The tiny footsteps of my 6-year-old daughter greet me in the living room after putting her to bed over an hour ago. As I turn around to offer her a hug, I see dried tears on her cheeks. She tentatively crawls up onto my lap.


“Yes sweet pea?”

Her voice starts to waver as she leans forward to whisper into my ear.

“Are all of my friends… dead?”

Tears begin streaming down her face.

I pull her close and reassure her that her friends are alive and healthy, and that we are all missing our friends right now. She allows herself to feel sad in my arms, and then we put a plan together to call one of her friends in the morning after breakfast.

I walk her up to her room, tuck her in, give her kisses and hugs, and gently close the door as we share “I love yous.”

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

If I have learned anything over the past few weeks, it’s that social isolation, fear and mortality are only a few consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Between economic panic, skyrocketing coronavirus cases, State lockdowns, travel bans, and worldwide panic, we are all experiencing some form of trauma, grief or anxiety, unlike our world has ever seen. This hopefully once-in-a-lifetime crisis, will affect every aspect of human life, and it is affecting our children and teens the hardest.

For children, lengthy social-distancing will mean profound separation from friends, teachers and close relatives. All the FaceTime in the world cannot replace a warm embrace from their closet friend, or a game of tag on the playground. Developmentally, school is the main source of socialization and structure for children, especially teens. During social distancing, our children are missing out.

For most parents having to juggle e-learning, working from home, and virtual extracurricular classes, it can feel overwhelming trying to juggle everything, let alone our own children’s emotions. However, as parents and caregivers, we have the unique responsibility, and opportunity, to support our children through this difficult time.

How will you know if your child or teen is struggling? According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), it’s important to remember that not all children or teens react to trauma or stress in similar ways. Here are several common changes to be aware of:

  • Extreme worry or sadness
  • Poor school performance or avoidance of e-learning
  • Excessive irritation or crying in younger children
  • Unexplained body pain or headaches
  • Avoidance of previously enjoyable activities
  • Unhealthy and/or change in sleeping or eating habits
  • Easily irritable and “acting out” behaviors in teens
  • Struggling with concentration and attention
  • Regressive behaviors such as toileting accidents, bedwetting or thumb sucking
Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations. Children and teens look to their parents and caregivers to model reactions to such stress. When parents handle the stress of social isolation and COVID-19 calmly and confidently, they can offer their children the best support for them. According to mental health professionals, here are a few ways to best support the mental health of your children and teens during this unprecedented pandemic.

1. Take time to talk with your child or teen about the COVID-19 outbreak. Provide age-appropriate information on how they can stay safe, and how others are doing their best to keep them and others safe.

Stephanie Omens, Licensed Professional Counselor and Board Certified Trainer in Drama Therapy, created a COVID-19 explainer video for children through NoWhiteLies; expertly explaining medical truths to children. NoWhiteLies promotes truth telling during difficult times.

“Children need truth in order to heal from tragedy, and can handle the most difficult truth when it’s shared in language they can understand,” says Comen.

“Provide space for kids to ask questions and give age appropriate answers, I also discuss the importance of focusing on the positives that are going on for them, such as spending more time together, learning creative ways to be productive and have fun. Have these discussions, don’t assume they recognize it.”

Dr. Stephanie Byrd, Psychologist

“I believe that not only during a pandemic like we’re experiencing now with COVID- 19, but in regular life circumstances, being honest with your children is the best option. That would include letting them know how all of the challenges and adjustments are impacting you personally and how you want to be available for them to be transparent about their feelings with you as their parent. Although that process would be approached in a different way with a 6 year old versus a 16 year old, the concept of honesty remains the same.”

Kelisa Volson, Licensed Professional Counselor

2. Soothe fears by assuring your child or teen that they are safe. Allow space for difficult feelings, and explore ways to cope with them.

“We’ve created a ‘Worry Box’ at home for the kids. Each night before bed, we write down our worries on pieces of paper. The worries get placed in a box that is securely closed with a lid. It allows us as parents to understand how our children are feeling. We also have been practicing meditation, naming our feelings, and exploring different ways to cope with our emotions – painting, listening to music, long walks.”

Azizi Marshall, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor & Drama Therapist

“I encourage parents to have conversations with their children about noticing people in our communities who are continuing to be there and whom allow us to continue to have the things we need during this crisis – grocery store employees, garbage men/women, pharmacists, of course doctors/nurses. These discussions can be an opportunity to understand how our communities operate, to develop gratitude and a greater sense of community.”

Dr. Stephanie Byrd, Psychologist

“For teens, be ready to not only spend time with direct eye contact, but also spend time side by side, especially if you need to get your teenager to open up more. Late night talks with teenagers work better with lights off. Helps them to open up.”

Susan L. Garrison, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

3. Limit your family’s exposure to the 24/7 news cycle, including social media. Children may misconstrue what they hear and become scared about something they do not comprehend.

“News can be very unsettling to children because it’s designed for adults’ brains. Children’s brains are wide open for learning, but they lack the ability to have perspective and big picture thinking. They need adults to filter only the most important information for them at this time so that they don’t become fearful and overwhelmed.

Sarah Stukas, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor

“Stepping away from the influx of information/news, taking a break from screen time, getting outside/physical activity, and having some consistency with eating/sleeping is important for all ages. We cannot expect children to self-regulate beyond what the adults around them are able to do. Finding the balance between awareness and overwhelm is a work in progress. We need to be checking in with ourselves, and our kids, throughout it all.”

Jane Johnson Wall, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

“Limit conversation about your own fears in front of them, limit news/social media discussion or viewing (do not leave news running all day in the background for them to see as they will absorb some of the traumatic and scary images/messages).”

