Peter and I were having a discussion the other day about whether Miss M’s behaviour had changed recently and whether it was indicating that she was feeling stressed about coronavirus and her world at the moment. He wasn’t seeing what I was seeing, so we decided to have a look at what symptoms she would show if she was. Here are 11 signs that the coronavirus is stressing your child – and what you can do to help them cope with this stress.
Short answer: Yes, I still think coronavirus is stressing our daughter. But that is perfectly understandable. And we can help her.
What causes stress in young children?
The experts would say “What causes a child to experience stress?” I am not an expert. I call it like I see it.
Generally, experts distinguish between two categories of stress in young children. The first is developmental or normative stress, which is productive and occurs when your child is undergoing a new stage of development, such as learning to walk or talk, potty training or making new friends. If your child is also going through one of these stages of development, it may be difficult to work out whether they are signs that the coronavirus is stressing your child or whether the anxiety might be related to their development or even both.
The second type of stress is so-called life-changing stress and includes events or situations such as divorce of their parents, moving house, the death of a loved one or pet or unexpected world events (such as school shootings). Obviously, COVID-19 and the sudden changes that it has caused in our lives would fall under this category of stress. Unfortunately, such stress is typically more confusing and upsetting for children.
What are the signs of stress in young children?
In our research, we found 11 possible signs that the coronavirus is stressing your child. Admittedly, all but one of these are all general signs of stress, so it might not be (or just be) Corona that is stressing your child. Many of them are also “symptoms” of other things too.
There are a number of definitions of stress, but basically, it is our body’s physical, chemical, and emotional reaction to an overwhelming or confusing situation. It can affect children of all ages, but how they respond will depend on their age, temperament and environment.
Your child does not have to show all of these signs in order to be feeling stressed by coronavirus or anything else.
The 11 signs that the coronavirus is stressing your child are:
1. Changes in regular sleep
This may be one of the most obvious signs that the coronavirus is stressing your child, or that something is. Since COVID-19 hit our town and forced lockdowns and shut schools and kindergartens, Miss M’s sleep has been much more erratic. She has been coming into our bed not just to snuggle in the morning, but to sleep most of the night.
2. Changes in eating habits
This one is more difficult as there have been days when the weather has been warmer and you just don’t feel like eating.
3. Change in emotions, such as signs of being sad, clingy, withdrawn or angry
We’ve avoided most of these, thankfully, though we have had days where she is more clingy than normal. When sleeping, too, she wants to basically sleep on us or at least touching us both.
4. An increase in crying or tantrums
An increase in the number of tantrums is one of the big signs that the coronavirus is stressing your child, at least it is in our house. It might just be an age thing, but it does feel like we have had more tantrums than normal. Peter says it is a phase. I feel it is her trying to control something in a world that is difficult to have any control at the moment.
5. Nightmares and fears at bedtime
Fortunately, this one also does not seem to be an issue for us, though there have been nights where she will not go to sleep unless she is in our bed. For me, her need for comfort at bedtime is one of the signs that the coronavirus is stressing your child, or at least our child.
6. Physical ailments, such as headaches or a sore stomach
Only when she hit her head…
7. Anxious tics, coughs or body movements
This is also one that we have had no sign of as yet.
8. Frequent reliance on (old) habits (thumb-sucking, hair chewing, nail-biting)
This is another good sign that the coronavirus is stressing your child. We went through a hair chewing phase, when she was basically copying another child at her kindergarten (and even used the other child’s doing it as an excuse for why she did it). Fortunately, this habit has not returned.
9. Change in bowel movements
This can mean needing to use the toilet more frequently, potty regression, bed-wetting, constipation or diarrhoea.
There is nothing specific that we have noted about this one, except that her poop was blue when she had some magical unicorn ice cream. I don’t think increasing desire to eat ice cream is one of the signs that the coronavirus is stressing your child, especially if the weather is warmer.
10. Susceptibility to illness
This is particularly for children who have a weakened immune system, such as through fatigue, vitamin deficiency or inactivity. Stress can make a child more susceptible to illness, which is particularly worrisome when the illness is something like corona (though children are generally the least affected). I don’t see that this is a problem at the moment, but we have been making sure Miss M has enough sleep, takes her vitamins and eats lots of fruit.
11. Raising coronavirus as a topic of conversation or featuring it in games.
This is the only one of the signs that the coronavirus is stressing your child that is specific to COVID-19. The nasty coronavius is definitely something that is occupying Miss M’s thoughts. Miss M asked, for example, if Grandma died of coronavirus. When playing café, her staff were also sick with the coronavirus, so she had to work.
I think is a sign that Miss M is trying to understand what is going on and make things make sense of it for her world.
What you can do to help your child
If you decide that your child is definitely displaying some of the signs that the coronavirus is stressing them, there are things that you can do to help prevent or relieve their stress. Many of these approaches will help your child cope with stress in general, not just stress related to the coronavirus.
