Helping Kids Navigate Emotions for 2021

This past year has been a year like no other for our children. 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 canceled, and kids’ connections to their friends and extended families came to a standstill.

Even as the world has opened up, our children’s lives are far from normal. School and daycare has resumed for some children, but with masks and frequent quarantine closures. Kids are finding new ways to connect and socialize with friends and family, but the safest ways to do this—with masks/social distancing or via video chat—aren’t always easy or comfortable for kids, especially younger ones.

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

As we enter 2021, there is reason for hope: vaccines are on the horizon, the pandemic is predicted to get much better by the middle or the end of the new year. Yet our children still face a tough road ahead and will need help navigating their emotions.

As we enter the new year, helping to teach 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 we parents are up for the task. Here are some ideas for how best to nurture our children’s emotions during 2021 and throughout the rest of this pandemic.

What Are Normal Emotional Reactions to the Pandemic?

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 this particular crisis is unique. As such, it’s normal that we are seeing 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 may face even more hardship during the pandemic. The same is true of children who face 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 notice in your child as they react to the ongoing stressors of the pandemic. As the AAP points out:

  • Younger children may display stress through regressive behaviors, such as sleeping poorly, regressing in terms of 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?

All children are going to react to the pandemic and the ongoing challenges in different ways. It’s important to understand that these emotions—while intense at times—are normal and common, and nothing for your children to be ashamed of. It’s also important to note that 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 like pandemics include:

  • Grief over canceled plans, missing friends, and changes of routines
  • Fear over losing loved ones, becoming ill, or concerns that things will never get back to normal
  • Anger that this is happening, that life as we know it was 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 pandemic 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 of this experience with strength and resilience.

Of course, 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 pandemic stress can be well managed by parents. As the AAP explains, “For most children and adolescents, appropriate support by sensitive and caring adults or supportive peers will be sufficient to help manage their stress.”

So let’s take a look at some of the best ways that you can support your child during this time:

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. That being said, we don’t want to put words into our children’s mouths! Instead, we can ask our children open-ended questions about their feelings, or describe our own feelings and ask them if they feel similarly. We can also read books to our children about feelings, or have them draw their emotions.

Teach Your Child to “Sit With” Difficult Emotions

The way that children express their emotions is often loud and uncontrolled. But we have to remember that no matter how a child expresses their feelings, we should not shame them for how they feel. Instead, we should give them space to express themselves, and make sure they know that we are a safe place for them to emote. Telling children to stop crying, or telling them 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.

Routines

The pandemic is a time of upheaval—there is no getting around that fact. But doing our best to give our children a sense of routine during this time will help keep them 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 (even when you are home all the time and are getting up later for school!). Have family meals together when possible, and make sure that your child’s days are predictable as well.

Meditation

Being stuck at home more and dealing with extra stress is a wonderful time to start a meditation practice.

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.

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. 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 times that your children are feeling stressed or overwhelmed. It’s a great way to calm down during turbulent times.

Teach Your Child To Reflect On The Experience

As the coronavirus crisis has stretched from weeks, to months, to almost a whole entire year, there are positive ways that you and your child can reflect on the 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.

It can also be helpful to help children sort through many of the challenging emotions they faced at earlier stages of the pandemic—having some time between those emotions and the present moment may help them reflect more deeply on their emotional experience and process it more fully.

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. As you discuss with them the reasons behind isolations, masking, and social distancing, you can empathize that keeping their germs away from others is the ultimate act of kindness. You can also emphasize gratitude: although your child’s life may have changed in many ways, the fact that they have parents to care for them, a warm home to live in—and let’s be honest, internet access—is something to be very grateful for.

Helping Your Child Navigate Grief and Loss

At this point in the pandemic, it’s likely that your child has either heard of someone who died or 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 than adults do, and may act angry, 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 the 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.

Looking For Signs Of Serious Mental Health Issues In Kids

Most of our children’s emotional reactions to the pandemic 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.

According to the National Institute Of Mental Health, some signs that your child is suffering from a mental health challenge that requires additional attention include:

In 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 once were
  • Obsessing over “bad things” happening

In 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 are feeling like parenting your child through this pandemic has been extremely challenging, you are far from alone. Between the fear and anxiety about the virus itself, the many ways our lives have been upended, and the worries we have about our children’s mental health, this has been a lot for all of us to handle. After all, when we set out to have kids, no one told us we’d be parenting through a global pandemic. There’s no parenting manual for that!

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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Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Children and Mental Health. National Institute of Mental Health website. Updated December 17, 2018.

  • Interim Guidance on Supporting the Emotional and Behavioral Health Needs of Children, Adolescents, and Families During the COVID-19 Pandemic. American Academy of Pediatrics website. Updated October 23, 2020.

  • Mental Health During COVID-19: Signs Your Child May Need More Support. Healthy Children website. Updated October 23, 2020.

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