social distancing. Feeling like they’re contributing might help reduce their feelings of helplessness in the face of an overwhelming situation.[viii]
- Stick to a routine. Keep to regular routines and schedules as much as possible, or help create new ones in including learning, play time, or other age-appropriate activities. This is especially important if your child’s school or daycare shuts down.[ix]
- Monitor their media. Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media. Too much information on the topic can be upsetting.vii
- Keep the dialog open. Make time for your child. Let them know that they can come to you with questions.vii
- Use your discretion. Not every child is emotionally equipped to handle such potentially frightening news. No one knows your child like you do, and no one knows better how they’ll react or how to best approach the topic.vi
If you notice your child is struggling, consult our sister site, Get Healthy Stay Healthy, to better understand how stress may affect children.
[i] World Health Organization. Helping children cope with stress during the 2019-nCoV outbreak. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/helping-children-cope-with-stress-print.pdf?sfvrsn=f3a063ff_2. Accessed March 17, 2020.
[ii] National Institute of Health. Stress in childhood. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002059.htm. Accessed March 17, 2020.
[iii] KidsHealth. Childhood stress. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/stress.html. Accessed March 17, 2020.
[iv] American Psychological Association. Talking to Kids When They Need Help. https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/help-kids. Accessed March 17, 2020.
[v] World Health Organization. Mental Health Considerations during COVID-19 Outbreak. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/mental-health-considerations.pdf?sfvrsn=6d3578af_2. Accessed March 17, 2020.
[vi] KidsHealth. Coronavirus (COVID-19): How to Talk to Your Child. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/coronavirus-how-talk-child.html. Accessed March 17, 2020.
[vii] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/talking-with-children.html. Accessed March 17, 2020.
[viii] American Academy of Pediatrics. 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/chest-lungs/Pages/2019-Novel-Coronavirus.aspx
[ix] Child Mind Institute. Talking to Kids About the Coronavirus. https://childmind.org/article/talking-to-kids-about-the-coronavirus/. Accessed March 17, 2020.