7 Ways COVID-19 Is Affecting Our Kids and What Parents Can Do to Help

Children want to know that their world is safe and predictable—but reassuring them while living through a pandemic is a special challenge. Here's what top experts say about how we can help our kids be resilient.

person holding small child
Photo: Priscilla Gragg

During this unprecedented time, it's easy to let headlines and images on the nightly news cause stress and anxiety. But what does this experience look like through your child's eyes? And what's more, what will life look like after the pandemic for our kids?

From the isolating experience of social distancing early in the pandemic to continually hearing about illness and COVID-19-related deaths in the days, weeks, and months since, we asked the experts to weigh in on some of the top concerns parents have about how the pandemic is affecting their kids—and the good news is there are ways to handle even the most difficult situations.

What Does It Mean if a Child Never Talks About the Virus—or Constantly Frets About It?

A lot of kids don't use words to express their worries and may respond to crises with behavioral changes, such as moodiness or trouble sleeping, so be on the lookout for these types of nonverbal cues.

"If your child isn't acting any differently and isn't talking about the crisis, there's a good chance he is actually doing fine," says psychologist Rebecca Hershberg, Ph.D., author of The Tantrum Survival Guide. It's also possible that your child unsure whether their feelings and questions are normal and OK.

When you do raise the issue, choose a low-key moment, like when you're making dinner or coloring together. You might casually say, "I was just reading an article about COVID-19, and I'm ready for this to be over." That's it. "Your kid may or may not chime in, but you've made it clear it's OK to bring it up," says Dr. Hershberg.

If your child appears worried and often wants to talk about what's going on, consider setting aside an official "worry time." You could say, "Between 4:00 and 4:30 each day, you can ask me any questions about the virus." Setting aside this time can help your child manage their feelings and learn how to "boss anxiety back" so it won't take over, explains Dr. Hershberg.

But if your child's anxiety or reticent behavior is getting worse, seek help from a mental health professional. Persistent low mood or worries that prevent your child from managing their responsibilities and enjoying other aspects of their life could be signs of depression or a developing anxiety disorder, says Eric Lewandowski, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. Fears about death, recurrent nightmares, or an inability to stay focused in school could emerge weeks or even months after life returns to "normal."

What Changes Can I Expect in My Child's Behavior Over Time?

For some kids, the pandemic might just be a disappointing disruption. "For others, such as those whose parents are first responders, it may be a much more clear and present stressor," says Dr. Lewandowski. Fortunately, most kids are showing that they are resilient.

W. Thomas Boyce, M.D., a pediatrician who has studied children's response to stress, compares them to flowers: The majority of kids are like dandelions, which thrive even under adversity. About 20 percent are like orchids, which are particularly sensitive to their environment. "These kids have a harder time coping and may imagine all the pain that people are experiencing now," says Dr. Boyce. "They may also need more time to regain their footing once the peak of the crisis has passed."

In general, be prepared to see new patterns of behavior in your kids. They may regress, reverting to baby talk or thumb-sucking, but just keep loving and supporting them as best you can. Provide reliable daily routines, foster the imaginative play through which children cope, and don't worry if you need to give more time and attention to one of your kids over another, says Dr. Boyce. Research after World War II and Hurricane Katrina found that children who had nurturing and stable relationships with their parents weathered these crises best.

How Do I Help My Kids Mourn the Death of a Loved One?

For your family—and countless others who haven't been able to properly mourn loved ones during the pandemic—the death of a loved one may particularly heartbreaking and difficult. "Depending on the child, he may have a lot of questions or none," says Rachel Busman, Psy.D., senior director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, in New York City. "Answer them as best you can and acknowledge his feelings." You might say, "I understand. It's really sad that we didn't get to see Grandpa. I miss him too." It's also good to remind kids that everyone eventually dies, but most people who get COVID-19 will not die.

Rituals can be comforting, but do what feels right for your family. Talk to your kids about what they can expect and how it might look different from their past experiences. If there won't be a more conventional funeral, for example, talk about other ways your family can remember your shared loved one, says Dr. Busman. In addition to saying prayers, if that's part of your tradition, you might frame some favorite photos. Maybe your preschooler can draw a picture and you can include it along with other treasures in a special memory book.

mom holding two small children
Priscilla Gragg

I Was Laid Off as a Result of the Pandemic. How Do I Avoid Worrying My Kids?

