Helping children deal with the coronavirus crisis

April 8, 2020

How worried and upset children get about the coronavirus depends partly on the adults around them. If you can stay calm, and realistic about the danger, it will help your child.

Because of coronavirus, most schools are closed and parents' schedules disrupted. It will help your child deal with this if you can keep the rest of your child's life as normal as possible.

Being cooped up indoors can be difficult for everybody. When weather permits. try to find some way for your kids to get outdoors every day. Going to a playground is not a good idea. Taking a walk away from other people should be fine. If you see people you know, wave but keep your distance. They will understand.

Staying in the house all or most of the day means less physical activity than usual for most people. If outdoor activity won't work for your family, you could dance or exercise with TV programs or DVDs.

Phone or email people you know who live alone. It will help them feel less isolated. A few words from your child may really brighten the day of an older person. Find out if there is something that person needs that you can provide.

Some activities help children talk together without the conversation seeming forced. This could be a good time for you and your child to cook or bake together. Doing jigsaw puzzles or craft projects together could also facilitate talking.

Young children may get angry at their parents when the children cannot get their favorite foods, or go where they want to go. They may think parents are all-powerful and are intentionally withholding what the kids want. Just explain briefly and try to get them interested in something else.

In stressful times, children (and adults) may eat more than they should, and more unhealthy food than advisable. You might want to put a bowl of fresh fruit where it is easily seen and tell kids they can help themselves. Raisins and popcorn are other healthy snacks that most children like.

Feeling anxious may make it difficult for children to fall asleep. Be sure that bedrooms are quiet, dark and cool. Try to use whatever helps your child relax. That might include a bath, soothing music, tucking a blanket tightly around the child, reading a story to the child, the child reading in bed or watching a nature movie. Even an older child might like tucked covers or being read to.

Helping others makes most children (and adults) feel good. You could suggest that your child write a letter or draw a picture for a grandparent or another person who would appreciate it.

Be an example to your child of creative problem-solving about food. If you can't find a favorite food, try a couple of similar but slightly different foods. Or, if you can get the ingredients, cook or bake a favorite from scratch.

Sometimes a parent must take a child along when grocery shopping. If there is only a small number of an item available, don't take them all. Leave at least one or two on the shelf and explain that it is important to be nice to the next person who wants it. Demonstrating kindness gives a more powerful message than just talking about it.

Stressful times call for comfort foods, but try to set a good example for your child. A child who sees a parent eating potato chips will want some too. Instead, you could try baking frozen french fries in the oven until they are very crisp.

Be careful not to call it the "Chinese virus." Coronavirus likely started with an animal in China, but that animal might have been anywhere in the world. No person caused it.

Use of electronic devices and social media can help kids feel less isolated and more connected with friends. However, it can also fuel anxiety and exchange of false information. Try to talk with children about what they are learning and doing on their computers and phones, and decide if limitations or corrections are called for.

Children may get unusually upset about something that seems insignificant and would not usually bother them. They may not realize that being on edge about the coronavirus is causing this. You could say something like, "We can get more upset about little things because of worrying about the coronavirus."

Until there is certainty, do not give kids a date on which they can go back to school or resume other activities. Although a tentative date may be announced, there is too much chance that it will be changed.

Children who have birthdays during the isolation time should get a small family celebration on the birthdate and assurance that they can have a larger party later.

Do not assume that you know exactly what your child is afraid of. Ask, listen, and then explain. Too much or too complicated information can be worse than too little. You can always add more later.

Young children may presume that their life will always be as it currently is.You should assure them that it will get better, even though you can't tell them when.

Try to arrange it so that each member of the household has some private time and space away from the rest of the family. If your physical space is limited, you can rotate who is in the private space. Too much togetherness can lead to squabbling and bad feelings.

When days are mostly the same, it is easy to lose track of the day and date. You can help this by crossing off each day on a calendar as it ends. You might also want to put a few words on each calendar square about what was special about that day. The children then have reminders of how long ago it was when they took a long walk, watched a special movie or ate a certain food.

Try to keep what's in your living space clean and well organized. It is upsetting enough for children that the world outside their home has changed so much and is unpredictable. It’s worse if they can't find a toy they want or can't wear the shirt they want because it hasn't been laundered.

Now that many family members have more time together at home, they may tackle tasks that take longer or are more difficult than usual. If children are involved, try to make this as pleasant as possible and less frustrating by breaking down the project into steps they can complete successfully.

Jill Linden, PhD, is a retired Sussex County child psychologist who lives in Harbeson.

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