Children, Adolescents, and COVID: How Adults Can Help Kids Cope Now and Through the Holidays

By Dr. Kristen W. Green, Board Certified Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychologist
Director, Brenau Center for Counseling & Psychological Services, Lynn J. Darby School of Psychology & Adolescent Counseling, Ivester College of Health Sciences
Owner & Director, Chattahoochee Child Psychology Services, LLC

Uncertainty has become the only certainty in our lives in 2020. Humans thrive on predictability and knowing what to expect. However, the level of uncertainty and unpredictability brought on by a global pandemic has undermined the coping abilities of even the most level-headed and well-adjusted adults. So, what about the children and adolescents?

Children and adolescents in 2020 have been faced with the cascading reality of the unexpected. With this has come a multitude of disappointments and frustration associated with cancelled recitals, performances and games; alternative learning solutions; distance from friends and family; missed or cancelled milestones, such as graduations, proms and homecoming; drive by birthdays; and so much more. Losing out on these things is a BIG DEAL for our young people. There are many children and adolescents who have missed out on events that they will never again have the chance to experience. The lack of familiar activities, cancelled or postponed plans, and shattered schedules has led many children and adolescents to experience stress, anxiety, confusion, and sadness.

Parents and teachers need to be sensitive to the level and intensity of repeated disappointment that their children are facing. While we may be doing our best to make the situation as good as it can be, we also need to realize the MAJOR impact that these losses are having on the young. It is important for parents and teachers to support children and adolescents through these changes and disappointments. Parents and teachers are an important resource in helping children and adolescents cope with the loss of familiarity and the comfort of routines and traditions.

In response to life changes in a COVID world, it is important that adults acknowledge and talk about how things are different. Everyone knows life is different and ignoring that fact will not help kids cope. Adults need to open up a space for discussion. Talk about how things are different for everyone and identify the changes. Try to identify things that were better before the changes happened and what things might be better since the changes happened. Hep children and adolescents to label their feelings and to share when they are not doing okay. If they need to vent, let them vent. Show an interest in how they are feeling. Validate their feelings. Share your own feelings. Help them to know that they are not alone; we are all in this together. Everyone is experiencing the impact of change and unpredictability, and everyone is affected by it. When your child asks you about the future, it is important to offer realistic reassurance about the future. And, remember, it is okay to tell your child that you, too, are unsure about when things will get back to normal. And, it is definitely important to acknowledge that normal is still many months away.

As we rapidly approach the 2020 holiday season in the time of COVID, our young people are faced, yet again, with more uncertainty, change and disappointment with regard to well-loved and highly anticipated holiday traditions and activities.

When it comes to the holidays, plan ahead and prepare children and adolescents for how things will be different this year. Make it clear to your child that the holidays are not cancelled, but they may look a little different this year. Acknowledge the sadness, disappointment and anger they feel about lost or postponed traditions. Remember, it is a BIG DEAL to them, even if it isn’t to you. But, instead of dwelling on the loss, consider starting some new holiday traditions. Add an outdoor holiday activity that you have never done – maybe organize an outdoor pumpkin decorating party. Plan extended family video chat, holiday sing-along, or virtual tree decorating so that you can do things together in different locations. And, by all means, keep the traditions that can be carried out safely. The holidays are not cancelled. Celebrations may look different, but children and adolescents can count on the holidays coming, pandemic or not. Find new and creative ways to celebrate the seasons! Be safe and have fun!