10 tips to help children through the COVID-19 crisis

Father hugging child.
January 16, 2020 • UPDATED April 14, 2020

As the world works to contain the spread of COVID‑19, parents and caregivers are having to juggle the needs of children who are home from school while often working to financially support their families. This pandemic is unprecedented in its scale and reach and it is dominating the news and the dinner table as families adapt to new information and safety measures. The changes we’re experiencing can be especially stressful for the young people in our lives.

Mercy Corps has decades of experience responding to emergencies around the world—and we’ve seen how kids can be among the most vulnerable in times of crisis. We’ve seen how crucial it is for parents and caregivers to be equipped to help children understand and communicate what they are going through.

Carol Dell’Oliver, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who has consulted on our global programs for children, youth and caregivers worldwide, helping them cope with and heal from the effects of natural disasters and political conflict.

Dr. Dell’Oliver offers these tips for how parents and caregivers can help children cope with frightening or traumatic events. Her advice can help families who are navigating this new global crisis together.

1. Be aware of common reactions to crisis

Each child is unique in how he or she responds to frightening events. Some children may become more quiet or withdrawn, while others may become irritable or act out to get more attention. Many kids will begin acting younger by sucking their thumb or clinging to parents. It’s important to remember that these are all normal reactions to times of uncertainty and to respond in a calm and caring way.

2. Be prepared to deal with fears and worries

Common childhood fears may intensify after a crisis. Kids are often more afraid of the dark and being alone. Sleep problems and physical symptoms such as stomachaches and headaches become more frequent, especially for younger children who cannot verbalize their feelings. You can help children soothe themselves by reading stories, playing gentle music, giving back rubs and serving comfort foods. They need to be reassured with both words and hugs.

A young girl plays on a swing in guatemala
Sofia plays in a park Mercy Corps installed in their community. The spaces offer families important neutral territory in places otherwise driven by territory-based gang violence, and offer them the opportunity to experience and feel rooted in their communities in a more positive way.

3. Create a sense of safety

Because children will feel vulnerable and overwhelmed, it’s important to initially focus on being protective and offering them physical comforts — blankets, favorite foods, calming activities — to restore their sense of security. Spending extra time together as a family is a refuge to kids in times of uncertainty.

4. Limit exposure to news

Don’t rely on the news to give your child the information they’re looking for. Sounds and images from news reports are often too vivid for children and make them internalize the trauma even more. It’s important to clarify their confusion and give honest answers, but stick to the basic facts and follow up with the reassurance that their safety is the most important thing to you.

5. Take time to listen

Make sure children have the opportunity to express their feelings and concerns. Asking open-ended questions (“What news did you hear? How do you feel? Do you have any questions?”) allows them to identify their needs. Actively listen without correcting or minimizing their emotions and follow up with clear statements of reassurance.

6. Encourage writing and drawing about the experience

Some kids may not feel like talking, so provide other ways for them to express themselves. Writing and drawing pictures can help kids deal with what’s troubling them. Use these as an opportunity to remind them that it's okay to feel the way they do; you can help by continuing to listen and accepting where they are emotionally throughout the healing process.

Young jordanian woman painting.
Batool paints a scene during an art class at a Mercy Corps safespace in Zaatrai, Jordan. Art provides children of all ages to express themselves and cope with stress in ways that they often can't describe verbally.
Painted image.

7. Remember to play

Play is every child’s natural form of communicating and processing events. Kids can tell stories about what they’ve heard and how they feel, even if they don’t fully comprehend it. It’s also a healthy distraction from difficult circumstances and provides an outlet to relieve pent-up energy and stress.

8. Model healthy coping skills

Your kids will look to you not only for reassurance, but how to deal with their own complicated emotions. Allow yourself enough private time to process what you’re going through so you have the resources to be there for them. But don’t feel like you need to hide signs of distress all the time — should your children see you get upset, you can be an example by telling them that you may be feeling sad right now, but you have ways to help yourself feel better soon.

9. Monitor behavior over time

While it is normal for children’s behavior to change in response to crisis, symptoms of stress can become problematic if they linger. Simply keep an eye on changes in their sleeping, eating, playing, studying and socializing; if there are no improvements over time, reach out to a professional for help.

10. Inspire a positive response

Kids need to rediscover a sense of personal empowerment and resilience after an event very much out of their control. Help them direct their feelings constructively and consider what they can do to help others. One way kids can help is through supporting local and global organizations providing relief during this crisis. By starting a fundraiser like 7-year-old Ava’s Birthday Wish, they can share their voice and join a powerful force for good. Having them start a fundraiser, write a card, or volunteer along with family not only gives them something positive to focus on, but sets the tone for giving back through anything life brings.

We hope these tips are helpful as you and your children navigate this stressful time and adapt to our new normal during the COVID‑19 crisis.

Support our COVID-19 Resilience Fund today.