Article: Helping Your Kids Handle So Many Emotions during COVID-19

emotional child

Fearful. Angry. Confused. Anxious. Overwhelmed. Tense. Sad.

These are feelings every adult in America (and, really, around the world) has had the past few weeks as things have come undone all around us. We’re being bombarded with information that is changing by the hour and our daily lives today look vastly different than they did a month ago. As adults, our emotions during this time are often crushing. What must our children be feeling?

 How Our Kids Handle Big Feelings 

In late March, the teachers at our school prepared “Learn at Home” bags for their students, containing all the items from school the kids would need to complete their assignments for the next few weeks, and parents drove through to pick up their items. As I passed bags through car windows, I had dozens of parents say things like: 

“She cries every morning when I tell her we still can’t go to school.”

“They have fought constantly! It’s like they’re mad at each other nonstop, but for no reason!”

“He has had a huge meltdown almost every day. They’re over the silliest things —like having to 

recheck an answer on his science worksheet!”

“It’s like she’s suddenly afraid of everything. She has to be in the same room as us, she doesn’t 

want to  play alone, she’s afraid to sleep in her own bed…”

The truth is that these are all normal expressions of emotions for children. If adults expressed their emotions in a similar way, it would be inappropriate (but let’s be real: we’re all guilty to some extent!). But since kids don’t typically have the tools to even identify their feelings, much less to express them in a healthy way, stressful or scary situations often result in outbursts like the examples above. 

Five Ways Parents Can Help Kids Handle their Emotions 

So, how can we help our kids handle their big feelings in times like this? Here are some things that may help your family:

  1. Name the emotions. When you are angry that your Zoom call won’t connect or you missed a work deadline because you were unclogging a toilet, say, “I’m feeling frustrated. I need a few minutes to cool down before I’m ready to talk.” When your child is crying because the Elsa costume has to be washed because it’s starting to smell, say, “It seems like you’re feeling sad. Would you like to wear your _____ costume instead?” (Warning: she will say no and keep crying. The important thing is that you named the emotion!)
  2. Recognize that the “honeymoon” is over. For the first two weeks of quarantine, we were all running on adrenaline. Now that adrenaline is gone. Our bodies are exhausted, emotions are high and things look bleak. You’re not failing as a parent because life is not all sunshine and rainbows or because “learning at home” is not your thing. Things will get better, but right now they stink, and that’s okay. 
  3. Remember that we’re all grieving our new “normal.” Grief, sadness and fear often come out looking like explosive anger. You don’t have to excuse the behavior of an argumentative, defiant child, but knowing that it may be coming from a place of grief or fear may help you deal with the behavior better.
  4. Give yourself a break. No, you probably can’t literally take a break from your family right now, but giving yourself the freedom to let go of a few non-essential things may help. For example, skip bath time for one night and let the kids play longer while you relax on the couch for 15 minutes. Delegate the folding of clean laundry to your child. Yes, you’ll have to accept it not being done perfectly, but it will be worth it. Feed your child a PB&J and some applesauce and save the homemade kale chips for another day (I mean, I can barely remember to take a vitamin, so if this is your thing I applaud you). Give yourself some grace to not have it all together. 
  5. Make a “Sad/Happy” list. Hang a large sheet of paper or a poster board on the wall. Every time something comes up that your family can’t do or go to or participate in because of social distancing, write it on the “Sad” side of your list. On the other side of the list, add things you are able to do (or do more of) because of social distancing. For example, you may write “canceled baseball season” on the sad side and “family walks” on the happy side. Your “Sad” list might be longer, and that’s ok- there are a LOT of things we can’t do or things we’re missing. Acknowledging sadness and pain is necessary when learning how to deal with those things and move on. On the flip side, identifying the positive things that are coming out of this time of isolation will also help us work through the difficulty. 

Here’s the great news: this won’t last forever. Let’s acknowledge that things are hard right now and the big feelings that come along with that. Let’s give ourselves and others some grace as we navigate this situation. And let’s take advantage of the good times – and even the bad times – with our families. 

Leah Bushey, MSE, is Head of Lower School at The Anthony School in Little Rock, Arkansas. She taught Kindergarten and first grade at The Anthony School for a total of 12 years prior to becoming an administrator. In her spare time, Leah begins and sometimes finishes craft and home DIY projects. She also loves to spend time with her family when she’s not honing her already-remarkable social distancing skills.