Coronavirus Anxiety: Parenting Tips to Help Children

May 11, 2020

Children may not be getting as sick from coronavirus. But anxiety over the pandemic can take a heavy toll. Here's how parents can help.

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Children come first. For most parents, that goes without saying. That also often means that their own self-care comes last.

But Pia Rebello Britto, UNICEF Chief of Early Childhood Development, warns that parents who sacrifice themselves during these stressful times aren't helping anyone, least of all their kids. In fact, her No. 1 tip for parenting during the coronavirus pandemic is this: Parents, take care of yourself. 

"You are the first-line responders of this crisis. As you strive to ensure care and learning for your children ... it is important that you find trusted friends, community members to speak to," says Britto, noting that parents who have been working from home while supervising their kids' learning face tremendous challenges. "Maintain a rhythm of life because children do pick up on your anxieties and concerns. Home-schooling kids who've lost the comforting structure of their normal routine is hard and anxiety is high."

The family coffee table, strewn with Legos, and a toddler chair are hardly the ideal workspace for Daniella, a mother of two, who lives with her family in Madrid. But she, like so many other parents around the world, is juggling a full-time job, child care, home schooling, housekeeping and tending to everyone's emotional needs. © UNICEF/UNI318037/Robles

To help both parents and children cope, we've rounded up tips from experts within UNICEF and beyond for how to make home an oasis of calm amid the vast uncertainty the pandemic has created. Following Britto's advice, we start with how parents can shore up their own reserves for their sake and their children's:

Take care of yourself

When things are tough, it's not selfish to prioritize yourself. It's essential. 

If you are worried — and that would be completely understandable — your children may pick up on your anxiety and feel it themselves. Dealing with your stress in healthy ways is essential to getting through this crisis. It's also a life skill you can pass on to your children.

“I think we have to be mindful of the present and stay focused on what is actually happening and not let ourselves go to worst-case scenarios,” says Jerry Bubrick, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute in New York City. “If we’re showing our kids catastrophic thinking and head-in-your-hands worry and crying and fear, then they’re going to learn that’s the way to handle the times now.”

What are some healthy ways of calming your nervous system and handling stress? 

Focus on the here and now: Staying informed is essential, but getting submerged in the gloom and doom is harmful to you and your children. Keep current by consulting trusted sources, like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). But resist the urge to check the news feed on your phone every hour. Reading too much news coverage can increase your anxiety and take time away from your kids or your self-care.  

Make healthy choices: Eating and sleeping well and regular exercise will make work, home schooling, grocery procurement and 24-7 togetherness much more manageable. Combining a balanced diet with a good cardio routine will give you those mood-enhancing endorphins that make anything easier to handle. If carving out time to exercise on your own is too hard, get active as a family. UNICEF Kid Power now offers a load of fun, family-friendly videos that can get everyone moving, dancing and even doing yoga together.

Keep things light: Social media can be a great way to stay connected with friends. But if your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feed is chock-full of frightening news reports or posts from alarmist friends, it's okay to switch it off. This is the time to connect selectively with friends and family whose company you find soothing and supportive. Being thoughtful about what you watch to wind down is also important. Romantic comedies, home-improvement and cooking shows, biopics, documentaries and family films are good; post-apocalyptic thrillers and psycho-dramas, maybe not so much. 

Keep your boundaries: If you feel overwhelmed, give yourself a timeout, preferably well before you reach a breaking point. Read or listen to music in another room, find a 30-minute workout online, take a shower, go outside if you have a yard, or tackle a task that requires focus, like cooking or organizing a kitchen cupboard. It's okay to tell your partner or spouse and your kids that you need to take a break — without interruption — but will be available again soon. Modeling self-care and the restorative power of alone time will give your kids strategies they can use too.  

There are easier ways to learn life lessons than in a pandemic, but this unprecedented time can offer each of us the chance to bolster resilience, ours and our children's.

How to know if your child is experiencing stress and anxiety

School closures, no in-person playdates and days spent cooped up at home can make children feel like they've had the rug pulled out from under them. But they may not show it or be able to express how they are feeling about what's happened. 

