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Creating a new normal for kids during the uncertainties of COVID-19

Written By: Wendi Hawthorne, UTHealth | Updated: March 17, 2020
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The list of schools canceling classes indefinitely is growing, and day-to-day life has been disrupted like never before – all because of increased social distancing measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. This lack of routine, coupled with the fear of an unknown illness, can be overwhelming for children. A pediatric psychologist with the Children’s Learning Institute at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) explains what parents can do to maintain a sense of normalcy for their children during this time.

Make schedules

Routines and schedules provide children with a sense of stability, security, and structure that can help keep boredom and frustration to a minimum, said Cathy Guttentag, PhD, an associate professor of pediatrics at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth and clinical child psychologist with UT Physicians.

“An important way to maintain some sense of routine is to keep sleep schedules relatively consistent,” Guttentag said. “While children may appreciate sleeping later than they are able to on school days, it benefits them to get up at a reasonable time and stick to their usual schedule of naps and bedtime.”

Guttentag recommends creating a daily schedule that works for you and your family. It should include scheduled meals, some quiet time activities such as reading, time to complete any schoolwork provided by your child’s teachers, time for creative play such as arts and crafts, and time for outdoor or active play. While under normal circumstances, limiting children’s sedentary screen time is recommended, relaxing limits in this area is probably inevitable and realistic during this time. Parents can steer children toward some of the fun learning websites listed at the end of this article.

“Keeping children active and able to burn off their energy may be particularly challenging, but even with social distancing, unless you or your child is actually ill, you should still have some options, such as going for walks, creating an obstacle course around your house for children to follow, or playing music and dance videos for kids,” she said. In addition, if your own work-from-home requirements limit your ability to be a Pinterest-worthy parent at this time, give yourself a break and just do what you need to do to keep your household functioning.

Manage your anxiety in front of your children

Depending on how much knowledge they have of the situation at hand, an illness disrupting their daily lives can certainly cause fear or anxiety for children. Remember that children tend to take their cues from their parents about how scary a situation is. Guttentag recommends parents be mindful of what adult conversations children are hearing. She says parents need to manage their own level of anxiety in order to provide reassurance to their children.

“Children may show anxiety or fear in different ways depending on their age and their usual styles of coping with stress. Some children may show anxiety by asking a lot of questions and seeking reassurance, or just being clingier to their parents than usual,” Guttentag said. “Others might be more irritable than usual, or not want to talk about their fears about illness at all. Older children and teens might make jokes and use dark humor to try to cope, as do some adults.”

Limit COVID-19 information intake

Limiting your child’s exposure to news reports is another way to help minimize anxiety they may feel. However, it is important that parents truthfully answer any age-appropriate questions their child has.

Put yourself in their shoes

Parents should also realize that the sadness or anger their children may express could also be due to disappointment about the cancellation of future events and activities they had been anticipating. It is important for parents to explain to their children why events such as extracurricular activities, competitions, sporting events, spring vacations, birthday celebrations, and other major milestones are not happening or have been postponed.

Maintain regular health habits

Guttentag says parents should teach children what steps they can take to remain healthy. These include washing their hands well with soap and water, using a tissue to catch their coughs and sneezes, and avoiding getting too close to other people who are not immediate family. Parents can also reassure kids that adults are working hard to take care of sick people and to keep everyone else as safe and healthy as possible.

Keep children busy

Giving children tasks to keep them busy and active is also a good way to ease fear and anxiety.

“Household chores such as folding laundry, doing dishes, learning to help prepare meals, taking a pet for a walk, or organizing and tidying an area of the house or apartment can redirect children’s focus and help them feel productive, as well as helping them master new skills,” Guttentag said.

Don’t forget the relaxation

Most importantly, Guttentag reminds parents to continue the activities that typically help relax and soothe their children, such as reading or singing to them, cuddling, or playing familiar games.

“Let your children know that while we don’t know exactly how long this acute period will last, this is a temporary situation and will not last forever,” she said.

Guttentag recommends the following resources for parents to help broach the topic with their children and to help with online learning during school closures:

Talking to kids about COVID-19:
National Association of School Psychologists: Talking to Children About COVID-19
NPR: Just For Kids – A Comic Exploring The New Coronavirus
Child Mind Institute: Talking to Kids About the Coronavirus

Continuing learning while kids are home:
NESCA: Making the Most of COVID-19 School Closures
Scholastic: Learn at Home

Mystery Science: Free, easy science for remote learning
Prodigy: Math Learning Platform
CK-12: Online Learning Resources

As the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, UT Physicians has locations across the Greater Houston area to serve the community. To schedule an appointment, call 888-4UT-DOCS.