With children home from school in an effort to stop the spread of 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19), parents are faced with a number of challenges. Daily routines have been disrupted, children may not understand why they need to keep away from some family members and friends, and tensions are high as the situation escalates.
While the added stress and broken routines can lead to increasing anxiety and behavioral dysregulation for all kids, it can be especially harmful if they have underlying emotional or behavioral disorders.
Experts from NYU Langone Health’s Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry offer the following advice for parents to help kids cope during this stressful time.
Keep a Schedule
Richard Gallagher, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, notes that unlike summer vacation, this break is sudden and unplanned, and children don’t know when they will return to school. “This can be difficult for children to understand and lead to tension in both kids and adults,” says Dr. Gallagher. “In general, people don’t do well when they are unsure about the future, even in an area as simple as the schedule.”
Dr. Gallagher, along with Helen L. Egger, MD, the Arnold Simon Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, chair of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and director of NYU Langone’s Child Study Center, say it’s important to set a schedule for both weekdays and weekends. “Children and teens will do their best if there are plans for each day, especially the weekdays when they would have been in school,” Dr. Gallagher says.
Take Education Virtual
While children are out from school, have them maintain their regular bedtime and wake up times and follow your school’s plan to keep kids actively engaged in schoolwork. Consider a schedule that incorporates their regular academic classes, lunch and snack times, recess, and physical activity.
“Make sure your child keeps up with the assignments and can engage in any virtual instruction,” Dr. Egger says.
Maintain Social Contacts
Social contact is very important for children. “Youth that are connected to other children are happier, less anxious, and have more fun,” Dr. Gallagher says. “Even when isolated, parents can help kids stay connected to others with modern technology, within reasonable limits.”
Getting friends together in small groups can be fun and help ease tensions. Follow CDC and local public health guidelines on the safe size of group gatherings.
Parent should also encourage reasonable use of phones, tablets, and computers for making virtual connections, while monitoring content and tone of the communications.
“You do not need to know the details of each interaction, but you should have a sense of the themes and the persons that your child is contacting, even teens,” Dr. Egger says. “While out of school, children may be seen as potential targets for cyber predators, so encourage your children to be open about the messages that they receive and persons that are making contact attempts.”
Considerations for Leisure Activities
Make certain a good portion of children’s leisure activity is active, both physically and mentally. Playing catch outside, coloring, reading, doing puzzles, and playing board games are all good options. Keep in mind that the CDC recommends that school-age children engage in at least an hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily.
Passive and sedentary activities like watching television are fine within limits but can lead to a reduction in physical health and fitness and contribute to unwanted weight gain. At school, children are provided with over 6 hours of mental exercise. Try to match that.
As the current situation continues to elevate, rising anxiety levels are a concern for many adults and children alike.
For kids of all ages, make certain to provide accurate information from reliable sources – and then talk to them about it afterwards. “Children say that they find local news that they do not understand to be more frightening than scary fairy tales or even horror movies,” Dr. Gallagher says. “Because of this, it’s important for parents to ask their kids if they have questions or concerns about the situation and to work hard to clarify their understandings.”
Empower children by letting them know how they can protect themselves and others. Rules for social distance and hygiene, including proper handwashing, should be followed.
Finally, if you find yourself or your child excessively worried, tense, or sad, consult your doctor, pediatrician, or mental health provider.
Resources for Talking to Kids About COVID-19
The Child Study Center, part of Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone, hosts educational webinars throughout the year. In its latest webinar, Everyone Is Anxious: Talking to Your Child About Novel Coronavirus, Child Study Center experts Lori K. Evans, PhD, and Kathleen Camacho, PsyD, discuss how to help children cope with COVID-19 and provide ideas by diagnosis and developmental level. Watch here.