Extension educators offer tips for helping children, teens cope during pandemic

April 16, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Growing up has its ups and downs even under normal circumstances, but the novel coronavirus is making that even more complicated, according to educators with Penn State Extension's food, family and health program team.

“Now more than ever, children are looking to their parents to help them deal with the disruption of their daily routine,” said Karen Thomas, extension educator. “The support and encouragement they receive from their parents can help reassure them and provide them with a sense of security and optimism that better days are ahead.”

She said parents can help younger children through this challenging time by setting daily schedules and planning activities, and she offered these tips:

— Set a schedule. Wake children at the same time each day. After breakfast and morning hygiene routines, plan activities that promote fun and learning rather than prolonged exposure to television and computer screens. Set up an evening schedule just like your morning routine. The schedule might include eating dinner, bathing, brushing teeth, and reading a story and bedtime.

— Plan time for reading. Reading promotes children's literacy skills and provides a distraction from what's happening in the world. Have your kids tell you about the books they are reading. They also could write a short essay to practice their writing skills.

— Take a virtual field trip. Some of the world’s famous art museums, such as the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, offer views of their collections online, as well as activities for children. Penn State’s own Palmer Museum of Art is offering virtual activities as well.

Exercise daily. Take a walk, plan a nature scavenger hunt or ride bikes together as a family. If the weather isn't cooperative, do some indoor physical activities such as dancing to music or setting up an obstacle course in the house.

Create some art, play games and bake together. Set out coloring books, construction paper, glue, markers and other art supplies. Play board and card games. Cook with kids. Being cooped up at home offers an excellent opportunity for children to learn about food preparation and healthy foods.

The sudden changes in a teenager’s routine can be very stressful and cause many emotions to rise to the surface, noted Debra Griffie, extension educator.

“Sometimes these emotions are expressed in negative ways,” she said. “Parents may notice their child demonstrate more reckless behavior, act out or become overly fearful. These are common responses when someone of this age is feeling overwhelmed and cannot express his or her emotions.”

To help teens cope, she offered the following suggestions:

— Have an open dialog. Ask teens about their fears, and answer questions as honestly as possible. Validate their feelings, and respond with open-ended questions to allow them to express what they are thinking.

Let them process what they are thinking. Be available for teens when they are ready to talk, and give them time alone to process this new and changing information. Remember that they are looking for reassurance from you, the person whom they trust.

Model the behavior you expect them to demonstrate. Take care of your physical health, and practice the suggested guidelines for protecting yourself and others, such as proper handwashing and social distancing.

— Ask them what they think they can do to help others. Teens are very observant and often have great ideas but need the opportunity or encouragement to express themselves. Suggest things such as calling elderly relatives or friends, if possible, doing yardwork for elderly neighbors, or writing letters to those who might not have a lot of social contact.

— Boredom is a genuine issue. Suggest activities such as reading a book, watching movies, revisiting a favorite game from their childhood, writing a short story, creating a video, cooking or practicing an instrument. Your teenagers may want to reach out to a favorite teacher. Remind them that their teachers are missing them too.

— Take advantage of online resources. Online performances, concerts, podcasts, exercise classes and cooking lessons are just a few ideas. You also might suggest your teenager start a journal of his or her experiences during this time.

Both educators said it’s important for parents to let their children and teens know that it’s okay to be experiencing the feelings that they have.

“They are suffering a huge loss and missing what is very important to them,” Griffie said. “Remind them that this is all going to end, but it is necessary to protect not only themselves but everyone around them. Being available to help your children find a balance and express their feelings is the best way to help them navigate this difficult time.”

More Penn State Extension resources related to food, family and health can be found at https://extension.psu.edu/youth-family-and-health.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 16, 2020