How to Emotionally Support Children During a Pandemic

March 26, 2020

Brooke Feinerman, PhD
Brooke’s training is in clinical psychology from Pepperdine University, and a PhD in somatic psychology from Pacifica.  She has additional training and certificates from Harvard’s Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine. 

Children are deeply intuitive. In this time of great change and uncertainty, with their schools closing, daily routines changing and lack of time with their friends, it is critically important to cultivate ways to connect with the children in your life, and to speak to them about what is happening in an age-appropriate and thoughtful manner. The anxiety, uncertainty and stress of the global pandemic is impacting everyone. The goal of this work is to provide a few helpful ways to support the young people in your family and community. These tips can be used to care for children’s emotional needs during this time and are also helpful for all of us as we learn how to cope with new levels of stress in our everyday life.

1. Validate feelings: One valuable way to support children in this time is to validate their feelings. Telling a child, everything is okay, don’t worry, although this might be done in a heartfelt desire to calm anxiety, in effect invalidates the feelings they are experiencing. In the long run, if repeated, doing so can make it difficult for them to trust their own feelings about a given situation.

Action to take: Instead of saying, everything is okay, perhaps shift your words slightly, asking a question such as, can you tell me more about what you are thinking/feeling?  Then use reflective listening to mirror back to your child his/her thoughts/feelings. This would sound something like, I hear you miss your friends, don’t like being stuck at home and are fearful about what is happening to the world…did I get that right? Try to use some of their exact words in your reflection back to them, as this helps them feel heard. Ask your child what they need in this moment. If they are missing their friends, maybe you can set-up a FaceTime or phone call with one of their friends. Finally, say something along the lines of, although this moment does not feel okay, eventually things will be okay, and we are here together. The greatest blessing each of us needs in our suffering is the reminder that we are not alone, and the feeling of being seen, heard, and known. A helpful example of validating a child’s expression of anxiety, is if the child says, I have butterflies and feel nervous and afraid, suggest or ask if they can get their butterflies to fly in formation. This simple shift in perspective is a way of providing validation and acceptance, while still working toward more order and integration of emotion.

2. Find ways to cultivate gratitude: In times of struggle, cultivating gratitude can help us and the young people in our life learn to shift our focus onto things that are good. These can be simple things, such as delight in the blooming flowers in spring; gratitude for doctors and nurses working hard to keep people healthy, grocery store workers and truck drivers working hard to make sure we have food and other supplies; a safe place to sleep at night; the breath in their lungs; the smile of a loved one; or the ability to call or FaceTime a friend in spite of being unable to see them in person. Studies also show us that cultivating gratitude on a regular basis can directly affect our sense of well-being, our immune system, and the neural networks in our brain. Additionally, research has suggested that the greatest impact of a gratitude practice comes from actually writing down the items, not just talking about them or thinking about them. An added benefit of cultivating gratitude is that this practice can assist with helping children who are under stress increase optimism, hope, and resiliency

Action to take: Create a gratitude jar as a family. Once a day write down even just one thing for which you are grateful on that day—or more if you are inspired to do so, the more the better.  Fold the piece(s) of paper and place it in the jar. Later in the year find a time to read the different items. Alternatively, visit the bowl when you are having a hard moment; read through the things for which you or your loved ones have been grateful in the past as a way of leading you back to a grateful heart.

3. Do something creative: You might not consider yourself or your child an artist, but studies have repeatedly shown that acts of creativity can help with processing emotions, decreasing anxiety and depression, and producing feelings of well-being. Studies have shown that even the simple act of coloring can help to reduce anxiety both for young adults or children. Additionally, in a time when we feel unable to control many aspects of our lives, a creative act produces feelings of control and the ability to act.

Action to take: Acts of creativity can take many forms and are not limited to one’s perceived skill level. A creativity session can entail cooking something, coloring in a coloring book, planting seeds in the garden, drawing with sidewalk chalk, playing musical instruments, dancing in the living room, painting, drawing, collaging with old magazines or images from the internet, sewing, writing poetry or short stories, or building with Legos or blocks. For small children, imaginative play is an especially powerful creative outlet and mechanism for learning and integration of experiences and feelings.

