Helping kids cope with COVID-19 concerns

By The Health News Team | July 6, 2020
Son and mother drawing together

From the moment the country began to quarantine in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, parents worried about how social isolation, distance learning and talk of the pandemic would affect their children. There were signs of increased anxiety and acting out. Kids dealt with feelings of loneliness and fear while absorbing some of their parents’ stress about the health of loved ones, finances, careers and more.

With continued changes to community risk and restrictions, and some schools returning to in-person education, many parents are left wondering whether the effects of pandemic precautions will be lasting. What challenges will linger, and how can parents help children cope with them along with any additional concerns kids might have about things swiftly reopening?

According to Dr. Kelsey Bradshaw, a clinical child psychologist with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, many children will be very eager to get out and connect with friends, while others may continue to be reluctant or express worry. It will vary from child to child and family to family.

“The ‘new normal’ is something we are beginning to figure out and our children are in the same boat,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “It is important to recognize that most children will be resilient and adapt to these changes.”

Dr. Bradshaw says that very young children may wonder why others are not wearing masks, or they may be very focused on hand hygiene and germs, based on our messages to them during the pandemic. Some children, many of whom used technology to keep in touch with loved ones, may find it difficult to transition back to spending time face-to-face with others.

“If you have a child who is prone to worry, they may be more at risk of feeling what some are calling ‘reentry anxiety,’” Dr. Bradshaw says. “Some children may also worry about their parents’ safety as they return to work and other activities.”

While experts agree that natural disasters can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Dr. Bradshaw notes that stressors or experiences that could be traumatic — such as a pandemic — do not always lead to a trauma response. Children who have lost someone to COVID-19, or those exposed to a lot of media or conversations portraying negative effects, could be at a higher risk for trauma-like symptoms.

“I think one of the major stressors we all face is that the pandemic brings to light the little amount of control we have in our lives,” he says. “For children who become highly anxious due to the pandemic or who may experience stressors post-pandemic, we want to continue to help them cope through practices such as grounding, providing reassurance, education and connection with outside support when it is negatively affecting their lives.”

Dr. Bradshaw recommends the following additional ways to support your child:

  • Work to create a sense of normalcy and routine.

  • Connect with your children and talk about how they feel, which will help determine how to support them.

  • Take time to validate their emotions related to the pandemic and other local and national events.

  • Have compassion for yourself and for others — we are all trying to adapt to the pandemic, and we are all impacted by it.

  • Avoid media saturation.

  • Focus on staying healthy and maintaining physical activity.

  • Stay connected with your support system — friends, family members, religious community — and encourage your children to do the same.

  • Use healthy coping skills, such as mindfulness activities, to help you and your children learn to be more aware of the here and now and to take things day by day or moment to moment.

Dr. Bradshaw also recommends reading Helping Children and Families Cope With the COVID-19 Pandemic, a free online guide that contains activities for caregivers to engage with children. It can be a useful resource for adapting to the current changes and can help children cope with ongoing changes as you reintegrate back into your communities.

“Above all, we want to work to remain calm, listen to our children and offer reassurance,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “If challenges continue to linger, it may be due to not having coped with the changes during restrictions or could indicate other underlying emotional challenges that might be exacerbated by the pandemic.”

Talk to your doctor if you or your child are experiencing excessive sadness, anxiety or worry for an extended period. Call 911 if anyone may be at risk for self-harm or suicide. Learn more about mental health services at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital and read important COVID-19 information from Sharp.

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