The uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic has caused stress for millions across the globe. For children, who have seen their daily lives and schooling structures upended, the stress may manifest in different ways.
Watch the conversation in the player above.
PBS NewsHour correspondent William Brangham spoke to child psychiatrist Dr. Helen Egger of the NYU Langone Health’s child and adolescent psychiatry department on the subject.
How do I talk to my child about the coronavirus?
A major consideration by many parents and caregivers is how to talk about the global pandemic in the first place. Egger said that can depend on the age of the child.
“You have to really target your child’s developmental level,” she said.
One of the best things to do for younger kids: keep things simple, Egger said. Many adults feel the need to thoroughly explain things, when most kids just need a short and concrete explanation for why they’re wearing masks, or why they can’t go to school and see their friends.
For older kids and teens, Egger recommends limiting exposure to news about the pandemic and creating “COVID-19 free zones” where conversations steer away from the virus at certain times or places.
In general, making sure kids feel safe and assured helps them cope with stressful times like these.
“This is a time of tremendous loss and change,” she said.
How strict should I be about routines?
A lot of adults are dealing with the pandemic by maintaining strict schedules. Egger said this can also be helpful for kids, especially since their normal routines have been completely upended.
“Having a routine is critically important, children thrive on regularity,” she said.
Making time for kids to focus on schoolwork is important, but Egger also said many parents think they need to embody “an instagram perfection of homeschooling,” when the reality is that perfection is not attainable and giving kids as much learning time as possible is enough.
She said it’s also important to create time for play or relaxing activities, rather than having a schedule full of tasks.
“There are other important things — you have to schedule time for fun,” she said.
Along with keeping a routine of activities, it’s also important to make a space for personal time, Egger said, especially in houses with siblings.
“People need time to themselves,” she said.
How do children cope with the big changes in their lives?
Just like adults, kids are feeling stress and anxiety about the changes to their lives and the uncertainty during this global pandemic.
“Every family and organization will be facing these kinds of issues,” Egger said.
Much like adults, she said kids have their own ways of coping.
A child may refuse to do their homework or exhibit developmental regressions. Egger said this is all normal, but the solution is to find the underlying cause of the behavior. If you can figure out why they are exhibiting certain behaviors, it’s easier to address the potential causes.
In many cases, finding ways to replace or supplement their needs is beneficial. Even while homeschooling, Egger recommends finding an existing group that can schedule online events when the kids can learn and socialize together.
“We have to have new ways and new strategies to deal with this,” she said.
Egger said the goal during isolation should be to stay “linked to a community” by maintaining communication with their friends and relatives, or to groups created to help kids learn.
How should the issue of death, or the fear of dying be raised with children?
Confronting death has become a lot more present in people’s lives as the pandemic moves through more communities. Many times, kids will also have their own questions about it, especially if someone close to them is at risk, or has already gotten sick or died because of the virus.
These kinds of conversations are not easy even in the best of times, and there isn’t always a good answer, which is why just being there for them can be the most effective approach.
“Sometimes you just have to listen,” Egger said.
She said it’s important to “take the lead from your child” and be there to validate their feelings.
Sometimes, these feelings can turn into something more serious like depression or anxiety, especially among teens.
In a study from 2018, nearly one in seven children between ages 12 and 17 experienced at least one major depressive episode, according to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Usually this manifests as an apathy for things they used to enjoy, excessive isolation, emotional withdrawal and talk of death or suicide in extreme cases.
Egger recommended to seek out help and guidance from online resources or mental health centers, if these signs appear.
“Our job is to protect them physically, but also to protect them emotionally,” she said.
If you or someone you know has talked about contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Will there be long term damage to children following this pandemic?
As the stress of the pandemic continues and kids are denied a normal education or socializing practices, some parents and caregivers are concerned that this will cause long-term damage to kids, especially during critical moments of development.
“Every child, whether kindergarten or college, is not getting the full experience,” Egger said.
Despite these challenges, Egger said most kids are incredibly resilient.
“Most children are going to emerge from this situation and continue flourishing,” she said.
Egger said the best thing parents can do is maintain their own stress and mental health so that their anxieties don’t trickle down to their kids. Egger recommended having other adults to talk to, so that they don’t share their challenges or stressors with children at home.
Maintaining good mental health and a calm atmosphere creates a positive example for kids to attach to, and learn how to cope with their own anxieties.
“The most important thing that’s going to help your child is to create a safe, loving, calm home for them to be in during this time,” she said.