Tell them what's happening, rather than letting them figure it out for themselves, says Damon Korb, M.D., director of the Center for Developing Minds, in Los Gatos, California. For kids ages 3 to 6, it's best to keep your explanation simple: "Mommy is not needed at her work now, so I'll have more time to play with you" should suffice. School-age kids will want more details, and the older they are, the more they'll be concerned about how having less money available may affect them.

Parents advisor Wayne Fleisig, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Children's of Alabama, in Birmingham, suggests explaining, "Because of what's going on, we'll have to cut back and make some choices." Above all, focus on what your kids can count on, says Dr. Fleisig. "Tell them how lucky you are as a family to have what's most important in life, which is each other. Say this in a confident and caring tone, and let them know you will get through this together."

Will Being Apart From Their Friends for So Long Hurt My Kids' Relationships?

It depends on a child's age. "A preschooler may talk about her friends, but she's not 'missing them' in the same way that an older child might," says Parents advisor Timothy L. Verduin, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health.

As social distancing recommendations eased, however, some parents noticed that their younger children were a bit more anxious about separating from them. If your child falls into this camp, they may need you help to regain some social skills. You can continue to help your younger kid navigate social situations by being supportive and praising them for behaviors like sharing and being patient.

It's a bit more complicated for tweens and teens, many of whom stayed connected virtually during shelter-in-place orders and remote learning. Social media has been a lifeline, but kids can feel excluded when tech isn't working or if they're being ignored in group texts, says Dr. Verduin. And not all social media time is beneficial.

Encourage your child to spend more time chatting one-on-one with those they care about most. "Kids will probably just be thrilled to see each other again," says Parents advisor Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., author of Voice Lessons for Parents.

After All This Focus on Hand-Washing and Contagion, Will Kids Be Phobic About Germs?

Most easygoing kids will take their cues from their parents. "When you're not paranoid, they won't be either," says Dr. Korb. But if your child already seems overwhelmed or obsessed, it's helpful to adopt a "one and done" routine, suggests Dr. Verduin. For example, say, "When we come in from our walk, we take off our shoes and we go to the bathroom sink and wash for 20 seconds with soap and water. Then we are done."

In the bigger picture, share factual information. Tell your kids that germs are around us every day; some live on our bodies and are good for us. But once in a while, a bad germ like the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 comes along, so we avoid people who are sick and follow advice from doctors. You can say that scientists have worked hard to create a vaccine, just like they did for other bad germs like measles.

My Child Didn't Enjoy or Benefit Much From At-Home School. Could This Affect Their Love of Learning or Set Them Back Academically?

Remote learning simply can't compare with the experience of being in a classroom, and the data shows that it has had a disproportionately negative effect on neurodiverse children, children from low-income families, and Black and Hispanic children.

It's a loss for all kids, including those in preschool and elementary school, but for many, it probably won't have long-term implications. Tweens and teens may have the most at stake. They—and their parents—have probably worried about how this experience will affect their GPA, preparation for standardized tests, and college applications. The good news is that schools and the educational community will no doubt take these concerns into account as we navigate our "new normal" together.

One reassuring thing to keep in mind is that profound learning can still happen outside the classroom. "Many priceless cultural phenomena came out of great crises like World War II, and more are likely to spring from this current crisis," says Dr. Verduin. This is a time when kids can gain a greater understanding of what it means to pitch in, make sacrifices, and help others, including their parents. They may get to see us at work and learn what we actually do for a living.

And there are teachable moments everywhere. You could discuss how disruptions changed the way kids learned in the past or read about the scientists who are now studying COVID-19. Marvel at all the things people discovered and invented during similarly trying times, and guess what this current crisis might inspire kids to create when they are older.

"This kind of learning is experiential for all of us," says Dr. Mogel. "We're in a novel landscape, and it's shaking us up in alarming ways, but also potentially enriching our lives."

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