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Helping children cope with COVID-19

April 23, 2020
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Charlotte Waddell

The restrictions imposed by physical distancing and sheltering at home in the wake of COVID-19 has forced many parents to grapple with increased childcare and home schooling demands.

With schools and daycare centres shut for the foreseeable future, extended periods of social isolation from peers and family other than their parents can also take a toll on children’s mental and physical well-being.

Charlotte Waddell, director of Simon Fraser University’s Children’s Health Policy Centre, shares some advice on how parents can manage their own and their children’s anxiety around COVID-19 — and ensure continued healthy development for kids at home.

Countering the effects of physical isolation

Social isolation is not an automatic outcome of physical distancing. Prevent your children from experiencing social isolation by using videoconferencing platforms to set up virtual play dates and conversations with friends, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and classmates.

Social connections can buffer the negative effects of stress for both children and adults. Even if physical distancing is required for an extended time, try to create an environment where children learn how to reach out and help others. Contributing to others’ well-being in turn helps build children’s resilience.

Make efforts to impart stability and reassurance by helping your children maintain good routines, eat well and exercise — while also having fun. For example, with warmer weather starting, kids can play outside, or take part in activities such as gardening. Positive routines and activities can mitigate the effects of physical isolation.

Managing anxiety

Anxiety is a normal reaction to this challenging situation. Many parents face concerns about their own health, the health of people they love, and their work and finances.

The best way to avoid spreading this anxiety to your children is to manage your own anxiety by engaging in healthy behaviours, such as getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising regularly.

Exercises for relaxing muscles and calming breathing can also help. Just like children, parents also need to stay connected with others using video chats, phone calls and texts with friends, relatives and co-workers. It can also be helpful to put limits on reading the news. These strategies for parents can also apply to supporting children.

Helping children in at-risk/vulnerable communities

Some families and communities are experiencing greater challenges than others during this pandemic. It is important for everyone—and for the larger community—to recognize this and to provide extra supports where possible.

Some school boards have organized a safe return to school for children of frontline workers so they can continue to learn and interact with adults and other kids while their parents do their essential work. To help support communities with fewer resources, parents can also encourage children to write letters of encouragement for those who are helping. At home, parents can also engage kids in discussions about the larger community and how they can be aware and supportive.

Finally, many kids are participating in the daily 7:00 pm thanking of frontline workers—by banging pots and drums, ringing bells and clapping and cheering. Encouraging children to join in helps them realize they are part of the larger common good, which also fosters resilience.

Balancing COVID-19 cleaning needs with mental health

Based on available information, most children will get through these challenging times without developing a mental disorder. But there are steps parents can take to help children from becomingly overly focused on germs or hand washing. Explain why extra hand washing is necessary right now, for example, by explaining that the virus that causes COVID-19 lives on hard surfaces longer than other viruses, such as those that cause the cold and flu. Parents can also help children understand that this extra hand washing is temporary and that they can revert to more typical levels of hand washing in the future.

Children can be highly resilient and flourish in the face of adversity, including difficult events such as this pandemic, particularly if they are well supported by their parents and families, says Waddell.

Online resources for parents and children