Helping Kids Cope With the Stress of Coronavirus

By: Gerard Florio, Ph.D., Clinical Health Psychologist,
C.R. Wood Cancer Center at Glens Falls Hospital

The outbreak of the coronavirus disease has been stressful for adults and children. During these extremely uncertain times, it is hard to know what is to come, and all of us are experiencing some degree of anxiety and stress.  As parents and caregivers, we are primarily concerned with how to protect and take care of our children and family. Although it is normal to feel stressed and anxious right now, it is important to remember that there are many simple and effective ways to help and support children and teens in these challenging times.

Things you can do to support your child or teen

  1. Take time to talk with your child or teen about the coronavirus outbreak.
    • Stick to the facts, keep it brief, and allow them to ask questions.
    • Give accurate, age-appropriate information that your child or teen can understand.
      • Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should balance COVID-19 facts with appropriate reassurances that their homes are safe and that adults are there to help keep them healthy and to take care of them if they do get sick. Give simple examples of the steps people take every day to stop germs and stay healthy, such as washing hands. Use language such as “adults are working hard to keep you safe.”
      • Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what will happen if COVID-19 comes to their community. They may need assistance separating reality from rumor and fantasy. Discuss efforts at home and in the community to prevent germs from spreading.
      • Upper middle school and high school students can discuss the issue in a more in-depth (adult-like) fashion and can be referred directly to appropriate sources of COVID-19 facts. Provide honest, accurate, and information about the current status of COVID-19. Having such knowledge can help them feel a sense of control.
  2. Be calm and reassuring when talking to children and teens about the virus. As parents, we often plan for what we say to children, but it is equally important to plan for how we say things to them.
    • Children will react to and follow your verbal and nonverbal reactions, so be calm and reassuring. You are a role model for them, and your calm helps children to calm. Your distress increases their distress.
    • Remind children and teens that you and the adults in their community are there to keep them safe and healthy.
  3. Explain things that children and teens can do to reduce their risk of exposure to the virus. Giving children guidance on what they can do to prevent infection gives them a greater sense of control over disease spread and will help to reduce their anxiety.
    • Teach your child to practice every day good hygiene—simple steps to prevent spread of illness:
      • Wash hands multiple times a day for at least 20 seconds (singing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star slowly takes about 20 seconds).
      • Cover their mouths with a tissue when they sneeze or cough and throw away the tissue immediately, or sneeze or cough into the bend of their elbow. Do not share food or drinks.
      • Practice giving fist or elbow bumps instead of handshakes. Fewer germs are spread this way.
      • Make it fun! Kids learn new things more easily when they are having fun. For example, challenge kids to be Germ Busters, set of levels of achievement for increasing compliance
    • Explain and model effective social distancing to kids and teens.
    • Encourage your child to eat a balanced diet, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly; this will help them develop a strong immune system to fight off illness.
  4. Limit your family’s exposure to news coverage of the virus including social media. Children may misinterpret what they hear and can be frightened about something they do not understand.
    • Try to avoid watching or listening to information that might be upsetting when your children are present.
    • Speak to your child about how many stories about COVID-19 on the Internet may be based on rumors and inaccurate information. Reinforce the facts, this can help reduce anxiety.
  5. Let your child or teen know it is ok if they feel upset but reassure them that they are safe and make yourself available.
    • Children may need extra attention from you, and they may want to talk about their fears, concerns and questions. It is important that they know they have someone who will make time for them and listen to them.
    • Tell them you love them and give them plenty of positive attention.
  6. Share with your children the effective things that you do to manage your own stress so that they can learn how to cope from you.
  7. Try to keep up with regular routines.
    • Keeping to a regular schedule is reassuring and promotes physical health.
    • Keep your family’s schedule consistent when it comes to bedtimes, meals, and exercise.
    • Create and maintain a schedule for keeping up with schoolwork.
    • Make time to do things at home that have made you and your family feel better in other stressful situations, such as reading, watching movies, listening to music, playing games, exercising, pray or participating in services on the Internet).
  8. Encourage children to stay connected with extended family and friends.
  9. Give children ways to contribute.
    • Contribution lights up the reward centers of the brain and releases feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin.
      • Verbally highlight the way your family is helping your community and hospitals by staying home.
      • Draw pictures and make cards to mail, leave on friends’ and neighbors’ doorsteps.
      • Provide lots of little ways for children to be helpful at home and offer authentic praise for their helpfulness.
    • The contribution needs to be voluntary, not coerced, in order to release those feel-good brain chemicals. Ask, “Do you want to help?” If the answer is no, let it go. If yes, praise them for helping you!
  10. Avoid excessive blame. When tensions are high, sometimes we try to blame someone. It is important to avoid stereotyping any one group of people as responsible for the virus.
    • Bullying or negative comments made toward others should be stopped.
    • Be aware of any comments that other adults are having around your family. You may have to explain what comments mean if they are different than the values that you have at home.
  1. Shift toward seeing the best.
    • Notice your inner and outer speech, and help yourself and your kids see things more positively
      • Are you “stuck at home” with your kids, or do you have an opportunity to connect with family and keep the community safe while you work from home?
      • Are you “stuck at work,” or are you helping to keep the community running by staffing hospitals, grocery stores and other important functions despite the risks?
      • Are selfish people hoarding things, or are frightened people trying to make sure their families have enough?
      • Are government officials doing too much/not enough/stupid things, or are they doing the best they can with constantly changing information about an unexpected, unprecedented threat?
      • Should those people know better than to go out, or are there millions of individuals who are helping each other by staying home to slow the spread of the virus?
    • It’s easy to get caught up in what’s going wrong. Instead, try to consciously shift toward helpfulness.


Some warning signs that your child or teen may be experiencing excessive anxiety or fear about coronavirus:

  • Excessive crying or clinging in younger children
  • Returning to behaviors they have outgrown (for example, toileting accidents or bedwetting)
  • Excessive worry or sadness
  • Unhealthy eating or sleeping habits
  • Irritability and “acting out” behaviors in teens
  • Difficulty with attention and concentration
  • Poor academic performance or avoiding schoolwork
  • Avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past
  • Unexplained headaches, body pains or physical symptoms
  • Use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs

If your child or teen shows signs of distress listed above for several days or weeks, get help by contacting your pediatrician and asking for a referral to a mental health provider.

Additional Resources

Talking With Children: Tips for Caregivers, Parents, and Teachers During Infectious Disease Outbreaks,

Coping With Stress During Infectious Disease Outbreaks,

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19),

Handwashing and Hand Sanitizer Use at Home, at Play, and Out and About,


Resources from the National Association of School Psychologists

Responding to Children’s Emotional Needs During Times of Crisis– Important tips for parents and caregivers

Caring for Kids – Tips for taking care of kids mental health

Resilience in Children: Strategies to Strengthen Your Kids: Help kids build resilience in the face of obstacles

12 best Mindfulness Apps to Help You Keep Calm During a Crisis