Helping Kids and Parents Cope with COVID-19 Anxiety: A Conversation with Dr. Eli Lebowitz

 //  May 13, 2020

Helping Kids and Parents Cope with COVID-19 Anxiety: A Conversation with Dr. Eli Lebowitz

What can parents and educators do during the pandemic to help kids cope with uncertainty and continue to learn and thrive? Suzanne McCabe, editor of Scholastic Kids Press and host of the Scholastic Reads podcast, recently spoke with Dr. Eli Lebowitz, an associate professor at the Yale Child Study Center and director of the center’s Program for Anxiety Disorders.

Below are highlights from their conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity. You can also listen to the entire interview here.


Q: What are the long-term implications for cognitive development, collectively, now that young children are not in school?

Dr. Eli Lebowitz: I don't think we know. We don't even know how long of a disrupted reality we're looking at. That's going to be a big factor. A few months is different from many more months.

But it's important for this period to not just be a kind of black hole in terms of development. We have to try our best, with a lot of acceptance for the fact that we only can try our best and nothing more. Make this a time when kids can be learning and developing, whether that's through school interactions, social interactions online with friends and family, books and other educational materials, and even just conversations and games. Making this a time that's not just stagnation, but also a part of children’s cognitive and emotional development, is crucial.


Q: Most of us have an escalated level of anxiety now. How can parents and caregivers keep kids on track, or get them back on track if they notice them feeling more anxious than usual?

EL: We should be on the lookout for behavioral signs that a child is in distress. Maybe they're not sleeping as well. Maybe their eating is different. Maybe they're more upset more of the time. Maybe they're angry or irritable more often. All of these could be signs that a child is experiencing more anxiety and might need more support.

When we do have a child who is coping with elevated anxiety, the first thing is just to acknowledge that in an accepting way and to let them know that we see it, and we understand it. When your kid is having another temper tantrum or a meltdown, you take a deep breath and remind yourself that this could be your child being anxious. Take an interest in what they're feeling, as opposed to just getting upset, and have conversations about it. Teaching them some simple, easy-to-use techniques that they can practice, or that a family can practice together, also can help regulate anxiety.

Techniques like doing some slow, deep breathing, even for just one or two or three minutes, can really help to reduce anxiety. One trick that we teach a lot of kids is to take a little soap bubble toy that you might have in your house and try making a nice big bubble because every child knows that if you do that, if you want to make a big bubble, you have to blow a slow, steady stream of air. That helps to get them into a mode of slow, relaxing breathing.

Kids can also be given different ways to express what they're feeling. Some children might like to write about it. Other children might want to draw a picture or make a doll that represents some of the anxious feelings they're coping with. Finding those different ways to express it and to talk about it, even in a playful way, can really help to cope with the anxiety.

We also have to be thinking about the day after, because even though there is a lot anxiety in this period, some of the fallout from everything that children are experiencing right now is actually going to be more evident when we ask them to get back into their routines, when they have to get up and go to school again, interact with other people, and be in a class and separate from their parents. We should be thinking about all of those challenges that are suspended to some degree, but that we're going to be asking them to start doing again. Then, when they do go back, it won't be as difficult to transition.


Q: What advice do you have for educators on how to manage kids' and parents' expectations and anxieties over the summer, and when they do welcome families back to school?

EL: Educators and families should be thinking hard about how to optimize for that challenge. For example, by maintaining contact as much as possible, now and over the summer. Stay in touch with teachers. Practice the things that kids and parents will be doing when this is over. We're socially distancing, but we don't have to be socially isolated. Stay in touch with classmates. Teachers can organize class Skype or FaceTime meetings, for example, so that kids remember how it felt to go to school and what it felt like to be a student. We want kids to know that being a student is part of their lives and who they are.

We also have to be ready for the transition to be challenging and not get too upset if the first day is hard. Maybe we want to do something gradual. Maybe kids will go back for a short visit before they go back for full days. Maybe that first week will be a little bit more difficult, but if we go into it expecting that and prepared to cope with it, then we'll be less taken by surprise and better able to get through it.


