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How to Help Children Cope with the Coronavirus Emergency

On Friday, UK schools will join others around the world in closing due to the coronavirus crisis. How will family life need to change? Child therapist and Clinical Professor of Psychology Kenneth Barish draws on his conversations with families who are already living through this, to suggest four key ways in which parents can be supported to help children through this time.

 

For all of us, the coronavirus emergency is a time of anxiety – for the health of our families and for our livelihood. For children, it is also a time of disappointments.  So many of the activities they look forward to – parties, performances, celebrations, get-togethers with family and friends – have been cancelled.

It may also be a time of boredom. The daily structure and routines of their lives have been upended. Although some children will, at first, welcome time off from school, they may soon become bored, restless, and demanding at home. (And there will be an understandable temptation, for both children and parents, to rely on our nemesis – electronic entertainment – as a solution to this problem.)

Many of my colleagues have offered sound advice for parents to help children cope with this crisis. Parents have been wisely advised to listen to their children’s fears, to reassure them that we will keep them safe, and to find time in their daily lives for creativity, play, and reaching out to others. Based on my conversations with families over the past week, I would like to offer these suggestions:

(1) Set aside time, every day, to listen and talk with children about their concerns.  Patient listening is often difficult, even in the best of times. We need to walk a fine line, acknowledging children’s anxiety and disappointment, but also helping them put their disappointments in perspective and encouraging them to find alternative, creative solutions. Especially with older children and adolescents, we should talk with them about how this crisis is affecting their lives and the lives of others.

(2) Engage children in a process of proactive problem solving. Begin each day with a brief family meeting. Brainstorm with children about how to create some structure in their lives and how we can all help each other. Ask for their ideas. There should be time, every day, for some work and some fun.

Here is one suggestion for creating structure that has been helpful to many families: Establish ‘library hours’ during the day. Although schools are now closed, most children will have some schoolwork to do. During library hours, all screens are turned off for the entire family (as if your home were a library); your dining table becomes a library table, where everyone does their work. Then, when work is done, there is time for play.

(3) Use this crisis as an opportunity to spend more time together. Eat breakfast together – as a family or, perhaps, as a special date between one parent and each child individually – before everyone goes to ‘work’. Spend some extra time talking with children about their interests – their collections of cards or dolls; listen to the songs and watch the videos they like; plan and cook meals together; and play games. If we spend just a little more time, every day, sharing children’s interests and listening to their ideas, they will be more resourceful and resilient – and more cooperative when there are important tasks that need to get done. Make sure to express appreciation for their cooperation in helping the family cope with this stressful time.

(4) Engage children in finding ways to help others in their family and community. They will not be able to visit older relatives, but they can send them e-cards, videos, or a small gift. During this crisis (and in normal times) helping others is one of the best things that children can do – for others and for themselves.

Kenneth Barish, Ph.D. is the author of Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child’s Emotions and Solving Family Problems (Oxford University Press, 2012).

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Kenneth Barish

Kenneth Barish, Ph.D. is Clinical Professor of Psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College. He is the author of How to Be a Better Child Therapist: An Integrative Model for Therapeutic Change (W.W. Norton, 2018) and Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child’s Emotions and Solving Family Problems (Oxford University Press, 2012).

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