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Helping Kids Cope with COVID-19: Tips to Reduce Stress and Anxiety

Erin Tentis-Berglund, PhD, LP is the supervisor of Psychology and Psychotherapy Services at Gillette

Fear and anxiety about COVID-19 (the disease caused by the coronavirus) is causing stress for many adults and children. It’s important to know there are resources available to help you and your family cope.

Information is power and Gillette Children’s psychologist, Erin Tentis-Berglund, PhD, LP in consultation with members of the psychology team, answers some questions to provide information to help during this uncertain time.

What are some things kids might be experiencing during this COVID-19 shutdown?

Kids—regardless of age—can be feeling a lot of the same feelings that we adults are experiencing right now: sadness, fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, worry. Some may feel relief or happiness at not having typical school right now, or for spending more time with family. Some may become increasingly clingy or sensitive. All of these jumbled feelings may lead to another: confusion. That said, any of these feelings are appropriate and justified; the key is what to do with them.

What are some of the more common concerns kids have during a time like this?

This can vary depending on the child and their given situation. Many kids are missing their friends; they want to socialize, have play dates, go to school and may be upset when they are not allowed to do so. This can be made all the more confusing when they see others who do not practice social distancing, which can lead to a concern about what is “fair.” 

Many kids are also concerned about loved ones, and whether they themselves will get sick with COVID-19. Seeing others wearing gloves or masks can heighten that worry. They want to know that they are safe and that their families are well. This is extra tricky right now as there is so much that we are learning every day about COVID-19; emphasizing, modeling, and practicing the things we all can do to protect our health is key.

While many kids are not able to verbalize it, most will be concerned with a lack of “normal” and changes in routine that the current public health crisis has caused. This can mean things that are relatively minor (e.g., not getting to do show-and-tell) to things that are very detrimental, such as missing meals or not having adequate supervision during the day. As well, seeing or hearing about empty shelves at stores, or seeing their parents stock up on things that they do not usually have a lot of can be unsettling.

Acknowledging these differences and talking about why these differences are important right now can help alleviate that some.

"We're all in the same boat."

Do you have any stories to share of issues you’ve heard families and children dealing with during this COVID-19 stay at home time?

Just as you hear adults socializing through social media or other technology platforms such as Zoom, Facetime, or Facebook Messenger, kids of all ages can be doing the same. Older kids with their own devices are likely doing this already as it is part of their norm; younger kids will need help. I know of one boy who loves playing Guess Who with his buddy; they set up a virtual “play date” and had a blast playing Guess Who together. Scavenger hunts, sidewalk chalk messages, indoor dance parties, building forts—you name it—can be done. The key is pausing to think; what are the things that make me feel content, happy and safe, and how can I do those things within the parameters of social distancing or "Stay at Home" order?

What are some emotional challenges regarding Distance Learning?

I think that a lot of kids are missing their friends and teachers, but also the structure that a school day provides. This situation can increase feelings of worry or sadness. Then, for many of our youth (as well as the teachers and parents!), there is the complication of having to learn a new way to learn. Fortunately, all students are in a similar boat, and the adults have a wonderful opportunity to model for the kids how we deal with frustration or annoyance or confusion in a healthy way, because the adults will be experiencing this too!

Erin Tentis-Berglund, Phd, LP in the skyway of Gillette Children's.

Parents should show "calm confidence" not "fearful reactivity"

Parents and caretakers are experiencing stress and a change in routine. How much about their own personal concerns should they share with their children?

That is a tricky thing to answer, because it’s a fine line. In essence, parents and other adults should show a “calm confidence” rather than “fearful reactivity.” When children see the important adults in their lives overly stressed or not coping well, the children are likely to respond similarly. When children see their parents respond calmly and concertedly, the children will experience the current crisis more calmly as well.

A number of emotions are appropriate at this time. It is important for kids to hear their parents acknowledge the feelings they are experiencing and, again, see how their parents cope with such feelings and stress, Talking about it out loud in front of the kids is also useful at times because it simply labels what it is the kids are seeing in their parents. This also normalizes the feelings and gives the kids permission to have these feelings as well; if the most important people in the child’s life acknowledges frustration, or confusion, or sadness, then that experience the child is having is now normal in the child’s eyes.

That said, adult topics or worries (e.g., finances, job security, insurance) or very intense emotions should not be shared in detail. It is okay to say, “I am worried about some adult things that I get to be in charge of; you get to be a kid and in charge of kid things!” or something similar as needed. 

When should parents consider getting professional help for their child’s emotional struggles?

That, too, is a great question. If parents are noticing that their child is not themselves, or that they do not feel like their attempts to help have been effective, seeking assistance is important. This is a very stressful time right now, and kids can show their distress through a variety of emotional and behavioral means. And, parents are feeling the stress too which impacts their capacity to help. So, I would argue that if a parent is unsure of how to talk with their child about current events, or if their child seems to be displaying changes in emotional or behavioral functioning (more emotionally reactive OR more emotionally withdrawn) that they should reach out for help. Our psychology team can also help parents take on a "calm confidence” approach that might even encourage a conversation with the child: “It seems like you’ve been pretty worried lately. There are people who help with that – let’s get some help together.”  

Many parents may feel like this reflects poorly on them, or that this indicates a shortcoming of sorts. That is simply untrue. Even in the best of times, we all need help with a variety of things, whether it be something as simple as a stranger holding a door open or something more specialized like receiving dental work due to a cavity. And, I think we can all agree that these are not the best of times per se; seek and accept help when you need it.

Create a "new normal"

How can professionals, such as yourself, help children and families in this situation?

There are a variety of ways we can help children and their families, as well as Gillette’s adult patients. Our team provides psychotherapy that addresses a number of stressors or challenges that may be heightened during this time. Talking about the emotional impact of the uncertain times, establishing a good routine, and identifying appropriate self-care activities are common starters. We can also teach strategies to use to reduce sadness, anxiety, fear, or frustration. For patients who are struggling to do the things they need to do for their physical health (e.g., home stretching programs; maintaining a sleep schedule), we can help with adherence to medical recommendations and needs.

How can parents reach out to you and Gillette?

We would provide the help outlined above through virtual care appointments. For patients or families interested, they can ask their Gillette provider to enter a psychotherapy referral and then we will work to meet that need.

That said – there are a few things that we are not equipped to address including court-ordered intervention, custody evaluations, eating disorders, or other specialized therapeutic intervention strategies. 

To make an appointment with a member of our psychology team please call: 651-290-8707.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

One of the best things that parents can do is to re-create structure or their “new” normal. Establish home rules during this unpredictable time. Use similar bed and wake times as well as mealtimes as anchors throughout the day.  Have a loose plan for what kids should be doing during the day, which allows time for physical activity, creativity, quiet/downtime, free play, and school-type activities, among others. Physical structure is also important, and parents are urged to create a “work place” for kids to do their distance learning. As well, parents would do well to model this as well; they, too, should have anchors to their day, practice good sleep maintenance, follow a routine. If adults want children to do something, modeling or practicing that expectation themselves is key.


Additional Resources

PBS: How to talk to your child about Coronavirus

COVID book for kids

Fred Rogers Center

World Health Organization (WHO)


Minnesota Department of Education Special Education:

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An emjoi featuring a parent and child