Maintaining a child’s overall health and emotional wellness has become a significant challenge for parents, as the country increasingly advises individuals and families to quarantine indoors. Our homes have expanded from places dedicated to family time to our offices, children’s schools, and sole sources of socialization. Combining this adjustment with a shrinking social circle can result in significant stress amongst children.

Archana Basu, PhD, clinical psychologist at Mass General for Children, shares more about COVID-19’s impact on a child’s developmental needs as well as tips for how to help your child maintain their well-being.

Children, Stress & COVID-19

The changes that come with the coronavirus pandemic are a lot for children to deal with, so it’s common for parents to see heightened anxiety, worry and sadness in their children, says Basu.

“One of the most common things I’m hearing from my pediatric patients right now are feelings of anxiety and worry, though the way those feelings are expressed can be different for each child,” says Basu. “Sometimes it can look like a bellyache or trouble sleeping. Sometimes it can manifest as a lack of motivation to engage in schoolwork.” Basu advises that parents also keep in mind their child’s unique personality or temperament style and any pre-existing mental health conditions may affect how they respond to stress.

Children develop within a different network of communities (e.g., school, afterschool programs, faith-based communities) and a variety of relationships, which inform their sense of self and provide a sense of routine and structure.

“As social beings, we seek support from others in times of stress. But physical distancing is affecting our ability to seek help in traditional ways” says Basu. In her pediatric practice, she’s observed five main areas where developmental needs aren’t being met in children as a result of COVID-19:

  1. Socialization in diverse settings (i.e. schools, parks, places of worship, team-based extracurriculars/sports, etc.)
  2. Relational and caregiving support from extended family (e.g., grandparents), neighbors and friends.
  3. Change in emotional resources for parents and primary caregivers. As parents’ cope with changes in roles and routines, there is increased stress that can impact their emotional availability for children.
  4. Quality and fulfilling academic environments and experiences is another issue as schooling at home has become the norm.
  5. Potential lack of adequate physical exercise.

Ways to Support your Child’s Emotional Needs

Families can help address these needs at home, but Basu advises to keep it simple, manageable and flexible, and to do what works for yourself and your family. There is no one-size-fits-all approach and different strategies might work at different times. Building a tool box of coping skills is often a good idea. Basu recommends that parents and caregivers:

  • Adjust expectations: Maintaining your pre-pandemic routine and expectations may not be realistic, so re-setting expectations for your child(ren) and yourself is key
  • Ask, do not assume: Communication is the best way to know how children are adjusting, what kinds of information they have access to and the impact it’s having on their emotional wellbeing. While the style of communication depends on the child and family’s preferences, a few tips that Basu offers include:
    • Use age-appropriate language to explain complicated concepts to younger children
    • Emphasize the things that you or your child can control. For instance, the importance of physical distancing, appropriate hand washing and coughing or sneezing into a tissue
    • Promote open ongoing dialogue. This can be particularly helpful with older children, in order to clear up any misinformation they may have learned from peers or the Internet
  • Validate your child’s feelings and provide realistic reassurance: Let children know that you understand that they are worried, tired, or frustrated. Talking about feelings helps to make them more manageable. Follow this up with realistic reassurance. For e.g., saying “the best way to stay safe and healthy right now is by following the doctors and scientists’ suggestions” rather than “there is nothing to worry about”, which may be confusing and inaccurate. Also, it is okay as a parent, to not have all the answers. Modeling ways to problem solve and making teachable moments of any mistakes can be just as powerful too.
  • Stay physically active: Physical health is an integral part of maintaining daily rhythms like sleep and also supports emotion regulation. Ways to exercise with your children right now include at-home yoga or fitness classes, bike rides or walks in the park (if available and can be done safely while maintaining physical distancing).
  • Stay connected with family and friends through technology: It’s important to acknowledge the sense of social loss you and your child likely feel, and to find creative ways to foster connections through video chats or just a good old-fashioned phone call.
  • Balance flexibility with routine: Maintain a balance between having some routines that provide predictability and a sense of stability (e.g., sleep routines, regular family meetings or meals, time set aside for school work) and being flexible about other things.
  • Take good care of yourself: Parents or caregivers’ own self-care is extremely important at this time. Parents are the primary source of support for children. But there are a lot of demands on parents right now. Supporting yourself and reducing your own stress is one of the main things that parents can do help themselves and their children.
  • Seek out professional help from your primary care physician: If the emotional or behavioral changes in your child are persistent, or are interfering with the ability to manage daily activities request an appointment with your provider virtually via telemedicine to assess the need for additional mental health support.