Helping Kids Navigate Emotions for 2021

2020 was a year like no other. The coronavirus pandemic seemed to come out of nowhere, and all of our children’s routines and realities were suddenly turned upside down. Socializing and extracurricular activities were cancelled, and kids’ connections to their friends and extended families came to a standstill.

Even as the world began to reopen, children’s lives were far from normal for a while. Masks and frequent quarantine closures were required even after schools and daycares reopened. Kids have found new ways to connect and socialize with friends and family, but the safest ways to do it weren't always easy or comfortable for kids, especially younger ones.

No matter what accommodations we made for our children, living through a global pandemic was extremely difficult and impacted their mental health in profound ways. 

In 2021, there is reason for hope: Vaccines are available and the pandemic is much less of a concern. Yet our children still face a tough road ahead and will need help navigating their emotions.

Teaching our children how to understand, express, manage, and cope with their emotions should be a top priority for parents. This is not without challenges, but parents are up for the task.

What Are Normal Emotional Reactions to a Crisis?

As the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) points out, challenges and stress are something that many children experience in life even during normal times. But the fear, uncertainty, social isolation, and duration of the pandemic were unique. As such, it’s normal that we saw impacts on our children’s “emotional and behavioral health” (EBH).

Children who are growing up in marginalized communities or as part of an underrepresented minority faced even more hardship during the pandemic. The same is true of children who have special health needs or disabilities.

Families who are facing unemployment, poverty, structural racism, or who lack support systems may also face proportionally more emotional challenges.

Although each child reacts to stress in their own way, there are some general trends you may have noticed in your child as they reacted to the stressors of the pandemic. You may still be seeing some of these issues in your children. According to the AAP:

  • Younger children may display stress through regressive behaviors, such as sleeping poorly, backsliding on potty training, having separation anxiety, and becoming more generally cranky and irritable.
  • Older kids may seem more anxious, even withdrawn. They may become more angry and argumentative, and their emotions may come out in physical manifestations such as bellyaches and headaches.
  • Teens may be able to articulate their emotions more readily, but also be more secretive about what they are going through at times.

What Emotions Might Your Child Be Feeling?

Different children reacted to the pandemic and its challenges in different ways. It’s important to understand that all emotions—while intense at times—are normal and common, and nothing for your children to be ashamed of.

Children don’t always come out and tell you how they feel, and may instead display behavioral changes such as acting out in anger or withdrawing. Common emotional reactions to crises include:

  • Grief over canceled plans, missing friends, and changes in routines
  • Fear over losing loved ones or becoming ill, or concerns that things will never get back to normal
  • Anger that a crisis is happening, that life changed so abruptly, and that there are no definite answers as to when it will end
  • Numbness and wanting to withdraw from others because of feeling overwhelmed, shocked, or upset
  • Depression because of loneliness, lack of motivation, loss of routine, and missing family/friends

Helping Your Children Cope

Watching your child deal with tough emotions can be heartbreaking for any parent. But the good news is that in most cases of stress, we parents have an important role to play when it comes to helping our children manage their feelings and come to the other side with strength and resilience.

If your child is experiencing significant and worrisome symptoms of emotional and behavioral stress such as loss of appetite, inability to sleep, intense mood swings, self-harm, or suicidal ideation, you will need to seek help from medical professionals. But most cases of stress can be well managed by parents. “For most children and adolescents, appropriate support by sensitive and caring adults or supportive peers will be sufficient to help manage their stress,” says the AAP.

Help Your Child Name Their Emotions

Children of all ages, and especially young children, may have difficulty understanding how they are feeling and may not be able to describe their emotions. Helping our kids put names to how they are feeling can help them understand their feelings and not feel so overwhelmed by them.

Do avoid putting words into children’s mouths. Instead, ask open-ended questions about their feelings, or describe your own feelings and ask them if they feel similarly. You can also read books about feelings or have kids draw their emotions.

Teach Your Child to “Sit With” Difficult Emotions

The way that children express their emotions is often loud and uncontrolled. But no matter how a child expresses their feelings, we should not shame them for how they feel.

Instead, give them space to express themselves, and make sure they know that you are a safe place for them to emote. Telling children to stop crying, or that feelings like anger and anxiety are not acceptable, only makes matters worse. Let your child know that these feelings are normal and that letting them out will help them feel better in the long run.

