Helping Children Cope with COVID-19

Adult helping a child put on a facial mask
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Looking for resources for families, including activities for kids at home, educational curriculum, and resources on talking to kids about COVID-19? View our full resource database.


How to talk with children about COVID-19

Children may differ in how much they’ve heard about COVID-19 and how they think it may affect themselves or their family. They will also notice how much the situation is affecting their parents, even if they don’t worry about COVID-19 specifically. They may be feeling worried or distressed, which might manifest in them acting younger than their age or developing new behavioral issues. You may notice more clinginess, whining, nightmares, nail biting, or aggression, for example.

Parents can help by acknowledging their children’s emotions and providing comforting, supportive, and age-appropriate information. Support for parents’ own emotional needs is also key to helping children during these difficult times. Just like flight attendants tell parents to put on their own oxygen masks before putting on their child’s when there is an emergency, it is important for parents to care for themselves so they can be there for their children. Have conversations about uncertainty and fears privately between adults.

Here are some helpful articles on how to talk with children about COVID-19 and developmentally appropriate ideas for how to keep them feeling good during these unpredictable times:

Information in Arabic

Information in Mam

Information in Spanish


Helping children cope

It is usually hard for children to be without a predictable routine. A general daily structure with school- and play-based activities so your child knows what to expect can be helpful. Flexibility is also important – parents may not be able to maintain this schedule every day and that’s okay. You are just trying to do the best they can right now! In general, we encourage parents to give themselves grace during a difficult time.

One of the best ways to reduce children’s fear is to provide as much routine as possible, to minimize their exposure to media news, and to carve out time to connect and bond with them. This, in addition to managing your own stress and caring for yourself, will provide a supportive environment that will help bring them calm. It’s so easy to keep our phones out and our TV on, waiting for the newest news. But putting our phones away enables you to slow down, connect through play or conversation, and give children the extra attention they crave right now.

Essential tips from our faculty

  1. Routine, routine, routine. Creating a new routine at home can be reassuring and help children know what to expect in the midst of a lot of uncertainty.
  2. Validate feelings. Take time to talk to children about their feelings, and acknowledge the feelings that you are hearing.
  3. Sometimes “I don’t know” is okay. Be honest and open with children, rather than avoiding their questions. And sometimes that may mean saying “I don’t know.”
  4. Limit exposure to media. Exposure to TV or social media updates on a crisis may increase stress and anxiety, especially if the information is not meant for children.
  5. Don’t forget about exercise. Regular exercise can help lower stress and anxiety. Consider outdoor exercise or at home workouts.
  6. Put on your own oxygen mask first. Be sure to take care of yourself so that you can continue taking care of others. Children are watching how caregivers respond, so modeling self-care, especially in tough times, is important. Emotions are contagious.
     

Meals and other resources

  • Contact your local school district to find out information about what resources for meeting essential needs are available near you. For example, in San Francisco, there are emergency resources (including child care) for children, youth, and families during SFUSD's school closures.
  • Also in San Francisco, families can get free breakfast, lunch, and dinner during school closures.
     

Resources to help young children manage fear

  • “Once I Was Very Very Scared” is Chandra Ghosh Ippen's book for parents to support children with feelings of fear. (You can also access other languages from this page.)
    • There is also an accompanying free webinar for children called "When We Are Scared" available in English and Spanish.
       

Resources for adolescents of color

Full resource sheets from other organizations

Coping with grief

Food insecurity 

  • Save the Children
  • Free breakfasts and lunches in San Francisco and Oakland
  • Expensify is going to temporarily redirect all of its charitable funds to expensify.org/hunger. With its ability to reimburse people directly in real-time, Expensify.org is uniquely positioned to help families in need immediately. Previously, this fund was focused on paying off kids' "lunch debts," but with schools closed around the nation, that isn't the top priority right now. Instead, everything is devoted to a new program: matching SNAP grocery purchases up to $50 per family. Step-by-step instructions are available on the Expensify website.

     

Staying well during pregnancy

This expertise is provided by Jennifer Felder, PhD.

Black and white image of a pregnant women reclining

Even in the best circumstances, pregnancy can be a time of great uncertainty and heightened stress. We want to help support you during these difficult times. Here are some tips:

Check in

Take a mindful moment to check in with yourself. Ask yourself: What emotions am I experiencing? What thoughts are going through my mind? What body sensations are there? How intense is my distress right now? Is my distress making it hard to take care of my basic needs?

