“At many times throughout their lives, children will feel the world has turned topsy-turvy. It’s not the ever-present smile that will help them feel secure. It’s knowing that love can hold many feelings, including sadness, and that they can count on the people they love to be with them until the world turns right side up again.” – Fred Rogers

During a time of global crisis, we of course want our children to feel safe and reassured. This must come from our own ability to feel safe and reassured. Our children’s emotional thermostat is calibrated by us, the caring and responsible adults in their lives. They look to us for guidance and reassurance throughout their development, but especially during times of stress. Therefore, we must focus on taking care of ourselves, physically and emotionally. There are certain things parents can do to help accomplish this, such as:

  • Eating healthy, getting plenty of sleep and exercising regularly.
  • Going outside and getting fresh air and sunshine.
  • Using this extra time to learn and practice regulating activities, such as yoga, mindfulness or meditation.
  • Educating yourself and staying up to date on current medical and government policies without becoming obsessed or watching the news around the clock. Try to focus on information that is positive rather than negative.
  • Staying connected with other people through appropriate means. You can call or video-chat with family and friends as often as you like. Or you can attend online virtual community events such as work, school, church or other support groups like AA or NA.

Once you are able to normalize and validate your own anxieties and fears, then you can start to speak with your children about COVID-19 and the crisis situation. Your children will reference your non-verbal communication, such as your tone of voice and facial expressions, for reassurance when they are hearing difficult information. Let them know it’s okay to feel worried and that they’re not alone in feeling that way. Listen to them with empathy and compassion. Offer comfort and reassurance, but be honest. Don’t share more details than necessary, and if you don’t know something, it’s okay to say so. Other things you can do to help ease your children’s worries include:

  • Teaching them safe and healthy hygiene habits, such as washing their hands, covering their mouths when they cough and social distancing.
  • Focusing on areas of hope and progress, for example: scientists working to create a vaccine.
  • Reassuring them by reminding them of the safety measures your family is taking to remain safe, such as social distancing, washing hands, getting good sleep, eating well, etc.
  • Checking in with them often. Feelings of fear and/or comfort can come and go and change quickly.
  • Monitoring their nonverbal communication and emotional cues. Anxiety in children (and adults) doesn’t always look like fear, timidity or apprehension. It’s much more likely to look like irritability, poor emotional regulation, lack of focus, hyperactivity, impulsivity or dissociation (daydreaming, zoning out on electronics). It is important to know what to look for because it is highly unlikely your child will verbally offer insight into their own emotional state. It’s much more likely that you will have to initiate the conversation.

“People tend to prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.” – Virginia Satir

Although this is a time of great stress and uncertainty for our families, perhaps we can take advantage of these circumstances by tapping into the human species’ greatest gift; our capacity to form and maintain relationships. Our brains are literally wired for it. How did our hunter-gatherer ancestors survive without armor, claws, venom or camouflage? With cooperation, altruism, sharing, protecting and nurturing. They survived by taking care of one another. Relationships are what make us human. In times of crisis, connectedness to others is what we need most, even if we have to do it virtually. Allow your children to connect with their grandparents or other family members who may be more at risk to reassure your child they’re doing okay. Oftentimes, children will worry more about others than themselves. Your immediate family is the most important source of connection for you and your children. Now that you are spending more time together in your home, make good use of it – it’s essential for the physical and emotional wellbeing of your child.

Use this time to really connect and get to know your children, and for them to get to know you. Spend special time together, one-on-one if possible. Talk about your family’s culture, heritage and history. Reminisce about what they were like when they were a baby. Tell your child about your own childhood (try to limit to positive memories). If you still have a VCR or DVD player, watch old home movies together. It is vital to maintain a sense of culture during times of crisis. Other things that are important to remember during this time are:

  • Minimizing electronics, both for yourself and your child. Video games, social media, television and other electronics are perfectly fine in moderation (1-2 hours per day).
  • Utilizing the therapeutic power of play. Children are likely to communicate their hurts, fears and needs through themes in their play. To learn more about it, read our blog, Play Therapy: 5 Reasons Why it’s so Effective.
  • Maintaining a sense of normalcy and familiarity for your children. Have a set wake up time, meal time, study time, play time and bed time. Predictability is soothing during times of chaos and stress. When stressful situations are unpredictable, children tend to try and take control, which usually ends up with more chaos.

Speaking of control, since a heightened level of stress is likely unavoidable, we can mitigate this by being proactive in giving our children appropriate doses of control. For instance, have them help with meal preparation or selection, or give them options in selecting activities for the family to engage in together. Try to invent new games, songs, or dances. Let your children help with their daily schedule. Empower them by letting them teach you new things, such as what they’re learning in school, or how to play their favorite video game, in moderation of course. 

Finally, follow your children’s lead. If the discussion seems to be upsetting to them, offer comfort and revisit the topic later. If they seem stressed or worried, then sit them down and have a conversation. If not, then make the best out of the time you have together.

“Connectedness is the key… it is regulating, rewarding & the major ‘route’ by which we can teach, coach, parent, heal & learn.” – Dr. Bruce Perry

Nathan Swaringen, LCSW, has worked as a Clinical Therapist at The Guidance Center for more than 10 years. In this role, Swaringen helped guide children and families toward positive and productive futures through mental health treatment. In 2016, Swaringen developed and launched our trauma-informed pilot program based on ChildTrauma Academy’s Neurosequential Model in Education, called It’s About T.I.M.E. He is passionate about working with school staff to create nurturing environments where all students can thrive. Swaringen earned a Master of Social Work from University of Southern California, and Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from California State University, Fullerton.