Helping kids cope with the COVID-19 pandemic

Fortunately, so far the COVID-19 virus is generally not hitting kids very hard, with adults getting infected, hospitalized and dying at far higher numbers. In Utah to date about 43 children or adolescent have tested positive, ~3% of the total number of state-wide cases.

Yet everything related to this pandemic can affect kids emotionally and physically.

This is a time of stress for parents and kids alike. Even if your family isn’t directly affected by the virus, you are facing the challenges of kids being bored with being stuck at home, home-schooling, calming fears, and learning how to manage family relationships in close quarters in a context of heightened economic insecurity and stress.

Hence the expected increase in child abuse, domestic violence and other family problems with this COVID-19 pandemic.

When we fly, they tell us to apply our own oxygen mask before we try to assist others. In the same way, parents need to manage their own stress and take care of their own mental health before they can help their children cope. Even as adults we are more affected than we think, and too often our frustrations and stress manifest as anger which ends up being directed towards the most vulnerable, our kids. On the other hand, kids learn how to deal with stress from following the example of strong adults in their lives who are coping with stress, even if they’re not perfect at it.

The Utah Department of Human Services has some great tips for mental self-care in the setting of COVID-19 . For parents and kids alike, mindfulness can help. There are some good apps to teach mindfulness meditation like Headspace, Stop Breathe & Think, and Mindshift. Watch this video by Andy Puddicombe, founder of Headspace.

Once you take a few deep breaths and relax, you’re ready to dive in to some reading on how to help your kids. Check out this brief handout for ideas on helping children cope with staying at home, as well as this handout with suggestions for each age. Family Coach blog also has some great suggestions here.

Articles are great, but what about real life? Well, here’s my house: kids are fighting and anxious, their on-line school isn’t working, the dishes are piling up, and everyone is convinced I am going to bring home COVID-19 from work. “Stay 6 feet away, Dad!” my 6 year old says, especially when it’s time to get ready for bed or clean up.

So we sat the kids down and told them something like this: “This COVID-19 is a brand new virus. It is making a lot of people sick and even killing some people. But if you guys get it, you’d probably just get a cold. But it can make older people really sick. So we’re staying home to protect them. We want to do our part and help out other people. You guys are literally saving lives by not doing your usual stuff and staying home. You guys are heroes! Now, even though you guys aren’t going to school at the school building, you still have to go to school here at our house. So we have to make sure your school is clean.”

Then we made a (very very simple) daily schedule with a regular school start and stop time and a list of daily chores, and a list of ideas for things to do. We stuck to our usual screen time rule of 30 minutes every 3 hours, knowing that excessive screen time can exacerbate anxiety and mood changes and keep kids from being present in the moment, circumvent face to face interactions that help them cope, and distract them from facing and working through emotional challenges. At the same time we wanted our older kids to be able to connect with their friends they aren’t seeing at school.

Is it any surprise kids will be a little more defiant or emotional during these times? As parents we need to understand where this is coming from- the underlying turmoil going on inside them- and cut them a little slack. Maybe we lower our expectations for home school just a little bit in order to ease the stress. Maybe we allow some occasional exceptions to the usual home rules like having a late night movie party.

At the same time it’s important to maintain routines and structure. Having structure helps kids feel secure and normal. Keep regular bedtimes, homeschool start times, and chore times. Unscheduled free time helps balance the structure and allows opportunities to decompress. Keep sleep time adequate, meals healthy and responsibilities clear.

Also, we can’t give kids blanket approval to take their stress out on others. The goal is to help them process those emotions and stress and express them in healthier ways. The best place to start is asking sincere questions and listening well. Listening is almost always better than giving a lecture. (See this book on how to listen so kids will talk.) If kids have a hard time talking, writing can be helpful, or they can express themselves through music, art or imaginative play.

After hearing them out, understand and empathize with them, tell them what you do that helps you. Talk to them about what’s going on, and be honest but keep it simple and age-appropriate. Be open but grown-up about your own feelings and talk about what you do to manage them.

Be careful about how much news you consume and how you talk when kids are around. Kids are like sponges and it’s surprising how much they pick up on.

Also, it can be therapeutic to do something that helps them feel like they have some control in an uncertain situation. Brainstorm together with them about ways you can be helpful to each other and other people in your community, by sewing cloth masks for themselves or people who need them, or making sidewalk chalk messages for their neighbors. Help them imagine what they will think remembering back on this time in the future by creating a “COVID-19 time capsule“. Try reading this children’s story book about COVID-19.

If you don’t have time or energy to take on those activities, remember that many times it’s enough to just get through the day. Do what you can at the pace you can sustain. Draw on the support of family, friends, and faith. If you need help, don’t hesitate to utilize the resources below.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Mental Health/Substance Use

  • The Disaster Distress Helpline is a 24/7, 365-day-a-year, national hotline dedicated to providing immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster. Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Access the SafeUT Crisis Chat and Tip Line from your smartphone by downloading the SafeUT app. Licensed clinicians and Crisis Workers are available 24/7 to help with immediate support and referral resources.
  • Call the U of U Warm Line at 801-587-1055 if you feel lonely or need support.
  • If you need to connect with someone because of an ongoing alcohol or drug problem, call 2-1-1 to find support meetings or resources near you.

Children’s Mental Health and Childcare 

  • If you need emergency child care you can contact 2-1-1 for resources or call your local Family Support Center to use their crisis nursery
  • Help Me Grow Utah can help provide parents and caregivers resources to help their children.
  • Utah Parent Center is available to help parents and caregivers find resources for any special need including mental health.

Financial Supports

  • Employees negatively impacted by COVID-19 due to illness or otherwise unable to work due to the virus should apply for unemployment insurance: jobs.utah.gov/ui/home

Please visit coronavirus.utah.gov or call 800-456-7707 for any COVID-19 questions.