The Current

Experts say kids may need help expressing their feelings about the pandemic

As children are isolated from friends and supports, they’ll need help understanding and dealing with their feelings about the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say. But some children don’t know how to express themselves and others hide their pain.

Art can be a good way to communicate with young children, professor says

Children may be feeling anxious or scared about the COVID-19 pandemic but be unwilling or unable to talk about it. (Sam Wordley/Shutterstock)

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Children are resilient, but experts say they will still need help understanding and dealing with their feelings about the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"They need a lot of resources and a lot of support," Alice Fothergill, a professor of sociology at the University of Vermont, told The Current

The COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed daily life in recent weeks, as governments have recommended and enforced physical-distancing measures to keep people at home and away from one another. 

Children isolated from friends and support

Fothergill studied and co-authored a book about the effects Hurricane Katrina had on children. While the circumstances were quite different from the pandemic, the results were similar. As was the case during Hurricane Katrina, children have been isolated, cut off from family members, friends and schooling. Fothergill said children missing school is concerning.

"It's the academics, it's the routines, it's the structure. It's that social piece, too."

Fothergill said her biggest concern about the present situation is that children have been isolated from the important adults in their lives who they don't live with. She said children can get a lot of support from religious leaders, coaches, teachers and other people who work in their schools. 

"We need those other adults keeping an eye on those kids and making sure that they're OK."

Alice Fothergill is a professor of sociology at the University of Vermont. She said isolation from school and trusted adults will be hard for children. (Sally McCay/UVM Photo)

Fothergill said that, in her research, she found kids wouldn't always tell their parents when they were upset. In some cases, outwardly happy kids can be going through very difficult personal situations below the surface.

Robin Cox, professor of the disaster and emergency management program at Royal Roads University in Victoria, said children who may be too young to articulate their feelings can revert to earlier behaviour when they're anxious and under stress. This can include becoming more clingy or irritable, bedwetting or just not wanting to do things. 

She said parents and guardians should do their best to remain calm because children pick up the emotional states of their caregivers. In addition, they should have age-appropriate conversations with their kids and be open to answering questions. For preverbal children, just holding them and spending time with them can be comfort enough, Cox said. 

Art can be a way into difficult conversations

In her work with children, Cox said she's found art and other creative activities useful for communicating with young children. 
Robin Cox is a professor in the disaster and emergency management program at Royal Roads University in Victoria. She said children may revert to earlier behaviour when stressed or anxious. (Dan Anthon/Royal Roads University)

"It gives them a way of expressing themselves, processing their emotions and not having to rely on the words that they may or may not have access to."

She said art, which can also be therapeutic for adults, provides caregivers with an external object to talk about. For instance, if a child does a painting that depicts the coronavirus as a scary monster, the parent can ask why or how the monster scares the child. 

"It can also be a way of working with children so that they have a sense that they are helping. We know resilience is very much tied to a sense of self agency, the ability to have some control and be able to do something," Cox said.

She adds that children can benefit from sending drawings or notes to people they're apart from, or participating in the increasingly popular displays of support for healthcare workers and emergency responders. 

When children are back in school, Cox said, educators will play a role in helping children deal with the pandemic through in-class work and access to their social support networks.

Explaining coronavirus to kids

3 years ago
Duration 1:27
If you're a parent wondering how to talk to your kids about the coronavirus, here's a video that'll help start the conversation.

"We're very lucky in Canada that there will be resources that are specifically linked to supporting children and families to recover and get back to normal routines. Everyone's going to be affected by this. There's no one that's going to be untouched by it," she said.

"We can support each other and children can support each other as well." 

Written by Justin Chandler. Produced by Jessica Linzey and Kaitlyn Swan.

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