Understanding Your Child’s Reaction to Crisis, by Age Group
Everyone is stressed right now – kids and adults alike. Children have similar reactions to adults but depending on the age of the child, their reaction to a crisis or emergency may look very different. Your child may experience changes in appetite (older kids may be binge eating; younger kids can have a decreased appetite), increased temper tantrums and more whining (at all ages!), and physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches. All of these mean that your child is dealing with higher levels of stress.
As parents, we may be frustrated by these changes, but it’s important to recognize that your child’s challenging behavior is due to the current crisis, and try to have more patience and sympathy.
Provide reassurance both verbally (we are safe, we are home) and physically (give hugs, wrestle, tuck kids in at night – even your teenager may actually like it right now!).
Give everyone in the house a responsibility, which gives a sense of control and consistency. These can be simple activities that aren’t necessarily chores. For example, your kid can be in charge of picking an exercise activity for the day, or what everyone has for dinner on Fridays. Or you can ask an older child to help grocery shop online or find a recipe to make.
These tips are helpful for kids no matter how old they are. But each age comes with unique challenges as well as opportunities to support the individual child.
Reactions and Coping Mechanisms for Preschool Children
(Ages 5 and Under)
Our youngest children may not fully grasp the realities of the Coronavirus crisis, but there is no doubt that they are experiencing a change in routine. Parents or siblings may be home from work or school, playgrounds are off-limits and other daily routine activities such as grocery shopping may look very different.
Preschool children may regress in behavior or milestones; they may be more clingy or whiny; they may be waking more at night or having night terrors. This is not misbehaving. These are normal stress reactions in young children.
At this age, kids may be less likely to express themselves verbally. You can encourage child-led play as a way to process emotions. Your kids may re-enact or make up stories as a way to process what they’re seeing and hearing. Don’t discourage this type of play if it feels upsetting. Instead, join your child and provide reassurance.
While it’s important to retain a sense of routine and normalcy, it’s also ok to be more flexible. For example, if your child is having trouble sleeping, lie down with him or her longer at night, or allow them to climb into your bed. Try to connect it back to the normal routine by saying, “You can lie down here until you fall asleep, and then I’ll take you back to your cozy and safe bedroom.”
When everything seems extra scary and kids are hearing warnings about touching, sickness and germs, focus on the action, not the danger. This “Little Superheros” flipbook can help them understand why some things need to be different but also empower them to feel more in control of the situation.
Lastly, remember that media is not age-appropriate for preschool children, especially during a pandemic. Your goal is to ensure that your child feels safe and loved.
Reactions and Coping Mechanisms for School-Aged Children
At this age, kids will be feeling a drastic change in their daily lives, especially in terms of schooling and connecting with friends. There will be more complaining and resistance in general. School-aged children may lose interest or attention in activities, or even become withdrawn from family. Attitudes and behaviors may become more attention-seeking, when in reality they are seeking connection.
“Every time you think of calling a kid 'attention-seeking' this year, consider changing it to 'connection-seeking' and see how your perspective changes.”
Dr. Jody Carrington
Encourage kids to stay in touch with friends through phone calls or video chats.
Make sure your kids are getting regular exercise and moving their bodies. There are fun and silly dance classes (laughing helps too!), or just go on walks or bike rides near your house.
Since these kids are probably doing school work on a computer for the first time, make sure that expectations are realistic. They may have trouble concentrating, a common reaction to an emergency situation.
And remember, you should not try to recreate a normal school environment at home. Nothing about this is normal, and it’s ok to come up with a plan that works for your family. A simple family to-do list may work better than a color-coded schedule. Doing schoolwork in four 30-minute blocks may work better for some families, while dedicating a few hours after lunch may work for others. Involve your kids in making these decisions and make sure you’re scheduling time for breaks and family connections (board games, cooking activities). And create a place in your house – a desk, a chair, a cushion on the floor – so that everyone has their own space to work or escape to.
Kids in this age group may also be more exposed to discussions around the pandemic, but still need a variety of tools to help process (including child-led play!). Limit media exposure and make sure you are able to explain what the community is doing to keep everyone safe.
Reactions and Coping Mechanisms for Adolescent Children
During crisis situations, teens are always more susceptible to stress and anxiety. They have more awareness of danger and are mindful of injustice, to themselves and others. Teens already have a tendency for low impulse control, and emergencies can exasperate that. This can manifest in physical ways including binge eating, extreme sleep patterns (getting no sleep at all, or sleeping all day), excessive internet or video game use, and further isolation from peers or loved ones.
Many teenagers feel apathy, especially with loss of control of their lives. They may be more resistant to rules (both parent rules and social distancing rules).
We are not as productive at this time under stress. Our kids also are NOT going to be as productive. That’s ok. Encourage breaks and stress release.
Do not force a conversation, but keep the line of communication open. Position yourself as a resource of reliable information and find ways for your teen to participate in family routines. You can discuss and address stigmas, misinformation, and injustices that this specific crisis may bring forward.
Many teens may also benefit from “doing something” about the crisis. That may be helping younger siblings with their homework or others in the community, such as volunteering through Meals on Wheels’ Grocery to Go program, which has been adapted to encourage social distancing.
Just as younger kids may regress in behavior, adolescents may regress as well. They may climb in bed with you at night or cry more often. They may not be able to dress or bathe themselves properly. Offer help without judgement, such as “I see you’re having trouble doing this right now, I’m going to help you.”
And remember, for you or any kid, DO laugh, dance, hug, jump, connect with nature, drink lots of water.
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