How Parents Can Help Kids Who Are Scared and Anxious During the Pandemic

For the kids in our lives, the last nine months have been many things. Scary — because an invisible, unknown illness was suddenly spreading across the globe. Maybe even fun, when the possibility of school closing felt like a snow day. But for many, that novelty has given way to frustration and sadness — even depression and anxiety. Just like adults, kids are wondering: Will I get sick? Will someone I love die?

It’s a lot for kids and parents to handle. So we talked to the experts and came away with five tips for how you can help your kids through this.

Make sure your kids wear their masks

“Kids generally don’t get very sick from this virus,” says Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. But, he says, they can still play a part in making sure others don’t get sick by wearing their masks and social distancing.

It might take a little imagination. If you have younger kids, you can explain the spread of the coronavirus by comparing their mouths to a bottle of bug spray. Weird, yes — but it’s one way for young ones to visualize the tiny droplets they spread, even when they aren’t sick. If they wear a mask, it helps keep those droplets in.

If you’ve got older kids or teenagers, take this a step further: Encourage them to spread the word. Practice what they might say if they’re with friends at the park and someone takes their mask off. Maybe your 13-year-old has been waiting months to see Grandma and could say, “I need to keep my Grandma safe, so do you mind putting your mask on?”

Rehearse it with your kids so the conversation goes smoothly.

Practice positive thinking and mindfulness

In a recent report, researchers interviewed 46 teenagers in California and found that the teens reported a huge sense of loss — similar to the stages of grief. Most of the teens were sleeping badly because of lack of activity and lots of screen time.

Kids of all ages — as well as their parents — can probably relate.

In addition to the obvious prescription — trade in some of that screen time for physical exercise — try some brain exercises too, like replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. You might try saying a few things you’re grateful for each night before dinner or before bed. There’s evidence behind that: Gratitude boosts your immune system, lowers blood pressure and motivates us to practice healthy habits. It may feel awkward or cheesy, but practicing mindfulness and positivity very consciously can help kids and parents too.

It’s also important to watch for signs of something more serious too.

“Depression in teenagers sometimes looks like a prickly porcupine. Everybody rubs them the wrong way,” adolescent psychologist Lisa Damour says. Don’t take it personally; just keep offering them a listening ear.

Meet tough moments with empathy

There will be times when feelings bubble up. Meltdowns will happen. In those moments, wellness guide Frannie Williams says, take a moment to put yourself in your child’s shoes. If they’re acting like it’s the end of the world, well it might be because their world has turned upside down this year.

She says that to help kids calm down, parents have to calm down too. Once she was working with a 5-year-old who was struggling. Williams began taking deep breaths, and “Out of nowhere, I noticed that she was mimicking me,” Williams remembers. “She was modeling me. She started taking these big belly deep breaths.”

Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president of curriculum and content at Sesame Workshop, says kids learn a lot about dealing with adversity by watching adults. “And they’re seeing how we are reacting to setbacks, mistakes and challenges,” Truglio explains. “So this is a big message for adults, because our actions are speaking a lot louder than our words.”

Find new ways of connecting with people

Your kids are almost certainly missing out on some socializing — with friends and extended family. Get creative about making time for reestablishing some of those lost connections. It will help your children, it will help you and it will likely help the people you’re reconnecting with.

Joy Osofsky, a professor at Louisiana State University School of Medicine in New Orleans, says her grandkids, who live outside the U.S., call her every morning on their way to school so they can play online games together. It’s time that both Osofsky and her grandkids have come to cherish.

Get more safe physical contact

Damour says that kids, even teens, are likely missing out on lots of the physical contact they normally get — contact that can’t be replicated over Zoom or WhatsApp. Keep that in mind, and don’t hold back on the physical affection — the hugs, the pillow fights, the hair ruffles, all of it.


The podcast portion of this episode was produced by Meghan Keane.

We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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