Helping Children Cope with Scary Headlines and a New Normal

It’s on every news channel and part of daily conversations: The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has taken over everyone’s lives, including children. School is online, play dates are off the table, restaurants are closed, and parents are worried about health and finances.

Children may worry that they, a loved one or friend could get very sick from COVID-19. They may miss their friends and routine or be sad about canceled plans. And they may not fully understand why maintaining physical distance from others is so important.

So how can you help your child cope with scary news and adjust to a “new normal”? UNC Health providers offer these tips.

1. If possible, shield children from distressing news, but tell the truth.

There’s no reason to expose a preschooler to frightening events, says UNC Health pediatrician Edward M. Pickens, MD. Parents should be careful about when they watch the news and should be mindful of the topics they discuss within earshot of their little ones.

“We create this alternate reality for preschoolers, with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny,” Dr. Pickens says. “It’s perfectly appropriate not to get into reality with them.”

This approach won’t be as effective with school-age children. Kids become more sophisticated as they grow up. Give school-age children information that is appropriate for their age and developmental level.

“You have to tell them the truth, but you don’t need to make it really scary,” says UNC family medicine physician Sarah Ruff, MD.

2. Explain why social distancing is important.

Dr. Ruff says parents should talk to children about why it’s important to stay apart from their friends.

“Because if they don’t understand why, they’re going to be less likely to listen,” Dr. Ruff says. “I’ve told my own kids we might not get very sick if we get COVID-19, but we could get somebody else very sick.”

Once you explain the importance of social distancing, be clear with them about what you will be doing as a family to adhere to it. This should include rules for keeping their distance from other children in the neighborhood and from others if you go for walks or bike rides as a family.

3. Offer reassurance, not anxiety.

Parents are the main source of security for children, Dr. Pickens says. Remain composed so that your child feels reassured. In these stressful times, sometimes you might need to “fake it until you make it,” or ask your partner to be with your child while you compose yourself privately.

“If their source of strength appears to be faltering, that can make it harder for them,” he says.

4. Talk about emotions.

It’s OK to admit to your child that you are sad or angry about what is happening in the world. Being open with your feelings and having that conversation can offer children an opportunity to talk about their fears and feelings, too.

“Give them a forum,” Dr. Pickens says. “For the majority of children, having that discussion will be adequate in helping them cope.”

5. Find creative ways for children to connect with peers.

The recommendation to stay at home during the COVID-19 outbreak does not mean your children have to end contact with their friends, loved ones or community. Remember, the goal is to separate physically, not emotionally.

Think of creative ways to connect with others. Encourage them to use online platforms such as Google Hangouts or Zoom to stay in touch.

“Families are doing virtual talent shows on Zoom, and everybody watches what the kids are doing,” Dr. Ruff says. “And grandparents can teach your kids art on FaceTime.”

6. Know when to seek outside help.

Some kids are more sensitive than others and have trouble bouncing back from distressing news.

“Are they constantly worrying?” Dr. Pickens says. “Not able to sleep or not able to eat? Are they irritable?”

If anxiety seems to be interfering with your child’s daily life, he suggests that parents seek help from a therapist or counselor.

7. Find ways to help yourself cope.

To ensure that they are helping their children as best they can, parents need to take care of their mental health, too. That could mean engaging in anxiety-relieving activities, such as a walk around the block or a hobby, or seeking professional help.

In this difficult time, help is available for you and your children.

“It’s very demoralizing when things are out of your control,” Dr. Pickens says. “If you need help for dealing with your own emotional concerns, get it.”

For the latest information on COVID-19, visit the CDC website and the UNC Health COVID-19 Resources page, and follow UNC Health on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.