Maintain routines, as much as possible.
Consistency and structure are calming during times of stress. Corona has meant that the routine has changed dramatically for many of us. Maintain those parts of your routine that you can, such as mealtimes and bedtime routines. Where possible, make routines for other parts of your day.
Like many parents, we have to fit in our own work. Many also have homeschooling responsibilities, too. Schedule time for homeschooling and for workouts or activity. We do not have to homeschool yet, but we have scheduled an activity each afternoon – craft, science, baking… I try and make sure I switch off my phone and computer and just focus on the activity with her.
Still, this is the area we have to work on most. It is very easy to lose track of time when you are juggling too many balls…
Let your child help create a schedule
Look at what there is to do each day with your child and let them help decide the order that things will happen. This will help give your child a sense of control at a time when it is difficult to control much at all.
This is actually reminiscent of the approach I took in Amsterdam. I set out some options – in this case, what has to be accomplished – and let Miss M decide between two options and the order. I know she responds well to this approach, so we will be doing more of this.
Even if your child is feeling stressed, you should continue to enforce any rules you have about bedtimes, watching television, what foods are suitable for breakfast… Admittedly, some rules needed some adjusting initially in light of current circumstances and all of our needs.
Make sure your child sleeps well
Enforcing a regular bedtime will help. We are trying to stay relaxed about Miss M only wanting to fall asleep in our bed, rather than make an issue out of it. She seems to need the comfort at the moment, but that is okay.
Ensure your child eats a range of (healthy) food
This will help ensure they to get sufficient nutrients. If your child is a picky eater, like Miss M, you might want to supplement their diet with a multivitamin. Don’t forget some sunshine for vitamin D!
Ensure your child gets sufficient exercise
This can be difficult if there are bans on going outside and you don’t have a garden, or where playgrounds are closed and it is difficult to maintain social distancing rules. Try a bike ride, a walk or some online yoga, such as Cosmic Kids Yoga. Miss M loves it!
Hold your child when they cry
Let them know you are close at hand and are there for them.
Give extra hugs and kisses
As many as you both need. They can help boost your child’s confidence and enable them to be more flexible and resilient.
Monitor TV exposure
Let’s be real – this is a difficult time for all of us and trying to juggle working at home with looking after children can be trying and is likely to involve some screen time. Just make sure you are aware of what they are watching.
If possible, avoid anything violent, even the news, and anything about the coronavirus that you have not had a chance to view it first. Left unchecked, much of the news, and even social media, might feed the anxiety.
Explain coronavirus to your child and how it is affecting things
Normally the recommendation to help your child deal with stress is to prepare them for a change. In this case, the change was so sudden that there really was no chance to prepare.
Instead, help them to understand the situation by providing them with appropriate information. We have explained to Miss M that there is a bad virus called corona and it makes people very sick so that they don’t get better. To make sure we don’t get it and don’t make anyone else sick, we have to all take certain steps. Her kindergarten is closed, for example, because of the bad virus.
What to tell your child will depend on their age and how things are being handled in your area.
Keep in touch virtually
Socialising plays an important role in regulating mood both for adults and children. Stay in touch with friends and family virtually if you can’t see them in real life. We facetime regularly with members of my family, so this is nothing new for Miss M. (My mother-in-law lives in the house with us, and for health reasons, we cannot really distance our selves from her – though for health reasons we may wish to.)
Let your child skype or facetime with family and friends who they normally see regularly. It can make them feel less alone and will help mitigate some of the stress they feel at being separated from their friends. We’ve had WhatsApp, facetime and messenger calls for Miss M over the last few weeks.
You’ll also be happy to know that the American Academy of Paediatrics views communications as the only exception to the recommended ban on screen time for children under 18 months. I am not sure what their recommendations for screen time during corona would be though…
Manage your own stress
Instead of just asking what you can do to help your child with their stress, ask what you can do to manage your own.
Children will mirror their parents’ behaviour. If you are feeling anxious and showing it through your actions, your child will take your lead. Keep your worries in check as much as possible.
Various things will help reduce your own stress. If possible – and I say this with a BIG if – reduce caffeine intake, exercise regularly, eat healthily and keep in touch with family and friends regularly – virtually of course! Try and avoid talking about those concerns within earshot of your children. If you are feeling overwhelmed, take a break – whether it is a shower, a walk outside or just going into a different room for a few deep breaths.
Identify the signs that the coronavirus is stressing your child
In most cases, one of the most difficult things about identifying the signs that the coronavirus is stressing your child will be working out what changes in behaviour are due to coronavirus, and what might be due to other factors. By nature, many signs will be the same as the symptoms of stress felt by your child during a new stage of development. They may also be an indication of an illness. Where do you draw the line?
You know your child best. If in doubt, or if symptoms persist, consult a specialist.
If you find there are signs that the coronavirus is stressing your child, take action. Implement the recommendations as much as possible or your circumstances and help your child better deal with this momentous time in history.