Poppy, age 3, spins on the floor. I ask her — again — if she wants to walk around the block with her dad and me.
“No, I don’t want to,” she replies.
She needs a walk. We’re going to end up with a butt-shaped hole in our concrete floor. I ask her why.
“Because I don’t wanna catch the bad cold that’s going around.”
The consequences of disruption and loss
Poppy isn’t the only child in Arizona getting a little freaked out by the big virus. While not every kid shows pandemic-related stress in the same way — or even at all — it’s certainly affecting a significant portion of kids.
After five weeks of being isolated at home, Angie Kolaghsi of Tucson took her daughter to Target to pick out a toy. “The toy aisle was eerily quiet. There were no children, and my daughter noticed, stating it was from the coronavirus,” Kolaghsi says. When they walked down the Barbie aisle, her daughter was “afraid to touch the toys, because she didn’t want to ‘catch coronavirus.’”
Scout Calvert worries her 7-year-old daughter’s mental health has been impacted by the pandemic. “When schools closed, it didn’t take very long for her to put two and two together and realize she was not going to have a class birthday party. I think she feels really isolated,” Calvert explains. “We had to put ‘get dressed’ on her daily schedule, because she otherwise wouldn’t bother,” says the Cottonwood mom.
Courtney Novak of Tucson says her 5-year-old son has been upset that he couldn’t “go to all the places he wants to go. He likes to collect trash, and he’s annoyed he can’t do that anymore.”
And Sara Haddock of Vail talked about her 3-year-old daughter’s hopes for an eventual end to the pandemic: “She has asked me a couple of times if people are feeling better yet, because she wants to go do things or see certain friends.”
These disruptions and losses children face carry consequences. Quebec Logan, a Phoenix-based clinical psychologist who specializes in children and teens, says kids are definitely feeling the stress of COVID-19. “I’ve noticed a marked increase in fear and anxiety since the start of the pandemic — for kids and for adults, for that matter,” Logan says. “In extreme cases, this can manifest as significant psychological disorders, like agoraphobia” — a fear of public places or leaving home.
He notes that additional factors — trauma and neurodiversity — can worsen the impact. “For children with autism and those who really rely on those daily routines, this is an extremely big deal,” Logan says.
Teens experience the uncertainty more holistically. Chrysta Faye’s 17-year-old daughter Maya is struggling with the disruption of her plans for her future. Maya’s boyfriend has been sick — likely with COVID-19. Faye, who lives in Tucson, said her daughter is coping with the pandemic and separation from her boyfriend by “shutting down her heart and long-term expectations of ‘leaving the nest.’”
“The older you get, the more you understand about what’s going on, the more you can make those connections to other parts of your life, and the more you can project into the future,” Logan says. “Teenagers begin to extrapolate, ‘What does this mean for me and my future?’”
Maya Faye insists she’s OK. “I think I’m doing pretty well, considering,” she says. “I don’t know if I’m properly coping, I’m just doing what I do to get through. I like to get out and go in nature, [which] really resets everything.” She called this one of the benefits of living in Arizona during the pandemic.
Predictable routines and activities can help
So, how much can parents and caretakers do to help resolve — or even prevent — pandemic-related worries in young people?
The first thing, Logan says, is try to stay cool ourselves. “Children look to adults, particularly their parents, to process fear, anxiety, and a host of other emotions,” he says.
Think about what happens when children bump their heads. “They won’t cry right away; the first thing they’ll do is look to the adult for their response,” Logan explains. “If the adult freaks out, you’ve got the kid freaking out.”
Many parents are careful to protect young children from the gritty details of the virus. “My partner and I are privately worried a little [about getting sick], but we keep that to ourselves,” Calvert says.
But modeling serenity has its limits. Playgrounds are closed, children can’t touch anything they find on the ground, and they’re likely home way more than usual. They already understand something major is afoot. “The masks are a constant reminder of what they should fear,” says Kolaghsi.
Luckily, you don’t have to limit your response to keeping a calm demeanor. There’s a lot you can do to help kids feel safe and secure. Logan suggests keeping kids physically and mentally active, away from pandemic-related news, and connecting with others.
Offering a predictable routine may be the most important thing we can do for kids. Logan says routines can give young kids a sense of security and offer older children and teens a sense of purpose. Routine might help fight what Calvert called the “whiplash” of a rapidly fluctuating landscape of rules and safety guidelines.
Claudia Meza, a Tucson-based behavioral analyst, says to help children work through more extreme anxiety, we can break bigger goals into smaller steps. For instance, if the goal is a trip to the park, you can start a child venturing into the back yard and then around the block, gradually expanding their radius of travel.
Meza also says we can turn to children themselves for suggestions. Her 8-year-old son told her he had come up with a way to find more comfort in handwashing. “He thinks of handwashing water as holy water that’s protective.”
It can be empowering for kids when they get the chance to participate in responding to this kind of challenge, Meza says. She had her son customize his own “pandemic kit” — a suitcase containing hand sanitizer, a mask, and anything else that feels important in this time. Meanwhile, Calvert says her daughter “has been making masks with my partner, so our response has been very action-oriented.”
And sometimes, a game is just what kids need. “I’ve turned counting masks — specific colors, for instance — into a game,” Kolaghsi says. Activities like this allow kids to “feel in control, even if they are scared,” Meza adds.
The power of listening
This week, as I was walking around the block with Poppy in the stroller, we saw a construction worker in a mask. “He has the bad cold that’s going around,” she kid-whispered. It was loud.
I told her he probably didn’t have it, that he was likely wearing the mask just in case. But I decided to debrief her a little more. I asked what she thought would happen if we caught it.
“I’m worried that we won’t be able to see Grandma and Grandpa anymore.”
Her statement wasn’t what I expected. While I’m worried about typical grown-up themes — our family’s health, our financial future, our nation’s future — Poppy was worried about the major theme in her life: Would we miss out on seeing Grandma and Grandpa for the long duration of a really “bad,” and only vaguely explained, cold?
Once I understood that Poppy wasn’t afraid of death or hospitalization, I knew how to respond without bringing my own fears to the table. I could continue to give her relevant information about what impact COVID-19 might have on our family and reassure her as much as possible. In this uncertain new world, one thing is known: parents and their children have to get through this together.
“I think it’s difficult for parents to address the pandemic, because there’s not a for-sure light at the end of the tunnel,” says Maya Faye. “It’s nice to have each other.
“Georgie and the Giant Germ” is a guidebook for parents who are still struggling to find the right words to comfort children as we all navigate the next stage of the coronavirus pandemic. The free, downloadable coloring book represents a collaboration among experts in the fields of social work and child psychology, including Arizona State University’s Paige Safyer, PhD, LLMSW. It’s available in English, Spanish, Italian, German, Hebrew and Arabic.
“First Aid for Feelings: A Workbook to Help Kids Cope During the Coronavirus Pandemic,” by broadcast journalist and parenting and child development expert Denise Daniels, offers ways for kids to explore their emotions, plan their day and look forward to life post-pandemic. It’s available as a free digital download in English, Spanish and French.