Parents are faced with the difficult task of talking to their children about the COVID-19 pandemic, but should remain calm and reassuring in these uncertain times, said Lisa Peterson, a New Mexico State University assistant professor and director of the School Psychology Doctoral Program in the College of Education.

mother and daughter with book

“Children use adults as a model for their reactions,” Peterson said. “Let them know that they and their family are fine, and that you and the adults in their life, such as the people in their school and community, are working to keep them safe.”

Peterson is offering the following guidance for parents on helping their children through their concerns:

• Talk to your children about their feelings and validate them. Help them express their feelings through drawing, writing and other activities. Provide comfort to them when it is needed.

• Keep updated on developments from credible outlets and public health authorities. Monitor your child’s consumption of media and be available to answer their questions. Clarify any misinformation and focus on the facts in an age-appropriate way.

• Stay in contact with friends and family via phone or Internet if you cannot see each other in person. This will help children know that they people they care about are doing well and will decrease anxiety about others.

• Keep a consistent schedule and maintain routines. Children need to feel a sense of normalcy at a time when things are constantly changing. At the same time, be flexible when the need arises.

• Do activities that have helped you and your family cope in other stressful situations, such as watching movies, playing games and exercising.

• Participate in distance learning activities provided by schools, but have realistic expectations and be patient if your children are unfocused or not interested in classwork. Also, understand that children will complete work quickly under independent learning situations and will need other ways to stay active through the rest of the day.

• Assure children that you will take them to the doctor if needed, but also reassure them that not every cough and sneeze means that they or someone else has COVID-19.

• Manage your own stress by taking breaks, restating negative thoughts into positive thoughts, and do simple mindfulness activities such as breathing exercises. Apps such as Calm and Insight Timer can be used to help those new to mindfulness and by the whole family.

• Pay attention to signs of depression or anxiety in your children. Younger children may not be able to express their feelings but may have tantrums or nightmares. Older children may withdraw.

Peterson said parents should also look for changes in sleep or appetite in their children. If parents notice signs of mood changes, they should talk to their children to see if there are any fears or concerns affecting them during the COVID-19 crisis.

“If you are concerned, reach out to your pediatrician for assistance,” Peterson said. “At this time, most mental health services are transitioning to a telehealth, or video-based, model, but there are still ways to get services.”

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