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Caring for Children and Teens During the COVID-19 Crisis

Coping with the many changes the coronavirus pandemic is causing in our lives is challenging and anxiety-provoking. While adults struggle to adapt, children are also experiencing major changes in their lives.

Children watch and listen to the grown-ups around them for information and for reassurance that all is well. Most of them now find school closed indefinitely, contact with friends and relatives curtailed, and their lives also filled with uncertainty. 

Sheltering-in-place with family members can lead to boredom, restlessness, arguments and frayed nerves. Despite the difficulties we face, there are ways that parents and caregivers can help make the shelter-in-place time healthier emotionally.

Schedule and Routine

People usually function best when they have a schedule of activities to follow — this is especially true for children. Staying at home means not having the structure of a regular school environment to establish when to eat, study, play, socialize and sleep.

Outlining a simple daily schedule, which can be placed on the refrigerator or bathroom mirror, can help in developing a sense of routine. Be sure to include time for hygiene, meals, schoolwork, chores, communication with family and play.

Include some free time or allow children to add a specific activity of their choosing.  Bedtime and wake-up time are also important.

To the best of everyone’s ability, try to stick to the schedule that is established.

Adequate Sleep

As tempting as it may be for kids to stay up late and sleep in when there is no school bus to catch, it is much healthier to stick with a normal bedtime. Regular sleep is crucial for emotional and physical health. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (reported in The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine), the recommended number of hours of sleep per 24-hour period is as follows:

  • Infants (4 months to 12 months) — 12 to 16 hours (including naps)
  • Children 1-2 years old — 11 to 14 hours (including naps)
  • Children 3-5 years old — 10 to 13 hours (including naps)
  • Children 6-12 years old — 9 to 12 hours
  • Teenagers 13-18 years old — 8 to 10 hours

Set a regular bedtime and plan for no electronics/video screen time at least 30 minutes beforehand. The light from these devices can interfere with falling asleep.

Establish a pre-bedtime routine, which may involve a snack, brushing teeth, putting on pajamas, prayers and/or meditation. Consider encouraging younger school-age children to read a story aloud to siblings or adult caregiver(s) before lights-out.

While a nightlight or white noise may be useful for some, avoid television or music after bedtime. Maintaining a regular bedtime for children also allows the adults at home to have some nightly quiet time for adult conversation and rest.

Contact and Communication

Being apart from friends and extended family during this time can be difficult for everyone — children are no exception. Be certain to arrange for regular contact with friends, grandparents and other relatives via either telephone or videoconferencing.

At home, check in regularly with children and teenagers regarding how they are coping. Consider having family dinner together and/or include brief family meetings into the family schedule.

Don’t avoid discussing the current crisis, but keep the content appropriate for all age groups present. Assure them that the adults they love are following the directives given by authorities to avoid becoming sick.

If they know someone who is sick, they may be comforted by knowing that everything is being done to help them recover and/or that they are being cared for by dedicated doctors and nurses to help them get well.

Children do not need to watch news coverage of the pandemic — keep televisions and computers on other channels or content when children are in range to see or hear. If teens are allowed to watch the news coverage, limit the amount of time spent in this endeavor and be prepared to discuss it with them apart from younger siblings.

Adult discussion of the pandemic is best reserved for times when children are not able to hear.

Continue to monitor all computer/cellphone use of children and teens and use parental controls where possible. Expect that teens will likely use electronic devices to stay in touch with their peers during this time.

These contacts can be very important for them, but be prepared to set reasonable limits.

Fun and Play

Be certain to include time in the schedule daily for activities that are fun. A quick online search of “kids arts and crafts to do at home” will reveal multiple creative activities for children.

When time allows, play along with your kids. Let them take the lead in choosing games/activities.

Consider having a weekly family game night. Create paper tokens that can be exchanged for five minutes of video game time or television time — hand these out for each completed chore (or completed homework assignment).

Make a home scavenger hunt — whoever finds the most objects gets first pick of games for family to play or gets to choose the supper menu. Where they can safely do so, and health allows, let them play outside.

Make sure everyone at home gets physical activity daily. Go for a walk with your kids —while maintaining social distancing from neighbors. Encourage teens to pursue hobbies of interest to them — writing, art, music, etc., and/or encourage them to keep a journal of their experience.

Older teens considering college may use some of this time to peruse college websites.

Throughout this crisis, be attentive to changes in your child’s mood or behavior as these could be a signal that your child is struggling. Willowbrooke at Tanner staff are always available to help when needed — many of our professionals can consult with you and your child through videoconferencing, avoiding the need for in-person contact.

To find assistance through Tanner, call 770-812-9551 (open 24 hours) or visit tanner.org/behavioral-health-care/resources.

Tanner Health System, Behavioral Health Care

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