Dr. Stephanie Byrd, Psychologist

4. Stick to a manageable routine.

“Rather than expecting children and teens to stick to a typical schedule, ask them to create a schedule that works for them. Set the boundaries for their schedule and make sure it includes important tasks, like school assignments, chores, etc. However, the more leverage you give them in designing a schedule, the less stress you will feel. Your teen will likely want to spend a lot of time hibernating in their room. It’s typical for this stage of development. However, create activities that will draw them out of their rooms at least a couple of times a week. This could be a movie night, family game time, cooking together.”

Lisa R. Savage, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

5. Remember that you are their role model.

“Modeling, showing your kids how to manage their emotions, thoughts, feelings and behaviors with how you manage those things yourself, is such an important action we can take as parents right now. With increased time together and a need for kids to learn how to adapt to a new normal, parents may see an increase in unhealthy behaviors or increased anxiety or depression. Parents have the opportunity to model how to manage our emotions or deal with stress so that our kids can use that to better manage their own.”

Maureen Werrbach, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor

“In a time filled with so much uncertainty, parents must stay calm, address concerns, and offer reassurance to their children when needed. More than ever, it’s crucial for parents to serve as role models by providing hope, strength, unity and positivity. Use this time as an opportunity to truly bond as a family and find gratitude in the little things that we so often take for granted.”

Kelly McCauley, Licensed Professional Counselor

“Parents need to be mindful of the behaviors that they model (now more than ever)! As children are navigating the changes related to school/friends, parents need to show flexibility with expectations for teachers (distance instruction is hard), and for themselves. Validating the challenges for teens is important. (I have 2 daughters in high school.. one is a senior and one is a junior). The “losses” of proms, sports, activities, jobs, etc., are very real. These young adults are impacted by the pandemic in a significant way. Thankfully, many coping mechanisms are ‘universal’ across all ages.”

Jane Johnson Wall, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Photo by Anna Pritchard on Unsplash

Here are a few ways that you can model positive coping skills to your family members:

  • Make sure to get plenty of sleep.
  • Take breaks throughout the day.
  • Get out in nature.
  • Eat foods that nourish your body.
  • Connect with your friends and family members.
  • Exercise and move your body in some way.

6. Extend compassion to your children and teens.

“Remind your child(ren) that it is okay to feel however they are feeling. Sit with your child, offer to hold their hand, ask if they want a hug or if they could use some space, remind them that you have felt that way before too. When we can show children that we care about how they are feeling, we are helping them learn how to accept their emotions, rather than avoid them, hide from them, or fear them.”

Marissa Gray, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

“It’s important that parents extend compassion to their teens who are dealing social isolation during the COVID19 crisis. Their lives have been turned upside down. Adolescence is a time where teens enjoy being social and spending time with their peers more than their families. They don’t have that option right now. Acknowledge to them how hard this is and reassure them that this won’t last forever because it won’t. Also, let them know this is a situation outside of everyone’s control and that while they might feel frustrated and angry, those feelings are normal. Encourage your teen to be creative about having contact with their friends that doesn’t involve face-to-face interactions. Teens are very clever and when promoted, they will likely come up with ideas. If they’re stuck, give them some suggestions.”

Lisa R. Savage, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

7. Extend compassion to yourself.

“In times of crisis, we, as parents, want to know what to do right, while also feeling like we must avoid doing it wrong, especially for our children. Navigating these uncertain times means releasing the pressure of “right or wrong,” and instead, noticing how you feel. In order to provide children and teens with emotional support, safety and stability, particularly during times of uncertainty, parents can begin by giving themselves permission to feel unsure or scared or overwhelmed. Name those feelings. Write them down or share them with a trusted family member or friend or therapist. We cannot support our children’s mental health if our mental and emotional loads are too heavy.“

Marissa Gray, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

“Parents need to recognize the need to take care of themselves too. Make themselves a priority. It’s like being on an airplane; put on your own oxygen mask first, and then you can help others. As a parent or caregiver, make sure you are getting enough sleep, limiting social media/news & making time for connection. Think of this time as a marathon and not a sprint. Set up a schedule that is sustainable for the long haul.”

Kimberly Gibson, Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor and Registered Art Therapist

Image by Rotaru Florin from Pixabay

8. Be mindful of your children’s mental health.

With the support of parents and caregivers, most children will learn how to cope, even if they begin to display signs of stress or worry, such as struggling to concentrate or fall asleep. However, some children may exhibit more intense reactions, including severe depression, suicidal behaviors, and anxiety. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, parents and caregivers should contact a mental health professional if children display significant changes in behavior for more than 2 weeks.

  • Preschoolers: regression in behavior, bedwetting, sleep disturbances, thumb sucking, withdrawal, clinging to parents, fear of the dark, and loss of appetite.
  • Elementary school children: irritability, poor concentration, nightmares, clinginess, school avoidance, aggressiveness, and withdrawal from activities and friends.
  • Adolescents: agitation, physical complaints, increase in conflicts, delinquent behavior, extended periods of isolation, sleeping and eating disturbances, and poor concentration.

Living through this stressful experience can be reframed as a wonderful opportunity for parents and caregivers to model for children compassion, flexibility, and problem-solving, as we all work through getting creative about how we spend time, balancing work and other activities, modifying daily routines, processing the latest information from authorities, and connecting and supporting friends and family members in new ways.

Gray encourages parents to take a several deep breaths. “Taking care of your emotional needs is an important part of supporting your children’s emotional experience. Reaching out for help – for you, or your child, or both – does not mean you aren’t taking care. It means you are.”

If you or a loved one are struggling during this time, and need help from a mental health professional, contact the Disaster Distress Helpline, or call 1-800-985-5990. You can also search for local therapists in the area that can offer online therapy through telehealth.