Photograph by Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images
Photograph by Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

COVID-19 infections are surging. So are kids’ fears

How to help children cope with ongoing pandemic anxiety

The first time Melanie Randall’s seven-year-old daughter saw her teacher during a pre-recorded video lesson last spring, she began to cry—she was scared that her teacher was sick. The initial shock was hard, but with time, she understood what was happening.

So when Randall learned that experts were forecasting a nationwide COVID-19 surge this winter, she wanted to protect her two kids from re-experiencing the distress of another seismic shift. She decided the best approach was to set up realistic expectations: Cases are going up, and that means the family has to hunker down at home awhile longer.

“My kids and I have open conversations,” she says. “I don't want to seal them off from outside events, because this is our world, and they have to adjust to it.”

Like Randall, many parents are trying to help their kids cope with an unpredictable and sometimes scary world. Research shows that children are especially vulnerable to depression and anxiety during and after enforced isolation. And this winter, an upsurge of COVID-19 cases means another round of big changes—schools are re-closing, states are tightening restrictions, and holiday plans are being canceled.

Change itself can cause anxiety in many children. But combined with surge fears and the scary realities of the pandemic, kids can become downright frightened. But experts say working through these feelings is an exercise in resiliency—something we’ve all become accustomed to these past months.

“It's OK for parents not to have all the answers,” says Tamar Chansky, psychologist and author of Freeing Your Child from Anxiety. “There’s still so much that parents can do to make this a safe time, and a time of connection and growth in their family.”

Be open about the uncertainty

“Children are often frightened by the unknown,” says Jessica Dym Bartlett, an early childhood researcher at Child Trends. “While we want to be thoughtful about how we talk to children, and that we do it in age-appropriate ways, we need to make sure children understand what's happening, what may happen in the future, and that adults are working hard to make sure they're safe.”

Signs of anxiety in children tend to be developmental. Younger kids and toddlers may act clingy, wet the bed, cry frequently, or ask a lot of questions. Older kids and teens might experience trouble sleeping, changes in appetite, worsening academic performance, or social withdrawal.

If parents are noticing these signs, Bartlett recommends starting with a conversation and meeting the child where they are. For example, you might talk to a younger child while you’re sitting on the floor and playing with toys. Kids also work well in metaphors, so try using children’s books or pictures as a way to explore how they’re doing.

It can feel especially challenging for parents to have these conversations during the pandemic when they don’t have all the answers either. “This is a moment for parents to know that you don't have to make it all better. What helps kids is having someone understand your experience and validate it,” Chansky says. “So even though it can be hard to hear how our kids are unhappy, it's important to spend time talking about that, and then helping them to shape the narrative.”

She recommends responding with empathy, and then modeling resilience. (“I know this is really hard and I'm disappointed, too. Things are going to be different this year. Let’s think of nice things we can do as a family. Let's brainstorm together.”)

Bartlett also suggests that parents create predictability to the extent that they can. For example, if you’re talking to a child who is afraid of people on the sidewalk, work with them to map out some possibilities. Tell them what we know, what we don't know, and two or three things that the two of you could decide to do. And if you’re delivering potentially disappointing news, present it calmly.

Fact-check fears

For those kids who always have another “what if” question, Chansky says parents can start by helping them label their worries and self-regulate. (“Rather than talking about worries all day, what if we give worry five minutes at three o'clock every day? You can tell me all the things worry is saying to you, then we're going to take our red pen and correct it if it's not right.”)

“You're helping your child learn what we do ourselves as adults—that we have some decision-making over the things that we think about,” Chansky says. “It’s empowering for kids to know that their worry says one thing, but they can fact-check it to come up with a more accurate interpretation of what's going on.”

Make it a shared experience. Allow kids to work through feelings rather than jumping in with the answers right away, Chansky says. “Hand the imaginary pen to your child and say, do you want to correct worry, or do you want me to? They will internalize that habit.”

And while it’s normal for kids to feel some fear and anxiety, parents should be on the lookout for destructive or persistent patterns of negative thinking, like speaking in absolutes or extremes. “One disappointment is amplified into a worldview about everything,” Chansky explains. “A parent might say, ‘We can't see grandma and grandpa this year for Thanksgiving,’ and a child might say, ‘Everything's terrible. I hate everything. This is so stupid.’”

Again, parents can help kids reframe. (“This is disappointing and we’re going to have to figure out some new traditions. But we're going to be strong because the good decisions we make this holiday will help us all stay safe.”) If reframing doesn’t work and parents feel like they can’t get through to a child who's stuck in a pattern of negative thinking, it may be time to consult the pediatrician or therapist.

Reassurance, routines, and regulation

Another way parents can foster a safe space and help kids adjust is by practicing what Bartlett calls the 3 R’s: reassurance, routines, and regulation.

Reassurance can be verbal or physical—for example, giving hugs and spending quality time with kids. “The point is to get across the message that they're safe, that their loved ones are safe, and that the grownups are working as hard as they can to make sure that everyone stays that way,” she says.

Second, try to maintain regular routines. This can be tricky for parents during COVID-19, but Bartlett advises to simply give kids a sense of order rather than a rigid schedule. “The key is to find out what you can keep the same, and keep those things predictable, like sleeping, eating, learning, and playing,” she says.

Finally, parents can nurture coping skills. “Self-regulation is managing difficult feelings, and for kids of all ages, that's one of the major tasks of childhood and adolescence—to figure out how to deal with your own feelings,” Bartlett explains. That could mean teaching kids effective relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, relaxing movement, or quiet time.

Encourage kids to focus on what they can control

In addition to regulation skills, another key to coping with uncertainty is by cultivating a sense of agency. “Self-efficacy helps children feel positive and hopeful—what’s scary to children is sitting back and watching and not having any control,” Bartlett says.

She recommends engaging kids in age-appropriate forms of helping—that can range from helping out around the house to sending food to people who need it. “During the pandemic, we've seen lots of people coming together, people taking care of the elderly, people taking care of young kids, people making masks,” Bartlett says. “We can show them those stories and have them experience positivity and hope by helping someone else.”

And focusing on social connections is more important than ever. “Every human being needs social time, and kids need quality time with their caregivers and other important people in their lives,” Bartlett says. “It's essential that parents and families and communities think together about creative ways to stay connected.” That might mean connecting through online platforms or by sending paper letters the old-fashioned way.

Chansky agrees that compassion for others encourages both social connection and resilience. She suggests making it into a ritual—spend 15 minutes every week doing things for other people, whether that’s making a card for a family member or bringing something to the neighbor. “It just becomes this kind of structure in your child's life, that we help other people. That immediately feels good.” (Find out how practicing kindness can keep kids healthy.)

Another ritual you can do together is practicing gratitude. “It’s empirically shown to improve mood and [create] a sense of well-being and happiness,” Chansky says. “Have a family routine of talking about the things that you feel grateful for or that made you happy today.” (Learn how to develop an attitude of gratitude in your kids.)

Take care of yourself

Ultimately, Bartlett wants to remind parents to take care of themselves and ask for help when they need it. Take time to spend a few minutes talking to a friend every day, get outside, or do mindfulness exercises.

“The key to healthy child development is having a healthy, emotionally available adult,” Bartlett says. “We really need to make sure this doesn't end up being a parent-blaming proposition. The message to parents should be, don't aim for perfection, aim for good enough during this time.”