AMES, Iowa – Coping with a frightening event in the news can be difficult for children and their families, says Lesia Oesterreich, a family life specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.
Children may have many different reactions. “Children may become upset or cry easily, get angry or act out, become restless or have difficulty paying attention,” she said. “Some children may be quiet and withdrawn, while others can’t stop talking about the experience.”
The ISU Extension and Outreach specialist noted that changes in a child’s behavior may be signs or symptoms of distress or discomfort following things they’ve experienced or seen on television, such as the response to COVID-19, a disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Young children may feel vulnerable, Oesterreich said. “They don’t understand what is happening and have trouble communicating how they feel. Older children also may have a hard time expressing their feelings.”
Parents can help their children cope, Oesterreich said. She recommends the following actions.
Limit exposure to TV and social media. Graphic TV images and frequently repeated details of unfolding events can produce great anxiety for children. Parents should monitor their own anxiety and offer calm explanations and reassurance to children.
Speak simply and honestly about the situation. Explain to your children what is happening to your family or what they’re seeing on TV. Use simple words they can understand. Be honest. Keep children informed of a problem that will directly affect them but limit details that will cause them to be overly concerned.
Check children’s level of understanding. Children can easily become confused and may connect a familiar experience such as a recent cold with the COVID-19 experience. Young children sometimes think they are responsible for causing an illness. You can explain how it is important to wash hands and cough into your arm to prevent spreading the disease, but many times there is no way of knowing exactly where an individual encountered the germs that caused the infection.
Make time to comfort and reassure your children. A one-minute chat throughout the day with a gentle hug or a reassuring word may be all children need to feel safer and more secure in an emotional situation. Because young children sometimes have difficulty understanding complex situations, they can easily exaggerate their normal fear of being separated from their parents. Older kids also need attention and reassurance.
Maintain routines or rituals of comfort. Dinnertime at the kitchen table or a story or a favorite teddy bear at bedtime may provide young children with a sense of security. If children are at home because of child care or school closings, allow for some flexibility but continue to encourage regular routines, especially meal times and bedtimes.
Talk with children about how you feel and suggest a positive response. Say something like, “I’m worried about Grandma. She is sad because some of her friends are getting sick. Let’s make her a card or a picture to cheer her up.” Giving children something to do makes them feel a part of the family response to the adversity.
Put words of acceptance to your children's feelings and experiences. Say something similar to “Yes Nathan. It’s OK to worry. There are many people who are sick. But the doctors are taking care of them and helping them.” Or, “Elli, I know you are frustrated the band concert was canceled. It is OK to be upset about that.” Be a good listener and supporter.
Show children models of courage, determination, coping and support. You could say something like, “Daddy called our neighbor, Mrs. Gray, and asked if she needed him to get medicine or groceries for her. Our neighbors are also reaching out to others this way. We are all working together.”
Point out ways of coping that you use. Say something like, “When I feel worried or anxious, I just try to stop and take a few deep breaths. I also look for things I can do that I enjoy, like listening to music. I remind myself that things will be better soon.”
Help children identify helpful ways to cope. You could ask, “What can you do to relax when worry takes over? What fun things can you do to help take your mind off things? What can you do to help others?”
Involve children in the family’s efforts to prepare for or recover from an emergency. Remember to keep assigned tasks safe and age-appropriate. Children can help prepare soup to freeze for easy meals. Teens can help with an inventory to make sure your family has basic items such as a working thermometer, pain relief medication, cough syrup or cough drops, tissues, wipes and cleaning supplies. Let them know you appreciate their efforts to help the family. Pulling together through adversity will strengthen the family in ways that will last long after the crisis is resolved.
Seek professional advice if needed. Contact your health professional if you are worried about illness or flu symptoms that are severe or lasting too long. Consider also mental health needs. If any family member appears to be overly anxious or distressed, you can call the ISU Extension and Outreach Iowa Concern hotline, 1-800-447-1985.