5 Ways Parents Can Reassure Kids During COVID-19

An expert on children, trauma, and education shares tips for preserving kids’ emotional well-being
“Parents and caregivers can support kids by giving words to feelings they have,” said Jessica Dym Bartlett, J92, AG93, AG12, Co-Director of Early Childhood Research at the nonprofit research organization Child Trends. Photo: Ingimage
“Parents and caregivers can support kids by giving words to feelings they have,” said Jessica Dym Bartlett, J92, AG93, AG12, Co-Director of Early Childhood Research at the nonprofit research organization Child Trends. Photo: Ingimage
May 5, 2020

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Being a caregiver isn’t easy, and under COVID-19 circumstances, many parents are feeling the stress. With social distancing and virtual learning in effect, there’s no hiding how deeply COVID-19 has impacted kids’ lives. It can be difficult for parents to help them feel safe and secure when there are still so many unknowns.

Compared to adults, children are more vulnerable to the emotional impact of traumatic events that disrupt their daily lives, said Jessica Dym Bartlett, J92, AG93, AG12, developmental scientist and Co-Director of Early Childhood Research at the nonprofit research organization Child Trends. She recently published a paper with guidance for parents about how to support children’s emotional well-being during this time.

“I felt like parents really needed more support in terms of how to talk to kids about this issue at different ages, what to say and not say, and how to help them still thrive in their lives,” she said. She offered these tips for parents looking for guidance.

1. Practice the three R’s

Bartlett offered an easy shorthand for talking about what kids need: the three R’s. The first is routine.

“This is true for both adults and kids, but especially kids, and the younger you go, the more structure is needed for kids to feel safe and secure,” she said. “Being able to create a routine now could be interpreted in lots of different ways.”

It might mean getting up at the same time every day and/or eating as many meals as you can together. She recommended having a beginning, middle, and end to the day that is recognized in some way, through whatever routines a family has, such as reading at bedtime.

“All of those things provide a sense of well-being because kids feel like things are predictable. They get it and they know it's going to happen,” she said.

Regulation is the second R, and it refers to helping children develop the ability to self-regulate. For little kids, that may refer to feelings. “How are they able to manage these big feelings that can come up and be really overwhelming?” she asked.

For bigger kids, self-regulation can be supported by helping them make a plan to manage difficult feelings by talking to adults, spending time with peers (virtually), and building in structure to their days. Parents should have a sense of what they’re doing and make sure they get a balance of the things they need most, including exercise and healthy eating, in addition to academic and social time.

The third R is reassurance. Adults in children's lives should be able to tell them, “you’re safe.” There are lots of reasons why this is true, Bartlett said. She pointed to examples such as healthcare workers, police officers, and even neighbors helping neighbors. It’s important to show kids that good things are still happening, she said. 

 “All the way through the age spectrum, kids need to hear, in some form, ‘you're going to be okay, it's going to be okay, and the grownups in this world are working really hard to make sure of it.’”

2. Minimize media exposure

The tricky part about that reassuring message is that reading or watching the news may undermine it. Teens may have the freedom to surf news headlines without a parental filter, which can introduce or expose them to scary topics. Bartlett said kids should not be left on their own monitor.

“The media keeps a pretty constant diet in our lives of negativity. And that's the opposite of what people need to feel better. For older children, talk about how they can keep some of the toxicity or negativity out of their life for periods,” she said.

If school-age kids or adolescents are interested in information on the pandemic, sit down and read an article or watch the news together. Teens have abstract thinking and idealistic principles, she said, and they’re trying to figure out how life works, who they are, and what to believe in as they head toward adulthood—some guidance can help.

3. Allow for space and social interactions

Social engagement looks different during COVID-19, but it’s important for kids’ development and emotional well-being to continue to feel connected to friends. Bartlett said parents should encourage social interactions such as texting or messaging with friends or playing on a video platform together.

“Social isolation can bring everybody in a family down, and certainly for older kids, who need that socialization and who really are developing themselves in relation to their peers,” she said.

She said she can understand why teens and young adults are pretty irritated in this moment, when they’re supposed to be building a life and being more independent, but instead they’re stuck home with their parents. Everyone needs a little personal space sometimes, and for teens and young adults who particularly value their own space and time alone, it’s especially critical.

“It's important for families to figure out how to give people space. You don’t want someone stuck in their bedroom all day long, but it’s fine to occupy different rooms for a while,” she said. “Family members can take turns spending time alone and being with different constellations of people.”

4. Expect regressive behaviors

Younger children don't have as many resources to call on to express emotion because they're still developing in so many ways. Often, as their brains process this type of trauma, the struggle to express themselves comes out in the form of behavior that adults don’t like, according to Bartlett, such as frustration, clinginess, or having difficulty following rules.

“It might be that they’re not listening to rules or being too rambunctious or aggressive,” she said. In some kids, their behavior may regress—maybe they just learned to toilet train and now they’re wetting the bed. Other kids may withdraw.

“Some young kids are able to articulate how they're feeling, and other kids really need help. Parents and caregivers can support kids by giving words to feelings they have,” she said. “Research shows that the more feeling language you're able to use and express, the more likely the child will be to have better social-emotional outcomes later in life.”

5. Encourage independence

In Bartlett’s field, they call it self-efficacy. Parents might call it being able to do something independently. Whatever the term, it’s when a child has a feeling that they have the capacity to do something to achieve their goals.

It could involve helping others who are struggling with COVID-19, but it doesn’t have to be something as big as sewing masks. It might be as simple as a young child who feels good about helping the family by setting the table with forks and spoons each night, or an older child assembling a simple meal for the family.

“Just by virtue of being children, kids often feel somewhat disempowered because the adults are the people who are in control in their lives, which is a good thing,” she said. “But they also need to have little parts or little moments where they can feel like they're in control and they get to decide.”

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.