What children should know about COVID-19

Suzanne Hamilton, Special

Christmas will be here soon, and parents may be left wondering if this is the year their little ones will learn the truth about Santa. I won’t be specific about what that truth is out of respect for little eyes and ears that may be in close proximity. Often when the truth is out, children are disappointed to find it out, or disappointed in their parents for the ruse, and parents may regret the beginning of the loss of innocence with which we all begin life.

This is by far the last time parents must make a decision on what and when to tell their children about some of the harsher realities in life. Some parents believe in full disclosure with their children and are open with most topics. Others want to protect their children from the anxiety and stress, fear and sickness that they might experience as a result of greater awareness of what’s going on in the world.

Even if you decide to keep as much from your children as possible, information will filter in to them from other sources. They know something is up when they can’t go to school, need a mask, sports and clubs are canceled, they overhear something on TV, etc.

When it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, even adults are wrestling with anxiety and stress. Here are some signs and symptoms the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reveals about determining how well your child may be coping with news of the pandemic based on their age and developmental level, followed by what to do about it.

Infants and Toddlers, 0 – 2 years old

What you may notice: Infants and toddlers cannot understand that something bad in the world is happening, but they know when their caregiver is upset. They may start to show the same emotions as their caregivers, or they may act differently, like crying for no reason or withdrawing from people and not playing with their toys.

What you can do about it:

  • Get down to their eye level and speak in a calm, gentle voice using words they can understand.
  • Tell them that you always care for them and will continue to take care of them so they feel safe.
  • Keep normal routines, such as eating dinner together and having a consistent bedtime.

Children, 3 – 5 years old

What you may notice: Children in this age range may be able to understand the effects of an outbreak. If they are very upset by news of the outbreak, they may have trouble adjusting to change and loss. They may depend on the adults around them to help them feel better.

What you can do about it: Same as found above for Infants and toddlers, 0 – 2 years old.

Children, 6 – 10 years old

What you may notice: Six – 10 year olds may fear going to school and stop spending time with friends. They may have trouble paying attention and do poorly in school overall. Some may become aggressive for no clear reason. Or they may act younger than their age by asking to be fed or dressed by their parent or caregiver.

What you can do about it:

Ask the child in your care what worries them and what might help them cope.

Offer comfort with gentle words or just being present with them.

Spend more time with the children than usual, even for a short while.

If your child is very distressed, excuse him or her from chores for a day or two (this is the one they will like the most).

Encourage children to have quiet time or to express their feelings through writing or art.

Encourage children to participate in recreational activities so they can move and play with others

Address your own anxiety and stress in a healthy way.

Let children know that you care about them – spend time doing something special; make sure to check on them in a non-intrusive way.

Maintain consistent routines, such as completing homework and playing games together.

Youth and Adolescent, 11 – 19 years old

What you may notice: Youth and adolescents go through a lot of physical and emotional changes because of their developmental stage. So it may be even harder for them to cope with the anxiety that may be associated with hearing and reading news of an infectious disease outbreak.

Older teens may deny their reactions to themselves and their caregivers. They may respond with a routine “I’m okay” or even silence when they are upset. Or they may complain about physical aches or pains because they cannot identify what is really bothering them emotionally. They may also experience some physical symptoms because of anxiety about the outbreak. Some may start arguments at home and/or at school, resisting structure or authority. They also may engage in risky behaviors such as using alcohol or drugs.

What you can do about it: Same as found above for children, 6 - 10 years old.

The good news is that with the right support, children can improve how they handle stress and keep themselves emotionally and physical healthy. The most important ways to help are to make sure children feel connected, cared about, and loved. Some good tips from SAMHSA that we can all benefit from are:

  • Pay attention to what others are experiencing
  • Be a good listener
  • Allow others to ask questions
  • Encourage positive activities
  • Model self-care
  • Set routines
  • Eat healthy meals
  • Get enough sleep
  • Exercise
  • Take deep breaths to handle stress

If you feel you need additional help, visit the Administration for Children and Families at https://www.acf.hhs.gov or the National Child Traumatic Stress Network at https://www.nctsn.org.