An infectious disease outbreak can cause anxiety and fear in our youth, just as it does in adults. Children and teens are at a high level of risk for responding more strongly to the stress of a crisis.

Here are a few ideas about how to support your children throughout this crisis.

Everyone reacts differently to stress. Each of your children and teens are going to have varying responses to stress, so watching for changes in their behavior can be helpful in assessing the impact this is having on their mental health and general well-being.

Some common changes to watch for in your children may be:

  • Increase in crying or emotional highs and lows
  • Excessive worry, fear or sadness
  • Nightmares or anxiety at bedtime
  • Physical complaints of stomach aches or headaches
  • Increase in irritability
  • Struggling to maintain concentration or attention
  • Avoidance of previously enjoyed activities
  • Significant change in eating or sleeping habits
  • Increase in anxiety about being separated from parents or caregivers
  • Regressing to behaviors they have outgrown (thumb sucking, wetting the bed or having toilet accidents).

There are many things you can do to help support your child through this public health crisis.

Talk to your children. Set aside special time to talk with your child or teen and respond to any questions or concerns they have about COVID-19. Make sure your communication is age appropriate and that you are talking in a way that encourages feelings of calm. Assure your child that they are safe.

Validate your children’s experience. Ask your child or teen how they are feeling about all of the changes in their lives related to COVID-19. Let your child know that all of their emotions are valid and important. It’s okay for them to be upset, scared, worried, angry, sad, etc. Set aside time each week to bring up how they are doing to check-in with any changes they are experiencing. Ask if they’d like information about how you deal with your own stress to get ideas on how to cope with theirs.

Limit your children’s news exposure. Limit any exposure your child or teen has to news coverage of the pandemic, especially through social media or hearing you talk about it. They can easily misinterpret what they hear which could add to their fear and anxiety about the situation.

Make a routine for your children. Try to keep up with whatever the “new normal” is for your household. Consistency helps create a sense of safety for your child or teen. With schools being closed it’s essential for new routines to be developed. Make sure their learning and school work are built into the new routine.

Play with your children. Make sure there is time built in for relaxing and fun activities too. Children need physical affection and quality time with parents and caregivers to help them cope during this stressful time.

Set an example for young people. Eat well, get plenty of sleep, exercise, take regular breaks, and connect with your friends and family.

Taking care of young children is important, but you are also a role model, so make sure you are taking care of yourself too. Taking care of your own health is also a vital step to ensuring you are able to continue giving the best care to your children and other loved ones.

Things you can do to support and care for yourself may include:

Take a break. In addition to limit your child’s exposure, you can also limit yourself from stories about COVID-19. Repeatedly consuming information about what’s happening with the pandemic can increase levels of stress and worry.

Care for your body. Deep breathing and meditation can rapidly reduce the body’s stress response and help you feel more relaxed. Additionally, it’s important to move your body regularly (exercise, stretching, going for a walk, etc.), as well as making sure you’re eating well, staying hydrated, and getting enough sleep each night. Getting out into the sunshine and breathing fresh air, even for a few minutes, can also help alleviate symptoms of stress.

Do something fun. Try an activity that you’ve always wanted to try, or start up an old hobby that you used to love. Engaging in enjoyable activities helps to relieve stress and increase feelings of connectedness to self.

Connect with others. It’s important to talk about your feelings and concerns with people you trust. This may be friends, family members, peers, or professionals.

Remember that we are all in this together. The more information we have to help with coping, the more equipped we all will be. This creates more resilient individuals and a stronger community.

Alicia Cooper is a licensed therapist at Four Corners Community Behavioral Health in Moab, Utah, and the mother of two children. The views expressed here are her own.

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