Q: We know the many benefits that children get from reading for pleasure, but focusing these days can be difficult. What ideas do you have for parents and families to help kids just read for fun?

EL: One of the things about anxiety is that it tends to take over our brains, making it very hard to focus on other things. That’s actually a good thing. It's not a bug. It's a feature, meaning our brains are wired that way because when we're dealing with a real threat, it doesn't make sense to think about other things until you've dealt with the danger. The way our brains have evolved is that if there's something worrying me, I tend to focus on that, and it makes it much harder to focus on other things.

In a situation like this where there's a constant drip of news and information, it might be keeping our stress levels high, and it can be really hard to sink deeply into other material, to have that long period of reading and be really engaged with it. But it's important to keep reading, partly for the reading itself and partly because we don't want to succumb to complete immersion in COVID-19 and nothing else.

Try to structure times for reading. If your child can read for a long time, that's great. If they can read for a shorter period of time, do that, and keep it up so that it doesn't go away entirely. Maybe you want to read together. For a lot of children, it might be easier to listen to a story than it is to actually read it. They’re still getting a tremendous amount of benefit from that.

We also want to keep information somewhat limited. It's great to have conversations about COVID-19 and the pandemic, but it doesn't have to be the only thing we talk about. If you're having dinner, that doesn't have to be the only topic of conversation. It could be one, but we could also talk about the book we read or a character or something else that's on our mind. That will help to shift our focus away from the things we're worried about and open up space to take in other information.


Q: What about children who may be grieving, who've lost a family member, or may be frightened about family members? Many children have parents who are essential workers. How can parents help them grieve during a time that we can't be with loved ones or express what we're going through?

EL: It is so hard. Of course, one thing that makes it harder is that when a child is grieving, the adults caring for them are probably grieving, too. That means everybody is coping with a difficult situation at the same time.

Parents should give their children the opportunity to express what they're feeling in the way that the child wants to express it. We shouldn't have pre-formed notions about what's the right way for a child to express their feelings. Sometimes, parents might be puzzled or worried when a child isn't expressing things in the way that they think the child should, but maybe that's what's right for this child at this time. On the other hand, maybe it's a difficult thing to talk about, and parents might be avoiding talking about it with their children. But that means that the child doesn't have the opportunity to talk about it.

Let your child take the lead on what those conversations should look like, how much and how they want to talk about things, and also whom they want to speak with. Maybe it's mom. Maybe it's dad. Maybe they'd prefer to speak with somebody else, and that can be arranged. Maybe there's an online call. Maybe a therapist can be available online to speak with them. So many mental health providers now are really shifting their practices online. Find the way, the quantity, and the person the child wants to speak with to let them express what they’re feeling in the way that's right for them.


Q: Many parents are feeling a sense of loss as they see their children miss out on graduations, athletic events, school trips, and other milestones. How do they cope with those feelings when there are so many life-and-death issues?

EL: There's a lot of frustration and a lot of disappointment. My 11-year-old was supposed to be on a school trip that had been long waited for and expected, and it was supposed to be the very first week of social distancing. He was really disappointed that they weren't able to go. We do need to let children express those feelings and accept that they're going to be frustrated and disappointed.

But there's also an opportunity for us as the adults to model to children how we cope with disappointment. Are we just angry? Are we looking for somebody to blame, or can we also see this as an opportunity to find the positive things, to think ahead to the time when children will be able to do the things they can’t do now? We can model healthy coping with disappointment, which is a really good opportunity because children are going to grow up long after COVID-19 is over and this pandemic is a distant memory. There are going to be a lot more frustrations, disappointments, and irritations that children are going to cope with. See this as a chance to teach healthy coping mechanisms and acceptance of the things we can't control. Model flexibility and show that we can have a good day even if it's not the day we had planned.


For free activities and resources for families to use during this difficult time, visit the Yale Child Study Center & Scholastic Collaborative for Child and Family Resilience website.