How to help kids cope with coronavirus changes


by Ally McLaughlin, CCLS

Apr 8, 2020

Every child responds differently to change. How your child will react to life changes depends heavily on their age and stage of development. Helping children — toddlers and teenagers included — understand new rules, roles and regulations can be difficult, especially when parents might be experiencing their own disruption to routine due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Research tells us that stress is transferable, meaning children can easily pick up on their parent or caregiver’s stress. Make sure to take some time to assess your own feelings and remember that it’s okay not to know all the answers.

Children just need to know that despite all else, they are safe and loved.

Here are some ways to help children cope with stress related to change.

Create a safe space for an open conversation

Ask your child what they know and how they feel about what has changed recently in their life. Their answers might surprise you and help lead the conversation. Keep in mind that each age group will differ.

  • Pre-schoolers often blur the lines of magical thinking and reality, which makes the unknown very scary to them.
  • School-age children (5-12 years old) benefit from responsibility and structure, so they could be most affected by the lack of their previous school day routine.
  • Teenagers care most about their privacy, peers and independence.

Once you’re able to identify each child’s individual need, you’ll be better able to address their concerns.  

Related: Talking to your kids about the novel coronavirus disease

Validate your child’s feelings

It’s important for children to know that their feelings are normal, understandable and accepted by their caregivers. Provide positive praise whenever children exhibit adaptability. Preschool and young school-age children are in a stage when they might misunderstand social distancing as a punishment for something they’ve done wrong. Be sure to provide concrete explanations for why everyone, including you, is following guidelines given by local and national leaders. 

Maintain normal routines

Try to provide your child with concrete examples of aspects that have remain unchanged, including:

  • Family
  • Rules
  • Chores
  • Bedtime routines

Help children organize their toys or make a game out of cleaning their closet. Also keep in mind that setting limits is still necessary at this time. Although this is a challenging time for everyone, children of all ages will benefit in both the short and long term from being held to usual standards of behavior.

Provide opportunities for self-expression

It is important for children to feel safe to share their feelings. Additionally, a sense of control is crucial for anyone during times of uncertainty. Encourage any way of “playing” out his or her feelings and concerns by drawing, writing, singing or dancing.

Find ways to provide your children the opportunity for choice whenever appropriate. For example, teenagers could benefit from extra privacy during this time, school-agers might enjoy phone call play dates with classmates and preschoolers can feel empowered by choosing their own outfit for the day or which snack to eat at lunchtime.

Related: Why playtime is the most important part of your child’s day

Genuinely accept your child’s concerns and provide clarifying education if you notice your child is misunderstanding something. Keep in mind that during this time, patience is key and you’re not alone.

Subscribe to the Scrubbing In newsletter for more ways to live well amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

About the Author

Ally McLaughlin, CCLS, is a child life specialist on staff at Baylor Scott & White McLane Children’s Medical Center.

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