COVID-19 is stressful. Fear and anxiety about any disease — let alone one that brings with it acute and indiscriminate illness, social isolation, financial strain and even job insecurity — can result in overpowering emotions in all of us.
For young children, we as their parents need to be not only sensitive and responsive to their emotions, but also help them learn how to manage their emotions so that they can better cope with the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty that the COVID-19 pandemic brings.
How exactly can we do that? As a longtime clinical psychologist, founder of an early childhood center and developer of an evidence-based program that helps children develop critical emotional, cognitive, and social competencies for lifelong learning and mental health, I have found these four principles to be instructive in helping children when they are struggling to cope.
1. Be aware of your own emotions
A national survey taken March 18-19 by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) found that among adults, half reported high levels of anxiety due to COVID-19. At the time, APA president Bruce J. Schwartz, MD cautioned that if the pandemic continued much longer, the impact on Americans' mental health would become much worse. Given we’re now almost a month out from that survey, even if you think you are unaffected by the pandemic, the likelihood is that you are experiencing some anxiety of your own.
So why do your emotions matter in how you deal with your child? Children develop in the context of a relationship — they learn from their interactions with adults, through their experiences and observations, and by how you as the most important adult in their life guide and respond to them. When you are worried, anxious, or afraid, children cue into how you are feeling. So yes, it may be natural for you to feel anxious about your job or your health or the fact that Grandad is on his own during this time, but it is also important for you and helpful to your child to find ways to reduce your own anxiety, whether it be through exercise, mindfulness, reading or getting more rest.
Being able to feel secure in the knowledge that this situation will pass, that your child is safe, and that you are capable of providing your child the emotional support he or she needs helps reduce your own anxiety, and in return, that of your child. When you are calm, consistent and confident, you are modeling behavior that your child learns through their observation and experience with you. If your behavior reflects that you are feeling that everything will be okay, your child is more apt to feel the same.
2. Realize young children often express emotion in action
Young children most often express their feelings in action, and not all children respond to stress or show anxiety in the same way. When worried, anxious or afraid, children may cling to you, withdraw, resort to tears, get a tummy ache or be unable to fall or stay asleep. During this time of stress, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that parents look out for behavioral changes in children that can include:
● Excessive crying or irritation
● Returning to behaviors they have outgrown (for example, toileting accidents or bedwetting)
● Excessive worry or sadness
● Unhealthy eating or sleeping habits
● Difficulty with attention and concentration
● Avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past
● Unexplained headaches or body pain
Whichever way your young child acts when anxious or afraid, realize that behavior may not be a direct result of something that just occurred, but rather could be a manifestation of the anxiety or stress he or she feels. This knowledge can help you get to the root of what your child feels.
3. Use your words
As you observe your child’s behavior, help your child identify and put his or her emotion into words. By identifying your child’s emotion, you are not only validating your child’s emotion, but are better able to help him or her re-channel what’s being shown in action into words. You might say, for example, “I can see that you’re sad and confused when you cry and scream. But you can tell me how you’re feeling by using your words and then I can better help you .” This approach helps children to label their emotion and to connect their emotion to their behavior.
And once you’ve identified their emotion and connected it to their behavior, you can provide them a better avenue to express their emotion in more constructive ways. You might say, “I understand that you are sad because you are not able to be with all your friends at school, but by staying at home, we are keeping you safe and away from germs that can make you sick. Is there another way you can connect to your friend? Perhaps by drawing a picture, writing a letter, calling or chatting on the computer with your friend?”
Encouraging your child’s ideas and participation offers them the opportunity to become part of the solution, providing them with a sense of pride, responsibility and empowerment — all important during times of fear and uncertainty and in promoting a secure sense of self.
4. Establish routine, regulation and responsibility
When so much around us is different and changing, the loss of predictability can create a feeling of not being in control. Routines offer consistency and provide a further sense of security and control. Keeping children’s regular bedtime, mealtime, snack time, playing and learning schedules consistent are both helpful and important.
When children have strong emotions they can often become dysregulated in their behavior. Providing guidance and ways to help children better manage their own anxieties can be experienced as very empowering. For example, teaching children to take deep breaths when they are dysregulated can be calming, allowing them to think more clearly about solutions to whatever has upset them. Breathing deeply is also a practice they can learn to use on their own. Engaging in mindfulness practice can be not only helpful to your child, but to you too!
All of these principles can help both you and your child feel more in control and empowered during this time of crisis. Remember: children learn not only from what we say, but also by watching what we do. Keep your words and your actions consistent, and whenever possible, remember to smile when you can — a smile can be wonderful medicine for your child and also for you!
Dr. Donna Housman is a clinical psychologist; founder of Beginnings School and Child Development Center; and CEO of Housman Institute, a training, research and advocacy early childhood organization that developed the evidence-based emotional, cognitive and social early program, begin to ECSEL.