past few weeks we have shared in an experience that has been felt all over the world. The development of COVID-19 has impacted all of us in numerous ways. Undoubtedly, the majority of children have experienced a system change that is unprecedented in our lifetimes.
- School closing for weeks, maybe longer.
- Sports, birthday parties, games, after-school groups and looked-forward-to events have been cancelled.
- All our routines are in flux.
Often during times of uncertain future, children can feel confused, scared, become angry, show regressive behaviors, shut down, etc. (I am speaking for children and teens here, but many adults feel all these emotions as well!) Below, I outline how to
recognize signs of distress and worry at their developmental ages and ways to support them.
Developmentally Appropriate Reactions to Stress
Children of different ages and personalities have a variety of responses to stress. Sometimes our own stress responses, as the adults, show up in our kids! Here are some developmentally appropriate signs to look for when your child might be feeling stressed during the COVID-19 outbreak:
Children 6-10 years old:
Might experience anxiety due to being part of an unsafe world. They might show resistance to being separated or leaving home. They may also regress to early stages of development and ask to be dressed by a caretaker or cared for in ways they haven’t been since they were much younger. They may express more feelings of fear or anger and not understand these feelings. They may cry, have fits, or show other more aggressive behaviors.
n these moments, though it seems they come out of nowhere, they are processing big feelings and don't know how to express themselves.
When you listen to the feeling behind the behaviour without judgement they learn it is ok to have feelings, they learn you understand and care about how they feel and they learn you will help soothe them.
This can look like: “ Oh wow, I can see that you are feeling scared because you are hiding under the table and yelling. That must not feel so good. I’m sorry. I’m right here with you, maybe when you feel ready we can talk together about what is happening.” Sometimes when we stay with the feeling it actually melts away.
When you are being present with your child’s emotion, you help them regulate their emotion in that moment.
Children and teens 11 to 19 years old:
This age group is going through appropriate emotional and physical changes which can compound the extra feelings of fear and anxiety that can happen around an infectious disease outbreak. With greater access to social media than younger children, pre-teens and teens can overconsume media related to COVID-19 that may be confusing, inaccurate, and overwhelming. Teens are more likely to repress anxious feelings and say “I’m fine”. They may avoid the subject of the pandemic all together. They may also feel intense panic or be quick to anger. These feelings can be strong and are normal.
Similarly to younger children, we want to hear these feelings behind the behavior without judgement. After, we can encourage a pause before action, a response vs reaction. It is important to recognize the feeling will pass and is not stuck to them, consuming them.
For example, we might say, “Shawn is anxious”, but a more accurate response is, “Shawn is feeling anxious right now.” This reassures Shawn that he will not always feel anxious and opens up the possibility for Shawn to choose a different feeling. Perhaps after talking or art making, Shawn will feel, ‘frustrated’, or ‘bored’, an improvement from the out of control feeling anxiety presents.
This is the act of moving through emotions rather than avoiding them.
Predictability equals security for kids
. Knowing what to expect from one moment to the next, where their body will be, where to go, etc. allows a child to feel safe in the world.
If the schedule isn’t “normal” kids/teens can begin to feel unsafe or unheld.
Explaining to kids what they can expect is a great step to help them feel held by their caregiver.
Although their schedules may be in-flux every day, we can make them predictable as possible and teach kids how to feel safe while also being flexible.
- Set aside a time, 15-20 minutes, every morning to go over the day’s schedule. It’s important that clear communication can happen at this time. Including where the child can expect to be, when, with who and when they will see you again. Allow room for questions and suggestions; if there is space. For them to have is choice is positive, so give them choice, if at all possible. Little bits of control can go a long way.
- Try and keep meal times consistent. This can help emotional outbursts that are hunger fueled and regulate body rhythms within your child. Food is nourishing and comforting. It is healing to know when you can expect to be nourished and comforted.
- If there are any routines or rituals you can keep from the school day (recess time, art, STEM experiments, music, dances, songs, etc) or appointments (counseling or after school group meetings/activities with video platforms) in any capacity- try to keep them when you can. This can preserve your child’s connection to their ‘normal’ lives.
- If a child has to be flexible about something as the schedule changes, it might feel difficult to them. Acknowledge the disappointment or difficulty. Reward as much as possible any moments of flexibility as this cognitive skill is opposite to the rigid thinking of anxiety. It can sound like: “I know that was a change from what we had planned, you might feel pretty disappointed. Thank you for being so flexible! Can you think of something fun you would like to do after dinner tonight?”
Role Model: Maintain Expressions of Hope
Practice the self-care habits that rejuvenate your spirit and keep you regulated. Your ability to find hope and light in dark and scary moments will help your children to thrive.
It’s kind of like the saying “Put your oxygen mask on first, then help someone else”. Except, in this instance, what truly happens is that once your oxygen mask is on, so is theirs. With no extra work.
Some ideas to do by yourself and with your children
- Keep a schedule for your meals and bedtime
- Find joy in music, dancing, and art
- Exercise and be in nature
- Play games, build something
- Connect remotely with loved ones
Over the coming weeks I plan to collect more activities and tips from a clinical and art therapy perspective, to help parents navigate this time COVID-19.
We will overcome difficult times in community, with love and compassion for one another. I admire the outpouring of love I have seen from people around me. I feel honored to be able to offer my gifts of support as well.
I send you my best, in love and light,
Meri Steinmetz MA., CMHC, ATR-P
Video Resources for Children Regarding COVID19 Outbreak:
Answering Kids Questions About the Corona Virus:
Additional Information obtained from The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at: