The Traumatic Effects of COVID-19 on Children
and What Parents Can Do
By Stephanie Hewitt, Learning Pathways
Featured in Macaroni Kid Folsom-El Dorado Hills, June 4, 2020 Edition
The COVID-19 pandemic is a historical event that is affecting everyone, including children. With schools closed, social distancing measures, and sheltering-in-place, families are adapting to a new normal. Many children are experiencing stress and trauma as their world has completed changed as they knew it. Here are some of the effects of stress and trauma on children and things you can do to support them.
What Stress and Trauma Looks Like in Children
The COVID-19 pandemic is not going to be a traumatic event for every child. However, many kids are feeling the effects and are psychologically impacted. Among those children that are more likely to be traumatized by the pandemic are those with previous traumatic experiences, those who have lost a family member to COVID-19, those who have pre-existing mental health conditions such as anxiety, and those whose family has lost employment or income. Reactions that you might see in your children to this traumatic event include regression in toilet training or bedwetting, increased tantrums, increased clinginess, nightmares, and physical symptoms such as stomachaches and headaches. These same reactions might be present in older children, as well as changes in appetite and/or sleep and isolating themselves from friends and family,
What Parents Can Do
Here are some things parents can do to support their children and safeguard against the traumatic effects of the pandemic:
Implement Schedules and Routines. Maintaining a consistent routine at home is a way to keep things predictable and controlled when the rest of the world feels unpredictable and out of control. It doesn’t need to be a color-coded schedule down to 15-minutes increments, but great if you can and want to do that. Try to implement predictable and consistent routines around everyday things, like schoolwork, mornings and getting ready for the day, mealtimes, and bedtimes. For example, every night around bedtime your family’s routine might be to take a bath or shower, change clothes, brush teeth, read books, then go to bed. Some kids benefit from a simple visual schedule or checklist, laminated or placed in a plastic sheet cover, where they can check off each step with a dry erase marker.
Prioritize Relationships. The key to healing from and protecting against trauma and stress is relationships. Prioritize your relationship with your child over the need to complete schoolwork or other tasks. If your child is visibly stressed out, both of you should step back from the situation and re-connect. Hug them and let them know you are there for them. Incorporate relationship-building activities into your week, such as one-on-one time with each child, having a family movie night or game night, or prioritizing family dinners. Another tip for maintaining a strong relationship is to make sure positive interactions (i.e. as praise, interest, and affection), outweigh negative interactions (i.e. yelling, punishing, and dismissing) by at least a 5 to 1 ratio. If you do lose your patience or yell at your children (and everyone does!), apologize and try to focus on increasing those positive interactions.
Reinforce a Sense of Safety. Children need to feel safe. Honestly answer your children’s questions about what is happening right now but don’t give too much information. Avoid watching the news in front of your kids. Let your children know that you are there for them and available to talk. Listen to them and validate their feelings. Reassure your children that they are safe and the adults around them are working very hard to keep them safe. (i.e. “I hear you’re feeling scared about what is going to happen. The adults around you are working hard to keep you safe.”)
Self-Care. Take care of yourself. Monitor your stress reactions and recognize the stressful effects of the pandemic on yourself. Make sure that you’re taking care of yourself with good nutrition, sleep, and effectively managing your emotions. Model coping strategies in front of your kids (i.e. “I’m feeling a little worried right now but I’m going to take some deep breaths and focus on something else.”).
This time is challenging for everyone but with strong relationships and healthy coping strategies for us and our kids, we can come out more resilient than ever.
American Academy of Pediatrics. 15 May, 2020. “Parenting in a Pandemic: Tips to Keep the Calm at Home.” The AAP Parenting Website. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/communication-discipline/Pages/Positive-Parenting-and-COVID-19_10-Tips.aspx
Kohli, Sonali. (7 May, 2020). “We need to prepare for the mental health effects of coronavirus on kids.” Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-05-07/coronavirus-anxiety-children-long-term-mental-health-impacts
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (1 March, 2020). “Parent/Caregiver Guide to Helping Families Cope with the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources/fact-sheet/outbreak_factsheet_1.pdf
Teaching Tolerance. 23 May, 2020. “A Trauma-Informed Approach to Teaching Through Coronavirus.” https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/a-trauma-informed-approach-to-teaching-through-coronavirus