For lower levels of distress, proactively participate in the stress-reducing tips below in order to prevent full-blown depression or anxiety. For more severe distress, now might be a good time to seek help.

Take a break

We have access to a relentless onslaught of frightening information. If you find yourself getting caught in a loop of checking the news, Twitter, Facebook, etc., consider the following questions: How does this affect my mood and anxiety? Does it galvanize me to act in helpful ways, or leave me feeling distressed and helpless?

Experiment with taking a break from social media and the news, and see how this affects your mood and behavior. If you’re afraid of missing something important, delegate a friend or family member to notify you of any urgent updates.

Try meditation or a mind-body activity

Research shows that an 8-week mindfulness-based cognitive therapy program is effective for preventing depression during pregnancy and the postpartum period. Although it’s unlikely that you’re able to embark upon an intensive 8-week program now, making time for even a brief daily mindfulness practice may help. The Headspace app is now free for health care providers and the Calm app has a page with free meditations. A loving-kindness meditation may feel particularly needed during these times. Prenatal yoga videos are available for free online.

Get physical activity

Physical activity can be an effective antidepressant. At the same time, pregnancy can leave you feeling sluggish and a full exercise class may feel impossible (especially if you have other young children at home). See if you can carve out even a brief amount of time for exercise (e.g., 10-minute walks outside). Some exercise apps are now making their programs freely available. For example, Peloton is now free for 30 days, has brief work-outs requiring little to no equipment, and has prenatal and postnatal yoga classes. (More links available in the "Maintaining Physical Activity" section.)

Socialize

Social support is particularly important during pregnancy, so do what you can to connect with your friends and family (e.g., Facetime, Zoom, Netflix Party app).

Prioritize sleep

High-quality sleep can be elusive when you are pregnant, and even more so during times of high stress. Sleep disturbances can trigger and worsen depression, stress, and anxiety. But, take heart – research shows that cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) improves insomnia, depression, and anxiety in pregnant women. Insomnia is defined as difficulty falling or staying asleep, or waking earlier than intended three days per week or more and experiencing significant distress or impairment. If you are experiencing symptoms of insomnia, check out these resources:

  • Jennifer Felder, PhD, at the UCSF Neuro/Psych Sleep Clinic specializes in treating insomnia during pregnancy and is offering telehealth visits. Call (415) 353-2273 for more information.
  • Rachel Manber, PhD, at the Stanford Sleep Health and Insomnia Program also specializes in treating insomnia during pregnancy. Call (650) 498-9111, option 2, for more information.
  • Good self-help books include "Say Good Night to Insomnia" by Gregg Jacobs and Herbert Benson, and "Quiet Your Mind and Get to Sleep" by Colleen E. Carney and Rachel Manber.
  • Additional resources are available in the "Maintaining Good Sleep" section.
     

If you are experiencing disturbed sleep that doesn’t meet the threshold for insomnia, double-down on implementing good sleep hygiene. If worries are keeping you up at night, try a constructive worry practice.

Keep a schedule

Maintaining a regular schedule (including consistent bedtimes and wake times) that includes activities that feel nourishing, pleasant, or that bring even a small sense of accomplishment can be an antidepressant.

Seek help

If you are experiencing a high level of distress or you are finding it hard to take care of your basic needs, please know that you are not alone and help is available.

Consult reputable sources

It probably goes without saying, but contact your prenatal care provider with any questions or concerns you have about COVID-19. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists created an overview that is helpful and easy to understand. If you want to do a deep dive on the emerging literature, a UCLA maternal-fetal-medicine doctor Christina Han, MD, has created a Dropbox folder with the latest updates on the effect of COVID-19 during pregnancy.

Use kindness and compassion

Above all, treat yourself with kindness and gentleness during this time. It is OK to feel grief that this is not what you hoped or expected for your pregnancy. It might help to change your expectations for yourself – your house might be messier, your kids might have more screen time, and you will be less productive (if working from home). Identify the must-dos and prioritize those (e.g., getting adequate sleep, good nutrition, and some physical exercise).

We wish you and your baby health and peace during these trying times.