"This is a big shake-up for parents. It’s a shake-up for families," says Dr. Tovah P. Klein, Director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development. "Young children thrive on routine, consistency and regularity. Whether they are living with ten people or two, they like to know what comes next."

Signs your child may be feeling anxious might include:

  • Hypervigilance about your health or others: Fears that coronavirus will harm them or someone they love 
  • Separation anxiety: If your child suddenly needs to know where you are at all times or won't play alone, he or she may be feeling unsafe
  • Moodiness and tantrums: Meltdowns over having to do schoolwork or chores, oversensitivity and talking back can be a child's way of venting anxiety 
  • Difficulty sleeping is a strong indicator that a child feels troubled, and as every parent knows, an overtired child will have trouble coping with even the smallest setback 

If you notice any of these signs, making time for a chat with your child is an essential first step. Check in with yourself first to make sure you feel centered and calm, then begin by finding out what they already know. Resist the urge to tell half-truths or offer blanket reassurances. For children, the fear of what they don't know is far worse than reckoning with something scary — when they know they have your help and protection. 

How to talk to your children about the novel coronavirus

Klein says that a parent's main job when communicating with kids about the novel coronavirus is to filter information and find out, especially for older kids, what their sources are. "We tend to want a lot of information. A lot of people do. And it’s not good for children. Corona, coronavirus, quarantine, and isolation are big words to children and they’re scary," explains Klein, noting that children are also aware that people are sick and dying. "So the first thing I would say is: Parents really need to keep that information as far from children as possible."

The National Association of School Psychologists offers these guidelines for how to talk with your kids about the new coronavirus: 

Early elementary school children: Keep the information brief, easy to understand and fact-based. Then talk to them about what you as a family are doing to stay safe and reassure them that you will take care of them. Also, let them know that they have the power to keep themselves and those they love healthy. Show them how to wash their hands thoroughly and cough or sneeze into their elbow. Kids need a lot of reassurance that the grownups in their lives are working hard to keep them safe. But they'll also feel proud knowing that they can do their part.

Upper elementary- and early middle-school children: Be prepared for more questions and deeper probing. They may want precise details about what happens when someone becomes infected with coronavirus and how safe you all are. They may also have heard false rumors or racist theories about who is to blame for the pandemic. So get them to open up, by asking them pointed yet gentle questions. Things like: “Did your anxiety get in the way of you having a good day today?” Or: "What have you heard about the coronavirus that scares you?" 

Upper middle-school and high-school students: You can have more in-depth conversations with older kids and teens. They have probably been fact-finding themselves, so share with them something you've read that you found helpful. Then ask them what's on their radar. Doing research together — making sure to consult such reliable sources as WHO and the CDC — can spark conversation, help them feel a greater sense of control and strengthen your connection. 

Kids may quickly find these conversations overwhelming. So, UNICEF Global Chief of Education Robert Jenkins urges parents to "make sure you are in a safe environment and allow your child to talk freely. Drawing, stories and other activities may also help to open up a discussion." Take care to follow their lead and switch topics when you sense they've had enough.

Parenting tips to help reduce kids' anxiety

Children need a lot of reassurance right now, but like their parents, they also need time and space to themselves. Here are some tips for how you can make your time together more satisfying while ensuring that your kids can continue to learn, feel productive and stay connected with their friends and family.

Establish a routine: "In something like a pandemic, one of the things that is so important for children is having a schedule or a routine. Well, that has gone by the wayside," psychologist Robin Gurwitch recently told Science Magazine. "As much as parents can begin to put back some kind of routine — 'I know that I still have to get up; I still have to sign into my French class; I still need to do homework' — that regular routine helps."

Schedule playdates: It may be awhile before in-person playdates are possible. But virtual playdates are great stand-ins. Dr. Ronald Kleinman, Physician-in-Chief, Massachusetts General Hospital for Children and grandfather of four, says they are also essential. "Staying connected is vital to the social, emotional and physical well-being of children on so many levels. Children are very social creatures, and you want to support their social development and allow them to see that their friends and other children are healthy and functioning during this time," says Dr. Kleinman. "Most important of all, helping children stay social will make it much easier for them to transition back into physical connection and friendship once this is over."  