Maintain Routines

During any time of change, giving children a sense of routine helps them feel secure. Children thrive on routine, and making sure they eat regularly and get enough sleep is important for both their emotional and physical health. So stick to a set bedtime. Have family meals together when possible, and make sure that your child’s days are predictable as well.

Try Meditation

When your kids are dealing with extra stress, you have a wonderful opportunity to start a meditation practice. Adding meditation to your routine is a great way to set the tone for your day or relax before sleep.

If you meditate regularly with your child, you may be able to use meditation during the day if they are feeling stressed or overwhelmed. It’s a great way to calm down during turbulent times.

There are many meditation apps on the market that you and your child may find helpful. There are free YouTube videos that also may work for you.

Meditation doesn’t necessarily mean being totally quiet and not thinking—and most kids are not capable of that anyway. Instead, meditation is being aware of your thoughts as they pass and allowing a little bit of space between the thoughts you are having and your emotional reaction to them.

Teach Your Child to Reflect On the Experience

There are positive ways that you and your child can reflect on the COVID-19 experience. You can talk to your child about how they felt when the pandemic began and what challenges they faced. You can talk about how your child adapted, and how proud of them you are.

No matter how difficult things have been, we can all find ways to point out how strong our children have been. Allowing our children to see this type of progress teaches them about their own inner strength and propensity toward resilience.

Practice Empathy and Gratitude

The emotions your child may have experienced during the pandemic aren’t all negative. With a little help from you, you may be able to help your child experience a little more empathy and gratitude.

Although your child’s life may have changed in many ways last year, the fact that they have parents to care for them, a warm home to live in—and let’s be honest, internet access—was something to be very grateful for.

Help Your Child Navigate Grief and Loss

It’s likely that your child heard of someone who died during the pandemic, or they may have been directly affected by loss. Depending on the circumstances, this may be something you can navigate on your own, or with the help from a grief counselor.

Remember that children experience grief in different ways. They may act angry or withdrawn, or may act out as they process their grief. As with everything else, allowing your child space to share their feelings—and allowing them to ask tough questions about death and loss—can be very helpful.

It can be tempting to gloss over the truth of death and loss, but it’s important to be as honest as we can with our children about these topics, while keeping in mind their ability to understand and process these hard truths.

Signs of Serious Mental Health Issues

Most of the time, children’s emotional reactions are normal and something we can manage on our own or through help from extended family, teachers, and other trusted support people in our children’s lives.

But some children are having a particularly difficult time with the emotional upheaval caused by the pandemic, and may require professional help. This is especially true of children who experienced mental health challenges before the pandemic began, but mental health issues can arise in children who have never experienced them before.

Signs that your child is suffering from a mental health challenge that requires additional attention will vary by age, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Toddlers and Young Children

  • Frequent tantrums and mood swings that seem very intense and long lasting
  • Frequent discussion of fears and anxieties
  • Frequent stomach aches or headaches without known medical cause
  • Sleep disturbances, nightmares, consistent trouble falling asleep
  • Not interested in activities they previously enjoyed
  • Obsessing over “bad things” happening

Older Children and Teens

  • Loss of interest in activities they previously enjoyed
  • Sleep disturbances (either too much sleep or too little)
  • Lack of energy or motivation
  • Self-harm behaviors (cutting, burning skin)
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Engaging in risky behaviors
  • Not wanting to engage with friends
  • Intense mood swings
  • Hearing voices, claiming someone is trying to “control their mind”
  • Risky indulgence in drugs, smoking, or alcohol
  • Obsessive dieting and exercise

If you have concerns about your child’s mental health, their pediatrician is generally your first stop. Their doctor can evaluate them to be sure there is nothing happening medically to cause this behavior, and they can then refer you to a therapist or suggest other treatment options.

If your child is harming themselves or talking about suicide, it’s important that you seek emergency treatment right away. Call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255) for immediate assistance.

A Word From Verywell

If you feel like parenting your child through the pandemic was extremely challenging, you are far from alone. Between the fear and anxiety about the virus itself, the many ways our lives were upended, and worries about our children’s mental health, this was a lot for all of us to handle.

Your own mental health is important too—and the fact is, if you are experiencing out-of-control stress, your children can pick up on this, which only adds to their stress and emotional challenges.

That’s why taking care of your own mental health is just as important as tending to your children’s mental health. Adding some self-care into your life where possible can help. But seeking outside help is important when necessary as well. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a doctor or counselor if your mental health struggles are impacting your day-to-day life or ability to effectively and compassionately parent your children.

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