COVID-19: Helping your Child in a Time of Stress (PART 1)

By Joanna Nicholson, MA, R.C.C.

With the implementation of ‘social distancing,’ many parents are finding that their spring break plans, as well as daily schedules, have changed. There are many reactions to the changes that have recently taken place due to the COVID-19 virus. Perhaps you are feeling disappointed, you may be concerned about becoming ill, or that a family member may contract COVID-19. Maybe you are worried about job security, safety at work or are trying to figure out how to work from home. You may be experiencing loss of income or fear of financial difficulty in the future. Perhaps you are feeling relieved that many of the events on your calendar, as well as the items on your ‘to-do’ list, have been cancelled or are no longer necessary. Whatever your reaction to recent events, you may be wondering what life will look like for you and the children in your care in the weeks to come.

We are all corona-stressed! For parents/caregivers of children who have experienced complex trauma, this time can bring up unique challenges as children can be anxious as they observe the reactions of their parents or caregivers. This time can be used as an opportunity to spend time engaged in activities that can help your child’s development.

Provided is an overview of the Complex Care Intervention (CCI) model .  The following are some ideas of how to manage recent changes within the context of the developmental domains of CCI.

Neurological and Biological Maturity

Routine – Don’t underestimate how important a consistent routine is. Keeping children’s waking, eating, and sleeping schedule the same each day will help children feel that their world is still predicable and safe.  Hot tip:  When kids are part of the planning process, they become partners and therefore, are more motivated and engaged in the participation process.  Write a new schedule together (takes 5 mins) at the end of dinner for the following day.

Physical Activity – If your child has specific fine or gross motor skills that have been identified as an area of potential growth, this may be an excellent opportunity to practice or learn a new skill. Maybe your child could learn to ride a bike, practice kicking a soccer ball, learn to skip, or practice balancing. These are all activities that, when done with a parent/caregiver, also build attachment. Having to maintain physical distance from others can also be an opportunity to explore a new walking or hiking trail.  In addition, exercise releases those happy hormones (endorphines) so it’s a win-win for everyone to not only be doing something but to feel happy :)

Over-Reactive Stress Response

COVID-19 Anxiety – Within the Complex Care Intervention (CCI) program, lowering overall stress is a key step and a priority for intervention. Children who have experienced complex trauma can be hypersensitive to potential threats to their safety. It is important to talk to your children regarding their thoughts, concerns and fears surrounding COVID-19. Remember to obtain accurate information from credible sources such as the Canadian public health site.

Also be mindful of the amount of media coverage your family is watching. Anxious children need manageable amounts of information which is appropriate for their developmental age and emotional maturity. Children need to be aware of the things that they can do to keep themselves safe, such as frequent hand washing, not touching their face, and maintaining distance from those outside of their household.  See here for: ‘How to Talk to your Kids about Corona Virus.’

Have FUN!  Keep laughing – did you know that laughter can relieve tension and stress, leaving your muscles relaxed for up to 45 minutes after? Now is the time to decrease those stress hormones so spend time each day finding funny videos or memes and/or making your own and sharing them with us.

Calm Environment – Be intentional about creating a calm culture within your household. A slower pace of life allows parents and caregivers an opportunity to build calming activities into daily routine. With fewer reasons to rush out the door in the morning, consider reading aloud to your child/children in the morning as they eat breakfast. Or find a mindfulness relaxation or yoga exercise you can all practice together. Consider building a fort or ‘cozy corner’ that your child can use as a place to relax when they are feeling overwhelmed or stressed. Having relaxing music playing in the background throughout the day can promote feelings of calm.
**Balance is offering a one year free subscription (a personalized meditation program).  Note: be sure to open on iPad or iPhone to unlock.

Emotional Regulation

Emotional Coaching – When life doesn’t go as planned, it can bring up various emotions for children, as well as an opportunity to build emotional understanding. Help your child label how they are feeling (“it sounds like you are feeling disappointed because we had to cancel your birthday party”). Let your child know it is okay to feel the way they do and help them find ways to help themselves feel better.

Gratitude – When plans change and there are many things that children are currently unable to do, such as spend time with friends or play team sports, it can be easy to focus on what ‘is wrong.’ Teaching and modelling gratitude can help children to notice what is good in the midst of change. This can be as simple as talking about a ‘favorite part of today’ at bedtime, or it could be an intentional activity, such as a nature walk with a camera to take pictures of things the child notices and appreciates. You can encourage your child to keep a notebook where they can write what they are thankful for at the end of the day.  Think marathon! While practicing for long duration marathons, mental strength is a must.  The experts tell us that ‘being mentally tough is all about how we respond when we begin to feel uncomfortable or encounter an obstacle or challenge” and their #1 tip is building in positive/optimistic thinking (J. Ross, 2018).

Whatever challenges you are currently facing, I hope that these ideas will be helpful as you navigate parenting within the context of ‘social distancing’ and/or ‘self-isolation’. If you require additional resources or support, consider a membership to online resources or feel free to inquire about individual case management services.

Stay tuned for a follow up post which will address the remaining CCI developmental domains (PART 2) as well as ways we can infuse self-care (for you parents) into your daily routines while at home.

Hear from Dr. Chuck Geddes about how to practically help your child and yourself during these stressful times of COVID-19.

This video is part 1 of a free 3-part series.

About the author

Joanna Nicholson, MA, RCC

Joanna is a Registered Clinical Counsellor with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. In addition to working with the Complex Trauma Resources (CTR) team, Joanna provides clinical counselling within an interdisciplinary health care setting providing emotional and practical support to patients and their family members in the midst of significant illness. To read more about Joanna please visit here:

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