Virtual playdates for the entire family can also help everyone feel less confined, says Britto: "If families have access to technology, they can set up regular video calls with family and friends." 

Find out if they are being bullied: Before the pandemic hit, University of Maryland psychology professor Charissa Cheah was working on a study of Chinese and Korean American families' social and emotional development, health and well-being. Recently, she reported to Science Magazine that those families are particularly suffering the emotional impact of COVID-19. "We started to see reports on increased acts of racism and xenophobia both on social media and in the news, and some of the families were reporting having some of these experiences," says Cheah. The project will continue to follow these families to determine the long term impacts. But in the meantime, Cheah calls for greater unity: "This is the time where we need to work together, that we share the responsibility for good public health practice but also good practice related to embracing and really valuing diversity."

With children and teens spending more time online, the chances of their experiencing bullying or discrimination are far greater. "Increased access online brings heightened risks for children's safety, protection and privacy," warns Jenkins. "Discuss the internet with your children so they know how it works, what they need to be aware of and what appropriate behavior looks like when they are using online platforms such as video calls."

Set a schedule to limit screen time, activate parental controls, check in with kids frequently about what they are doing and who they are communicating with online and keep the lines of communication open. If they appear withdrawn, sad or upset, ask them about what's going on and reassure them that they can talk to you and won't get into trouble.      

Margot is just 4 years old, but getting more family time while her hometown, New York City, is largely shut down has helped her practice new skills. Here, she fills up her family's water glasses as they get ready to sit down for lunch. © UNICEF/UNI323372/Bajornas

Stay positive: 24-7 togetherness is challenging for everyone. It's up to parents to set a tone of kindness and be particularly mindful of how they speak to each other. The more parents can model peaceful, caring behavior, the safer their children will feel. 

Dr. Karen Groff, a Brooklyn, N.Y. psychiatrist who works with both adults and children, advises parents to see the COVID acronym in a new, more positive light. "Say we are in lockdown isolation mode through the end of the month. This can be a great time to work with your kids" on the following skills: 

  • Compassion, cooperation and courage: Teach children the importance of being understanding and tolerant during a stressful time. Be compassionate and gentle with them, yourself and your partner. Show them how much easier everything is when we cooperate. 
  • Open-mindedness and flexibility: Living with others requires flexibility and compromise, and that's true now more than ever. This time of togetherness offers us all the opportunity to develop this mindset, which will make everything easier.
  • Values: The pace of everyday life may not allow much time to reflect on the values we want to pass on to our children. But now that everyone is at home together, you can have conversations about what's important to you and how you'd like your children to see their responsibilities to themselves and others. 
  • Independence: When kids' schedules are packed with school, homework, sports practice and hanging out with friends, it may be challenging to get them to help around the house or teach them to do things for themselves. Now's the time to change that. Encourage your children to cook, clean and do chores with you. This is an opportunity for them to learn new things. Just don't let perfectionism (yours or theirs) get in the way. 
  • Discipline: Set a realistic schedule that you and your child can keep — one that includes time for everything: work, school, chores, virtual playdates, alone time and fun. Then follow it. Maintaining structure will make everyone feel more secure and instill orderliness in a time of great uncertainty.

For more helpful parenting tips and stories about how kids are coping during the pandemic, check out our other posts about:

Helping children understand that they can protect themselves and others through frequent handwashing and good respiratory hygiene — coughing and sneezing into the crook of their arms — can empower them and keep them hopeful. Here, a young boy from a village in northern Côte d'Ivoire wears a mask to protect himself against the new coronavirus. © UNICEF/UNI327072// Frank Dejongh

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Top photo: Abdoul Bassite, a UNICEF-supported health worker from a mobile medical team, fits a 7-year-old girl for a protective mask before she goes in for a check-up at an informal settlement in Rome where many migrants and refugees live. "The main problem we face is that migrants and refugees are not aware of the COVID-19 risks," says Bassite. "My job is to explain to them what the virus is, how to protect themselves and the rules they have to follow to be safe." © UNICEF/UNI319154/Romenzi