In addition to managing disappointment and missing friends or extended family, many children and teens have also experienced increased worry, stress, and anxiety. The possible negative consequences of extended quarantine are more severe for children living in homes with food insufficiency, threat of violence, or separation and loss of a loved one. While research has found that children have lower physical risk with the COVID-19 outbreak, they can be more vulnerable than adults to the emotional impact of traumatic events.
The most important buffer of stress and trauma is a consistent, sensitive relationship with a parent or caregiver. Prioritize strengthening your relationship with your teen or child during this time. Children need to feel connected to feel safe. When children feel disconnected they do not feel safe, they also have a harder time learning and staying emotionally regulated. Some moments will be hard, some days may not feel or be very productive. Be kind to yourself. Keep the big picture in mind and focus on helping your child or teen feel safe, loved and understood.
Suggestions and Recommendations
Parent Self-care and Support: Self-care is essential to be able to support your child’s emotional well-being. Sleep, exercise, and good nutrition, as well as limiting triggering news, caffeine, and alcohol are essential. Taking deliberate moments to relax and be mindful are also important and help model effective coping strategies.
Reassure and Establish Predictable (but flexible) Routines: Reassure children about their safety and safety of family. Have routines to increase predictability and feelings of safety. Validate feelings and encourage engagement in activities that help self-regulate (exercise, mindfulness, relaxation, music). Help children and teens stay active and have downtime.
Time with Teens: Spending time with teens watching shows or movies and sharing meals is great, but try to add one-on-one activities that do not involve screens. Puzzles, art projects, music, taking a walk together, or cooking allows time to talk and provides an opportunity to check in with your teens. Validate feelings. Listen. Take your teens perspective. Encourage social connection with friends. Monitor online safety. Show patience and compassion when they react strongly. Try to create positive experiences during this time. Plan fun things to look forward to together. Acknowledge milestones and come up with creative ways to celebrate.
Play and Delight in your child: Children (even infants and toddlers) feel parent stress and are affected by the emotional environment. Taking time to enjoy and play with your child will help buffer this and promote a strong positive relationship. Aim for warm, sensitive, responsive interactions. *For young children see Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child for resources including: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/5-steps-for-brain-building-serve-and-return/).
Special Time with Each Child Daily: Add special play time to connect. Set aside 5-10 minutes each day. Have a designated time. One child at a time and give full focus and attention. This is deliberate PLAY that is child-directed, without negative talk, criticism, correcting, questioning or direct “teaching”. Bonus: children want your attention and spending intentional time in positive activities together will reduce trying to get your attention with negative behaviors. See more at: https://www.cdc.gov/parents/essentials/communication/specialplaytime.html
- Let child choose activity. (No movies, shows, video games or screens.) Have materials like blocks, crayons, dolls, trucks – enough for you to replicate or imitate child’s actions and play together using the same materials.
- Praise positive behavior and actions (using specific praise to let child know exactly what you like). Ignore minor misbehavior.
- Imitate and describe behavior (avoid questioning or telling them what to do, not even suggestions to direct play, such as how about blue? Hand me that block). Your child gets to lead the play.
- Watch negative words (try NOT to say “no, don’t, stop”) and statements that are critical. Try to show enthusiasm and enjoy these positive play times.
Laughing is an excellent stress reliever. For recommendations about funny and ridiculous movies to watch with children and teens see: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/lists/best-family-movie-laughs)
Regulate: Right now, it might be harder for you and your child or teen to manage reactions and emotions. While children and teens may respond to quarantine differently, expect changes in behavior and emotionality. You and your children/teens may have more tantrums (yelling), sleep disturbance, irritability, aggression, forgetfulness, crying, or withdraw.
Calm yourself first when children are upset to be able to respond compassionately and calmly. When our children are upset, we can easily become upset as well and vice versa. Children need connection during this time. Avoid physical punishment, this can increase aggression in children over time, does not teach a child how to behave, and hurts your relationship.
Stay calm when emotions are escalating. Do a body scan for tension and practice calming strategies. Work to actually relax your body, slow your breathing, and calm yourself (not detach). Learning how to regulate your own emotions first and showing children you are working to be calm will allow for connection. Choose to calm down. See relaxation handouts at https://parentsupportduringcovid19.com. Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids Workbook by Dr Laura Markham (2018) is also a good parenting resource to help and uses mindfulness and connection
In addition, the Child Trends website outlines several recommendations to support and protect children’s emotional well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic at https://www.childtrends.org/publications/resources-for-supporting-childrens-emotional-well-being-during-the-covid-19-pandemic.
If you are struggling, we are here to support you and your children or help connect you to the right support and resources you need. Please reach out and seek support if you are having a hard time managing anger or anxiety, if you are feeling overwhelmed or having a hard time coping and parenting during this time.