How to Support Your Children During the Pandemic
COVID-19 has taken over our collective attention. And as much as we might like to protect our children from the fear and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, they are undeniably being affected in a number of ways.
As the father of a four-year-old, I thought I would share some tips that have been helpful on my own recent parenting journey. I hope they’ll help you talk with your children about the outbreak and keep them feeling positive and resilient during this extremely challenging time.
Regulate Your Own Emotions
Children are naturally trusting, open, and interested in the world around them. But fear can paralyze and reverse this impulse. Our job as parents is to support our children’s natural curiosity by providing a safe and loving environment for them.
Children are sensitive and pick up on the emotions of their caregivers,1 so it’s essential that we use self-regulation practices such as mindfulness and also get the support we need to help process our own anxiety and find emotional balance.
Listen Carefully and Respond Appropriately
We can try to protect small children as much as possible from information they cannot comprehend or digest by saving adult conversations, including watching or listening to news media, for when they’re not around.
But assuming your child already knows about the virus, it’s important to ask questions to understand what their concerns are. Children under 12 will have a primarily emotional response and therefore require lots of emotional support, especially through listening and reassurance. Practice mindful parenting by listening carefully to their experience and providing age-appropriate responses. Acknowledge and empathize with their fears, rather than dismissing them, even if they seem irrational.
Aim to be a source of guidance by helping them process their feelings and keeping anxiety to a minimum. Emphasize that they should come to you with any questions they might have. And remember that your answers must address their underlying concerns of physical and emotional safety.
As Mr. Rogers famously pointed out, one of the most helpful things for small children who do have a sense that people are scared or sick is to help them to focus on the “helpers.” Your child can even be a “helper” by writing or drawing encouraging messages, and sharing pictures or videos with others.
For teenagers, being well-informed about the situation may help decrease anxiety. Social media exposes older children to increased levels of misinformation, uncertainty, and fear. Having access to trusted sources of reliable information (including parents), and especially to any encouraging details or news, may be very helpful.
Build Resilience as a Family
To help your family reduce anxiety and build resilience you can consider using strategies based on the CARE2 model:
Choices: Knowing there’s something we can do helps us reduce fear and regain a sense of control. Remind children of things that are in their power, for example by emphasizing good hygiene as a way to avoid getting and spreading illness. With young children you can make hand washing fun by singing songs or making it a game. Wash Your Lyrics lets you create and print a poster, pairing lyrics to a song of your choice with hand washing instructions and images. This was a big hit with the four year old in my house.
Agenda: Help your children know what to expect and what is expected of them. A predictable and consistent daily routine, including activities such as physical exercise, getting outdoors, or journaling, can help reduce stress. Involving children in creating their own rhythms and structures can also be an effective empowerment strategy. Even though everyone’s plans have been canceled, we still have plenty of fun things to do: playing music, singing, dancing, reading, playing games, doing art projects, and laughing. Lots of laughing.
Resilience: Highlighting strengths and reframing negatives is a proven way to increase optimism and wellbeing. For example, we have been intentional about framing school closures as an opportunity for more time to have fun at home as a family. And we explain “social distancing” as a way we can help keep ourselves and others healthy, not a way to avoid sick people.
Emotional Support: Use the strategies above — listening carefully to your children, empathizing with their fears, and providing reassurance and guidance — to help your kids talk about their feelings and feel confident that they (and you) will be ok.
As disruptive as the pandemic has been, I believe it also provides us with many opportunities to learn and grow. In my house, we are staying mindful about screen time (hers and ours), and trying to avoid loneliness by practicing productive solitude.
Almost every parent I know has some sense of regret about how quickly their kids grow up and how they didn’t appreciate those early years enough. Even though having my daughter home all the time presents certain challenges, having more time with her gives me something to be grateful for in the midst of a painful and frightening situation. By using the above strategies to stay calm, present, and engaged with our children, we may find that being “stuck” at home with them is actually a precious gift.
 Molitor, G. (2014, October 19) How Our Moods Impact Their Behavior. Gerard Molitor. Retrieved from http://www.gerardmolitor.com/?page_id=115
 Lerwick, J. L. (2016). Minimizing pediatric healthcare-induced anxiety and trauma. World Journal of Clinical Pediatrics, 5(2), 143.