News of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 seems to be everywhere. Understandably, there is a lot of uncertainty and anxiety about the pandemic. It can be overwhelming and frightening not just for adults but for children as well. But there are steps parents and caregivers can take to help children cope with stress during the outbreak.
Stress signs in children
Children may respond to stress in different ways. Additionally, they might not recognise that they are feeling worried or anxious. You may notice changes in their behaviour, such as mood swings, being clingy, new or recurring fears (fear of the dark, fear of being alone), or a change in sleep patterns, nightmares or bedwetting. Other physical symptoms may include decreased appetite, headache, upset stomach or vague stomach pain.
If you notice that your child is feeling anxious, it may be a good time to talk with them. Let your children know it’s ok to share their feelings and to ask questions.
Tips for talking to your child about COVID-19
If you’re a parent, you may be wondering how to best talk about COVID-19 to your children, and how to help them cope with stress and worry during this difficult time. Here are some helpful tips:
- Let them share their feelings. Every child has his or her own way to express emotions. Sometimes engaging in a creative activity, such as playing, or drawing can help with the process.
- Be honest. Tell them the truth as plainly as possible, without exaggeration or speculating on what may or may not happen in the future. For example, “It can be scary not knowing what’s going to happen with the virus. If anyone gets sick, we have good hospitals, doctors and nurses who can look after us.” Don’t offer more detail than your child is interested in.
- Be calm. Children will react to what you say and how you say it and will likely notice if you’re anxious or panicked. Be calm, kind and reassuring when speaking to them.
- Give accurate information. Children may have already heard about the virus on the news or social media. Let them know that some stories on COVID-19 may be based on rumours and inaccurate information. Use credible sources such as the World Health Organization (WHO), Department of Health in Australia or the New Zealand Government to get up-to-date scientific information and local guidance about the illness. And don’t forget to give them information that is appropriate for their age and developmental level. We also have facts on COVID-19 here.
- Let them know how they can help. This can include frequent handwashing, disinfecting the home and physical distancing. Feeling like they’re contributing might help reduce their feelings of helplessness in the face of an overwhelming situation.
- Stick to a routine. Keep to regular routines and schedules as much as possible or help create new ones. Include learning, playtime, or other age-appropriate activities. This is especially important if your child’s school or daycare shuts down.
- Take breaks from the media. Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media. Too much information on the topic can be upsetting.
- Keep the dialogue open. Make time for your child. Let them know that they can come to you with questions.
- Use your discretion. Not every child is emotionally equipped to handle such potentially frightening news. No one knows your child like you do, and no one knows better how they’ll react or how to best approach the topic.
Importantly, take the time to practice your own self-care. Connect with friends virtually, take time to exercise and find joy where you can. We also have information on 8 ways to help relieve stress.
If you notice your child is struggling, you can find more information here on how stress may affect children.
- 1. World Health Organization. Helping children cope with stress during the 2019-nCoV outbreak. Accessed March 17, 2020.
- 2. National Institute of Health. Stress in childhood. Accessed March 17, 2020.
- 3. KidsHealth. Childhood stress. Accessed March 17, 2020.
- 4. American Psychological Association. Talking to Kids When They Need Help. Accessed March 17, 2020.
- 5. World Health Organization. Mental Health Considerations during COVID-19 Outbreak. Accessed March 17, 2020.
- 6. KidsHealth. Coronavirus (COVID-19): How to Talk to Your Child. Accessed March 17, 2020.
- 7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Accessed March 17, 2020.
- 8. American Academy of Pediatrics. 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19).
- 9. Child Mind Institute. Talking to Kids About the Coronavirus. Accessed March 17, 2020.