Conversations about the Coronavirus outbreak are now shifting towards temporary or extended school closures, both in the U.S. and globally. In fact, this has quickly become a reality for many schools, first in cities like Seattle, and now in multiple states across the country. As a result, we can expect that children of all ages are likely feeling higher rates of confusion, anxiety, and fear of the unknown.

In addition to grappling with various financial and logistical concerns that accompany school closures, adults also need to start having meaningful conversations with children about their feelings and provide strategies to remain physically and mentally healthy through this uncertain time. Understanding the emotions children are experiencing in times of crisis and taking steps to support their emotional regulation can help give them the tools to cope. Here are a few tips for parents and teachers: 

Tip 1. Is it the right time to begin having these conversations? For Coronavirus, the answer is yes. 

Many times, parents, teachers, and other caring adults do their best to shield school-aged kids from the more difficult conversations taking place surrounding global issues, and rightfully so. However, as schools across the country are announcing closures due to the Coronavirus, it is important to begin having these conversations now. The truth is, younger kids are already talking about Coronavirus with each other and older ones are also seeing it on their Instagram and Snapchat feeds. They will likely experience immediate and drastic changes to their daily routine, so parents and teachers need to arm them with ways to navigate the uncertainty.

Tip 2. Understand the emotions children are experiencing

A disruption to daily routines, concerns about getting sick, and uncertainty in the air may lead to a whole series of emotions for kids. For younger children, this could result in feeling emotions they can’t yet express, including fear, worry, or anxiety. Behaviors that are new or out of the ordinary are usually a sign that something has changed. Adults ought to be on the lookout for changes in behavior that might indicate they have feelings they’re not yet able to verbalize. Indeed, new or challenging behavior is often the first indication that young children are upset or worried. Recognizing the signs early and then taking a proactive approach is important.

Tip 3. Make sure kids know their feelings are acknowledged and validated

Creating a safe and open environment to encourage kids to share how they feel is crucial. Leveraging familiar activities is a good place to start. Even when children are home from school, perhaps for an extended period, an activity like working on a puzzle, playing a favorite game, taking a ride in the car or a walk to the park can help provide a sense of normalcy. Often, engaging in an activity during these conversations can help to reduce their anxiety and make it easier for children to open up about their feelings, especially during times of change or disruption. Keep in mind, it is also important to acknowledge and accept whatever emotions they are showing and feeling. 

Tip 4: Help children identify and articulate their feelings 

The best way to help a child feel comfortable sharing feelings is for you to do it themselves and model the language you want them to use. For example, an adult could say, “It can feel unsettling when my routine changes. I get frustrated and even a little anxious, but it helps when I can talk about it with someone.” Be specific when giving an example. It’s important that adults connect the feelings they’re experiencing to specific events. By doing so, we give emotions context, help children realize it’s normal to have feelings associated with new or unusual events in their lives, and give them a window into what other people are feeling.  

Tip 5: Model how to manage feelings

We should also talk about what we do to cope with our feelings, especially when we’re feeling out of sorts, including taking time for self-care, exercise, or simply a walk to get some fresh air. Thinking out loud and articulating the strategies we plan to use provides a helpful example for children to follow. Even when we model this for children, expect that it may take time for them to become more expressive about their feelings and start using coping strategies of their own.

It is important to talk to kids often and be receptive when they are in the mood to chat. Frequent and open communication is even more important during a time of uncertainty and confusion. Make sure that the discussions are practical and help kids to identify and connect how they feel to the situations and events around them. Then, help them to make a plan to manage those emotions. Model your own emotions and concerns and make a plan together to get through the difficult times. Be patient. Don’t forget, it’s a process for everyone.