How to Support Kids and Teens Through the COVID-19 Crisis

Adapted from The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds

Written by SBT Melissa Syria, LCPC

The outbreak of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) has created a lot of anxiety and uncertainty for all of us, including children and teens. 

During stressful times, not matter what their age, children want to know three basic things:

Am I safe?
Are you, the people caring for me, safe?
How will this situation affect my daily life?

As parents and caregivers, we need to talk with our kids about COVID-19 to address these concerns. Below are five tips on how to talk to kids of all ages to help them maintain emotional stability during the crisis.

Guidance for Helping Kids of All Ages
1. Control Your Own Anxiety
Many of us are worried about the current situation and living with uncertainty isn’t easy. Yet, anxiety is “contagious.” Your kids will know that you are nervous even if you try to hide it.
If your child asks if you are worried, be honest! They will know if you are not telling them the truth. You can say things like: “Yes, I’m worried about the virus, but I know that there are ways to prevent its spread and take care of the family if one of us gets sick.”

2. Approach Your Kids and Ask What They Know Most children will have heard about COVID-19, particularly school-age kids and adolescents. They may have read things online, seen something on TV, or heard friends or teachers talk about the illness. There is a lot of misinformation out there, so don’t assume that they know specifics about the situation or that the information they have is correct.

Do you have any questions I can help you answer?
How are you feeling about the Coronavirus?
Once you know what information they have and what they’re concerned about, then you can help to fill in any necessary gaps.

3. Validate Their Feelings and Concerns
Kids may have all sorts of reactions to the COVID-19. Some may be realistic, while others exaggerated. For example, if grandma is in a nursing home, they may have heard that older adults get sicker than healthier, younger individuals. You need to be able to acknowledge this valid concern, but can reassure them that grandma has the best medical care to manage the illness. Again, take these feeling seriously, but then reassure.

4. Empower Them by Modeling Behavior
An important part of prevention is hand washing, coughing or sneezing into your sleeves, wiping your nose with tissue then discarding it, trying to keep your hands away from your face, not shaking hands or making physical contact with others, and wiping surfaces with material that is at least 60% alcohol.

Be sure to demonstrate these behaviors first, so your kids can have a good model. When you see your kids practicing good hygiene praise them for it! Reinforce that they are not only taking care of themselves, but also helping to prevent the spread of germs to others.

5. Provide Reassurance
Your kids may worry about how you’re going to get through this. Remind them of other situations in which they felt helpless and scared. Kids love family stories, and these narratives carry a lot of emotional weight. Try something like: “Remember that hurricane when a tree fell on the apartment?” or “Remember when the pipes burst in the house and we were flooded?” Remind them that you have been through challenging times before, and though everyone was distressed, everyone also worked together and got through it. Reliving these kinds of narrative helps the whole family to build resilience and hope.

A few more tips:
Kids this age thrive on routine. Try to keep to daily schedules as typical as always, even if you are quarantined at home. Explain that the reason you stocked up on a month’s supply of food and are not going to school or work is to help your community by not spreading the disease to others.

Younger school-age kids cope with their fears through play. They may play doctor or use a Lego set to create a hospital helping people. This is a normal way for them to manage their anxieties including repeating their games over and over.

Some school-age kids will become more clingy and demanding. Such “regression” is a way of expressing fear. This is not the time to simply tell them to “grow up,” even if the behavior is frustrating. They may need more time with you – reading to them, watching a TV show together, drawing, or playing.

Turn off the TV other digital media as much as possible. School-age kids may not understand everything they hear and see on the screen. For example, if there are reports of outbreaks or deaths on the other side of the country, they may not know how far this is or that germs cannot spread to their house from distant places.

No one knows at this point how serious the impact of COVID-19 will be. Living with uncertainty is not easy. However, we can help each other become more resilient, emotionally stable, and as physically protected as possible through a carefully planned means of engaging with our kids in this time of crisis.

Photo of Soda Springs, Idaho, 2019.