It’s common for kids to be afraid of things they don’t understand, especially if that “thing” is a disease that shut down the entire country.
It doesn’t matter if the immediate threat seems distant — it will live a long time in the mind of a child.
Medical professionals say that the best thing parents can do to help ease fear and stress within the family is to be honest with your little ones and have age-appropriate conversations. That way, they have a general knowledge that helps them understand why they have to wash their hands all the time or why they can’t play with their friends.
“Kids are a lot more savvy than we give them credit for,” says Becky Dixon, MD, a Riley Children’s Health pediatric hospitalist. “They’re experiencing a lot of what adults are experiencing. This is magnified for kids who already have high anxiety.”
To ease these challenges, Dixon says it’s important that parents don’t ignore or minimize the fear.
“All people feel some relief from expressing their fear or anxieties,” she says. “So, get it out in the open. Ask open-ended questions: What are you worried about? What do you think is great about homeschooling and what worries you about this time? If open-ended questions don’t resolve the situation, it’s a good time to contact the child’s doctor.”
Doctors say that sometimes the fear manifests itself in other ways, such as inability to sleep. Dixon suggests that families try things to help with sleep hygiene.
“Go to sleep at the same time and get up at same time each day,” she says. “Also, get some sort of physical activity. It’s really tempting to stay inside all day. Instead, go for a walk, play in the front yard, just spend time outside. Avoid screen time at least an hour before bed. Shower, brush teeth and read a story — keep the same routine and schedule.”
Consistency is key, especially for children who have ADHD or other behavioral challenges.
“Keep those tools that have already been laid down,” Dixon says. “If they’re on medications, now’s a good time to talk to your physician to see if meds should change. Do not take time off from your prescriptions.” Dixon adds that there are non-prescription ways to help too, such as a bouncy ball they can sit on, or a piece of Velcro attached to the desk that occupies that part of the brain that prevents them from focusing.
Some families also choose meditation, coloring and other activities to help them focus on the positive. For some, the emotional challenges can be compounded with the death of a loved one.
“It can be even worse now because COVID-19 has made it such that we can’t have some of the normal closures, such as seeing families in the hospital or at funerals,” Dixon says. “We need to give them time to grieve and express themselves. Revisit happy memories by talking about them or look through photo albums and scrapbooks. It can even be a verbal journal.”
For some children, their worry might be about a birthday party being canceled. In those instances, look for creative ways to celebrate. Some families host drive-by parties, while others do video conference calls so their kiddos can see family and friends and know they are OK. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis hosts themed virtual birthday parties. The first one was an 80s-themed dance party; future parties will include various themes, such as disco or country western.
The bottom line: Try to keep as much consistency as possible, and find creative ways to replace the things we can no longer do and make the new ways seem like a fun adventure.
When you feel it’s safe for your family to get back out there into the community, it’s important for them to go to familiar places that bring them joy, like The Children’s Museum, and places where they can release all that pent-up energy, like Riley Children’s Health Sports Legends Experience.