4. Honor the body: One effective way to support well-being during a stressful time is to take time to honor the body. Anxiety, depression, and fear are held in the body and can create tension, pain, headaches, stomachaches, poor sleep, fatigue, or a sense of being frozen in place. Indeed, research by Dr. Daniel Siegel has confirmed the intimate connection of the mind and body; fear-based thoughts or emotions create electrical impulses in the brain that affect our physiological body, impacting digestion, immunity, circulation, the musculoskeletal system and respiration breathing. When we feel threatened or afraid, the brain sends signals to the body it needs to protect itself. When the threat and fear have no discernable end in sight, it can become exhausting for the body to hold.

Action to take: To honor the body in this time of stress, find ways to practice present moment awareness. This can look like engaging a breathing activity with your child where you take deep belly breaths together, focusing on a longer exhale. Doing so helps activate the vagus nerve, the longest nerve in the body, producing a deep sense of relaxation. Present moment practices can also include noticing objects in the room and naming them. Just calling out three things one sees in the room can decrease anxiety, create a sense of groundedness, and bring an individual into the present moment. Honoring the body can also entail eating as healthy as possible, resting, getting enough sleep, stretching and getting gentle exercise or movement, and trying to get little doses of fresh air, even if only through opening the window for a short time.

5. Make room for acceptance and joy: When things change in dramatic ways, we often struggle to accept things at they are in the present moment, which can delay our ability to move into acceptance, healing, and growth. To accept the moment does not mean that you are not acknowledging the pain it might contain, but it does mean you are pulling back the energy you are putting into wishing things were different. Acceptance refers to the practice of choosing to allow the moment to be as it is and shifting to taking back control of the things you can manage, like washing your hands, practicing presence and gratitude, or calling a friend to connect with a loved one. Once we have moved into acceptance, we can work to make room for joy, which is not the same as happiness.  Happiness tends to be connected to external circumstances, places, and things, whereas joy is something that can be generated internally. Studies have shown laughter and joy help combat epinephrine and cortisol levels, otherwise known as the neurochemicals related with the stress response in the body. These stress hormones negatively affect our immune function.  The old saying that laughter is good medicine, turns out to be true.

Action to take: Find ways to bring laughter into your home. Stay informed about what is happening in the world, but limit your amount of screen time, especially as it pertains to news and other possible anxiety producing forms of media. Watch a funny movie, play a game, watch funny or cute animal videos on YouTube, practice your joke-telling abilities, or put together a FaceTime or Zoom call with your favorite people and intentionally focus on creating joy and laughter together.

For children having an adult figure that can normalize negative emotion and make it feel safe to express those feelings can help make children more resilient. My grandmother used to say to me when I was struggling, nothing is ever wasted. She was not saying that what I was experiencing was okay, but rather she was inviting me to move my awareness into how could I use what was happening to me to become better: more creative, more compassionate, more resilient, more patient, more gentle, more courageous, or how could I change my “why is this happening” to “how do I want to use this moment” to become better or help others who also might be suffering as well. Grief, loss, and pain—which encompass a lot of what people are feeling right now—are not simple things that fit neatly into a formula. Each person has their own internal wisdom on what will guide them through this moment, their own timeline on what it will look like to move forward and find healing based on their own life specifics, but all of us have the capacity to use our life experiences to ground us deeper into love and connection with our Self and with those around us. May the words of my grandmother give you hope and may these ideas give some practical ways to navigate this time.

This article is intended for information purposes only, regardless of if the information is presented by a medical practitioner, physician or other professional. This article is provided to educate and inspire you on your personal journey, and is not a substitute for specialized medical advice, diagnosis or treatment, and should not be relied upon for specific medical care or in the place of specific medical guidance provided to you, by your care provider.


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