The disruptions kids are experiencing right now are real: seeing their parents under stress, being isolated from peers and friends and family, being separated from the structure and routine of their school days, seeing people in masks and overhearing unsettling news. Parents are understandably wondering, “Should we be worried about what this is doing to our children’s mental health?”
Here’s what parents should know about the long-term emotional impact of the pandemic on kids.
Working with children in refugee camps, after natural disasters and in crisis situations such as the terrorist attacks on 9/11, hurricane Katrina, and the tsunami in Southeast Asia, I have found that the best way to help kids cope with crisis is to teach them to recognize, understand and manage their emotions.
An emotional education gives children the building blocks they need to be successful at home, school and on the playground. And teaching children to be smart about their feelings (and the feelings of others) can help alleviate children’s emotional stress, improve concentration, boost immune systems and enhance brain development.
Here’s how parents can provide an emotional education for kids during this time that will help balance the impact of the pandemic and their long-term mental health.
Be there for them
Past experience has taught us that caring grown-ups in children’s lives can make an enormous difference by providing safety, comforting reassurance, age-appropriate information and helpful guidance. Once your child’s immediate physical needs have been met, meeting their emotional needs is key to helping them deal with their confusion, anxiety or fear.
Listen, observe + talk
Children may be upset seeing people wearing masks, overhearing anxious conversations, being physically distant from people they care about or having their routine gravely disrupted. Children’s reactions will vary, but it’s important to observe their behavior while listening carefully to what they are saying.
To quote the beloved Mr. Rogers, “What’s mentionable is manageable.” Not talking about the pandemic can actually make kids worry more. Acknowledge their concerns, validate their feelings and provide comfort and reassurance. In addition to helping them in the moment, this will foster future conversations about what will happen next. I recently partnered with Scholastic Publishing and the Yale Child Study Center Collaborative for Child Resilience to create First Aid for Families: Helping Kids Cope During the Coronavirus Pandemic, a free resource to help families.
Create a safe space
Emotions are contagious, and when there’s a lack of control and predictability it’s natural for parents and children to experience stress. Living under one roof and in tight quarters can exacerbate those cooped up feelings.
Stressors can impair learning and developmental growth, making it impossible for a child to concentrate and learn. When stress reaches toxic and sustained levels (which are important to distinguish from tolerable or even positive types of stress), it can actually remap a child’s brain.
I suggest designating a safe and comforting corner of your home as a Calming Corner. A child’s physical environment can stabilize their life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A Calming Corner can help children regulate their emotions when they become overwhelmed with powerful feelings.
Stay connected with friends + family
Social and emotional learning is an important part of child development. If children learn these skills at an early age, they’ll be better equipped to handle the everyday challenges of growing up. Staying connected with their immediate family, friends and extended family members virtually, can be helpful. Whether it’s a virtual chat, writing a letter to a pen pal or drawing a picture for a grandparent, the significance of social connections right now cannot be underestimated.
Remind them this will pass
When reassuring children who have worries, you can say, “Lots of very smart doctors and scientists are working hard to figure out how to keep us healthy and safe. And in the not too distant future, you’ll be able to go back to school, play sports and go outside and play with your friends, just like you did before. The parks, schools, restaurants and stores will be open, and you’ll be able to do the things you enjoy again. And that’s a good thing for you to know!”
Here’s what parents can do right now to protect their children’s long-term emotional health—and their own.
Deal with your own anxiety before speaking with children. Try to remain calm because children will take their cues from you. Seek support from other adults or a counselor.
Meet kids where they are. Assess what your child has heard and begin your conversation there. Provide clear, age-appropriate information. You are their best source for information.
Offer comfort and reassurance of kid’s safety. Increase physical contact and affection during times of uncertainty. Talk about all the people that are working hard to keep them safe.
Talk about your own feelings and give children opportunities to express their feelings. All feelings are okay, and they are meant to be shared. Keeping them inside can cause aches and pains.
Teach simple health strategies and stress responses that children can use to take care of themselves. There are numerous techniques to encourage calmness that you can do with your children.
Help children stick to their normal routine. Having a familiar schedule will reduce their stress and increase predictability.
Keep lines of communications open. Some children may want or need more information; others may be better with less. Take your cues from them. Being engaged and available is what matters most!
How can parents help kids get back to normal after the pandemic?
There’s good news. Kids will generally “bounce back” if during the pandemic they have received emotional support from caring adults in their lives, and if they’ve learned resiliency through skills and techniques that help them manage emotional stress, such as yoga, deep breathing and talking to someone. That’s why your love and support is so important right now: Calm parents encourage calm children.
As we begin transitioning children back to school and back to a normal routine, it will continue to be important that we provide the necessary emotional support needed for them to thrive. Be available, honest and open, as this will provide them with a sense of connectedness, normalcy and routine.
Advance planning will be important, too. Find out what their school has planned. Monitor your child’s adjustment over time. Watch their behavior and listen carefully to what they are saying. Have more than one conversation about what’s happening—a child’s understanding and questions will change over time.
Some children will want to talk extensively about the pandemic, while others will not want to talk at all. Participating in enjoyable activities is both necessary and beneficial. Children may be more vulnerable if other stressors such as divorce, financial problems were occurring in the family prior to the crisis. They may need extra support and reassurance to feel in control. Thoughts, feelings and behaviors that may follow immediately after the pandemic will evolve and change as life continues.
Childhood is an amazing time of discovery, even during a pandemic. Nearly every moment of a child’s life offers opportunities to teach important emotional skills such as caring, listening, empathy, problem-solving, self-regulation and resilience.