MSUToday
Published: March 23, 2020

Ask an expert: how to help kids through COVID-19

Contact(s): Elizabeth Schondelmayer CABS Integration schonde3@msu.edu

In early 2020, many parents and caregivers face uncharted territory as they help children cope with the realities of the novel coronavirus strain.

Joanne Riebschleger, a professor in Michigan State University’s School of Social Work, offers suggestions on how to approach this difficult situation with kids – and even emerge stronger on the other side.

How can I tell if my kids are stressed out?

The sudden changes brought about by COVID-19 can be overwhelming for young children, in ways that they may not know how to communicate to their parents. Besides lacking the structured routine of school, they may miss their friends and for older children who understand the serious health implications of the virus, they may fear for the health and safety of themselves and their loved ones.

Riebschleger says to look for signs such as changes in sleeping and eating patterns, or changes in attitude.

“The most common way that children show stress is holding all their feelings in or letting their feelings out by being angry. Some children will go back and forth between holding in feelings and suddenly being red-hot angry over what might seem like little things.”

How much should I “sugarcoat” this situation?

Some parents may feel a tendency to underplay the situation to their children. Riebschleger, however, advises parents to be transparent, yet reassuring, with their children.

“Children want to know what to expect. Explain that, while it might seem like a long time to be staying home, they will eventually be able to return to school and their regular activities. Once they seem less worried, it could be a good time to point out that they are safe at home and there will be more time to be together as a family.”

Establishing a daily routine can also give children a sense of normalcy and structure during this uncertain time. With regular times for schoolwork, chores and play, children will know what to expect from day to day.

What are some constructive activities my child and I could do together?

Sometimes children struggle expressing their feelings using words. However, Riebschleger says that younger children especially may share their feelings through their play or through artwork.

She offers a suggested activity that can help children share their feelings in a constructive manner.

“Ask them to draw a picture of what worries them about staying home right now, then have them explain the drawing to you. Then, ask them to draw a picture of how they can feel safe and happy. Have them explain that drawing as well. Offer compliments on their ability to come up with these ideas, then put the ‘feeling safe’ picture in a place where they will see it.”

It is also important that children are given the chance to stay active during this time. Riebschleger suggests that parents encourage activities that allow children to get moving, such as jumping, dancing, walking, etc.

I’m burned out and my kids can tell. What do I do?

Parents and caregivers can only give as much energy as they have. Therefore, Riebschleger says that self-care is an important way to regulate their own feelings and emotions, and better react to those of their children.

“You, too, may need some time to relax, imagine, and move your body. Try to focus on the positives. Your children will notice if you are handling things well and that will help them feel secure, too.”

Joanne Riebschleger, associate professor in the School of Social Work.