Just like adults, children can experience distress in the context of a pandemic, when a disease propagates worldwide. The fact that children may not always understand the information that is out there or interpret it based on their level of development, can cause stress and provoke various kinds of reactions. Reaction to stress varies from one child to the next and can be influenced by age, level of development, temperament and personality, not to speak of the reactions of others.
How can I recognize signs of stress in my child?
Your child experiences events through your eyes and needs to be reassured, know that you can be counted on and feel protected by you. You need to stay informed about the situation and take care of yourself in order to remain calm.
Young children can react in various ways, given that they will not necessarily have acquired sufficient vocabulary to express what they understand and feel about what is happening. In fact, they most often mirror their parents’ stress. In this sense, young children tend to react behaviourally and during daily activities such as mealtime, bedtime, baths, games, etc.
Possible signs of stress in young children are:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Concerns (asking questions and wanting to be hugged)
- Physical complaints such as tummy ache
- Agitated behaviour (challenging what their parents say)
- Regression (bedwetting)
- Refusal to go to daycare or school
What can I do for children who are between the ages of 1 and 5?
- Remain patient, comfort the child using words that are understood and especially with affectionate gestures.
- Use play (dolls, action figures, stuffed animals, drawing, etc.) to facilitate the expression of feelings.
- Explain the situation in easy-to-understand ways such as: “The coronavirus can make people very sick, like dad was the other day. To avoid getting sick, you can wash your hands often, just like mom and dad.”
- Instruct your child about hygienic practices.
What can I do for children who are between the ages of 6 and 12?
- If your child expresses fear, do not mock but say it is normal to be afraid and that it happens to you too.
- Use easy-to-understand words such as “The coronavirus can make people very sick; a pandemic is when many people get sick at the same time in many countries.”
- Tell your child that there are very simple hygienic ways to protect from coronavirus, like washing hands frequently, coughing into the sleeve, etc. Demonstrate these gestures to teach them.
- Reassure and explain that you are there for support and will do everything to protect your child. Explain that the government, doctors and scientists are working very hard to ensure that everyone is safe.
Teenagers have their own ways of expressing what is going on. They may act like they are invulnerable and nothing can harm them. But despite appearances, teens can feel very vulnerable and affected by the situation.
In addition to typical teenage behaviour, adolescents may display uncharacteristic reactions with respect to sleep and appetite or appear to lose interest in friends, school, work or recreational activities. Problems with alcohol or drug abuse or a video game or screen addiction, as well as behavioural disorders may also arise.
Possible signs of stress in teenagers are:
- Worrying about his or her health and the health of family members and friends.
- Not appearing concerned and/or minimizing the danger: “Who cares about the pandemic, adults panic for no good reason.”
- Having difficulty concentrating, especially with respect to school. Skipping classes.
- Refusing to do usual activities and/or see friends.
- Having problems with sleep and appetite–eats too little or overeats.
- Having headaches and/or stomach aches.
- Wanting to consume alcohol and/or drugs.
- Spending every moment playing video games or online and showing distress when screen time is limited.
- Being aggressive, irritable, ignoring public health directives.
What should I do?
- Be frank, give the correct information if asked about the situation.
- Ensure that the teen understands what is going on and, as much as possible, correct any wrong information.
- Avoid pretending that nothing is going on. Do not minimize the seriousness of the situation.
- When you are unable to provide answers, admit it. Instead, say that you will get the information and provide answers as soon as possible.
- Avoid being moralistic.
- Avoid banning activities that are not related to the context.
Keep to the same routine
Routine and a stable family environment will ensure that your child continues to feel safe. As much as possible, keep to the usual home routine; this will reassure your child. If you are required to remain at home for an extended length of time, plan both family and solo activities. Ask for the opinion of your child, it could be very creative.
Check for information about the COVID-19 pandemic from reliable sources. The section Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Québec provides regular updates on how the situation is evolving. However do not allow your child to watch the same TV news reports about the pandemic over and over, and avoid alarmist conversations about deaths, deterioration of the situation, etc. that the children can overhear.
When will I need to seek help?
If despite everything you try to comfort and reassure your children there appears to be no improvement or even persistent and/or intensifying deterioration, you should immediately contact any of the following resources:
- Your integrated health and social services centre (CISSS) or integrated university health and social services centres (CIUSSS)
- Info‑Social 811 telephone psychosocial consultation service
- Government of Québec COVID-19 information line: 1-877-644‑4545
- Government of Canada COVID-19 information line: 1-833-784‑4397
Last update: September 30, 2021