The Stress of COVID 19 – What It Looks Like in Children and What You Can Do To Support Them

As children and adolescents everywhere cope with the world as they know it being turned on its head, many of them are struggling.   They are experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety and stress.

What Children and Adolescents are Feeling

One could venture to say that every child and adolescent is experiencing some measure of

  • stress,
  • anxiety,
  • a sense of isolation,
  • loneliness,
  • boredom,
  • and fear

due to the COVID 19 emergency.

Students at the highest risk are the 20% of children and adolescents who were already struggling with anxiety before this emergency.   These students are typically having the greatest struggle because the COVID 19 emergency has layered additional stressful circumstances onto the ones that they were already experiencing.   A similar layering of stress is also true for those children who are experiencing food or housing insecurity.

How Children and Adolescents May be Manifesting their Emotions 

Younger children may not be articulating their feelings.  Instead, their intense emotions may be manifested in their actions.

  • They may appear to be more irritable.
  • They may have meltdowns and tantrums.   .
  • They may be quick to anger, quick to burst into tears.
  • They may experience high levels of frustration.
  • They may need frequent reassurance.
  • They may be reluctant to separate from their parents.
  • They may have physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches.
  • They may have trouble sleeping.

Older children may be able to articulate their feelings.   However,  the stress and anxiety may look like other things.   Children this age may exhibit some of the same behaviors that younger children exhibit.   In addition, they may express their feelings primarily through their actions.

  • They may be more irritable.
  • They  may appear to be sad.
  • They may be sleeping a lot.
  • They may be hungry all the time.
  • They may be eating more than normal.
  • They may be staying up very late and sleeping for most of the day.
  • They  may be exhibiting poor hygiene.
  • They may have a poor diet.
  • They may not be taking care of themselves.

Teenagers in high school may be more inclined to articulate some of their sense of loss.    Seniors in high school may talk about a huge sense of loss as they are forced to miss milestones for which they have been planning for so many years:   graduation, prom, college visits, a last season of high school sports or other extracurricular experience, .   They may be expressing grief at the loss of all the smaller celebrations of their senior year as well.   Juniors may be struggling with heightened levels of anxiety as they prepare for the final push to gain admittance to the college of their choice.    They find themselves facing the potential loss of the ACT and SAT testing, the potential loss of those extra GPA bumps in their grades, the potential loss of learning that may make the difference on their standardized testing or AP exams.   They face ever shifting ground as colleges decide how they will handle admission expectations given this emergency..   As they navigate this ocean of uncertainty, they may not have the same level of support from counseling staff who would ordinarily guide them through the admission process.   Teenagers may also express their emotions more readily through their actions.

  • They may exhibit depressive behaviors.
  • They may have poor sleep habits.
  • They may eat poorly.
  • Their nights and day may be turned around.
  • They may not take care of themselves.

What Parents and Teachers Can Do to Mitigate Some of the Stress 

There are an array of strategies that adults can use to help children and adolescents cope with the stress that they may be feeling.

  • Provide structure to their day.   Structure sets boundaries.   Boundaries can give a sense of safety and security.   In structuring the day, it may be best to alternate chores or school with fun activities, free time, and exercise.   It is important to include time for children and teens to socialize with their friends virtually as well.
  • Model self-care.   Talk about self-care.   Do self-care:  exercise, eat right, get plenty of sleep, unplug from the news and social media, spend time outside if that is a safe option.
  • Monitor technology use.
  • Give honest answers that are developmentally appropriate.  (When a child asks what happens in the fall, tell them honestly that we don’t know yet.)
  • Keep open lines of communication.
  • Meet children and adolescents where they are.   Acknowledge their feelings.  “I’m sorry you will not get to go through the graduation ceremony in May.   I’m sad about that as well.”  Align your feelings with them and don’t downplay how they are feeling.
  • Listen without judging or correcting their feelings.
  • Create a sense of unity – we are all in this together.   “We don’t have control of this, but what can we do to celebrate this milestone?”   It might be a drive by birthday parade, a cul de sac barbecue where everyone barbecues from their individual driveways, still taking senior pictures or pictures in cap and gown.    Be creative with the things over which you do have control.
  • Re-frame things.   “We can’t go to the movies, but we can have a movie night at home. ”  ”  We can’t go to a restaurant, but we can play Top Chef at home.”
  • Teach radical acceptance.   This is it.   What we do with it is what will make a difference.   How do I keep my dreams alive?   How do I do things that make me happy?
  • Teach them the power of taking the focus off one-self, to see what they can do for someone else.   Teach them to find ways to bring joy to others.   They might paint rocks and leave them for others to find.   They might do sidewalk art that others can see when they go by on a walk.   They might play music or put on a concert from the sidewalk for a shut-in.

By Cheryl Leung (Golden Apple Fellow)  as told by Margaret Matteucci, (Public School Counselor and Member of the Albuquerque Public Schools Crisis Team)

Bibliography: 

“Adolescent Stress In the Time of Covid 19:  Coping with Loss.”   March 22, 2020.  Psychology Today.  . Daniel Keating

“Covid 19 and the Mental Health of Your Children”. March 13, 2020.  The Youth Mental Healtth Project”

“Resiliency Guide for Parents and Teachers”. http://www.apa.org (American Psychological Association)

“Anxiety in Teens – How to Help a Teenager Deal With Anxiety”.  Hey SIGMUND  by Karen Young.

Child Mind Institute

Interview with Margaret Matteucci, member of Albuqueque Public Schools Crisis Team.

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