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Common reactions to COVID-19 in children

While families are adjusting to new routines in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to recognize and support increased feelings of fear or uncertainty in children. While young children in particular have a difficult time talking about their fears, there are other behavioral signs that they may be experiencing an increase in stress. Below are a few common reactions children may have to the changes in their lives due to COVID-19, as well as tips for best supporting your child through each reaction.

Behavior regressions

What you may see: Some children may begin acting younger than their age. For example: re-emergence of babbling or “baby talk,” asking for a bottle instead of a cup, or losing toilet training skills. Older children may also have shorter attention spans or have more difficulty sitting still.

How you can help: Maintain age-appropriate behavior expectations for your child and continue helping them in ways that you normally would. Avoid punishing regressive behaviors. Instead, ignore those behaviors and focus on acknowledging and praising positive behaviors.

Emotional responses

What you may see: Frequent crying, angry outbursts, fear of being alone even for a short period of time, fear of getting ill.

How you can help: Label your child’s emotions as they experience them. This will help them put a name to what they are feeling. You can also reassure your child that it is okay to feel angry, worried, or sad and then work on a plan for how to handle those big feelings in safe ways. Consider making a “Worry Monster” to eat away their fears, go for a walk, or spend some time using art or music to express big feelings.

Social responses

What you may see: Children may want to spend as much time as possible being close to their parents or caregivers and may demand as much of your attention as they can get. Other children may withdraw and engage in more solitary activities.

How you can help: Children find reassurance in normalcy and routine. While your usual routine may have been thrown out the window, try your best to create a new daily routine during this time of isolation. Try to include interactive times for playing games, reading or singing together. This will ensure that you and your child will have time to engage with one another throughout the day, and provide your child with the reassurance they are seeking.

Sleep problems

What you may see: Trouble falling/staying asleep, nightmares, night-time potty training regressions.

How you can help: Keep a consistent bed-time routine. If your child regresses with night-time potty training, don’t scold or reprimand them. If your child is experiencing nightmares, work on empowering their sense of control. Consider creating a dream catcher, or make a bottle of “Bad Dream Be Gone” spray, using water with or without essential oils. Empower your child to spray their “Bad Dreams Be Gone” spray every night before bed.

Changes in play

What you may see: Children often process new or stressful life experiences through play. Children may play the same game over and over again. Children might also play doctor more or pretend to be their doll’s caregiver and insist that their doll stay inside.

How you can help: Engage in play with your child when possible, and try to let your child lead the direction of play. For example, you may feel the need to jump in and offer an explanation if your child angrily tells their doll that they cannot go to her friend’s house anymore. Instead, simply share what you’re observing. Try starting with something like, “I see your doll can’t go to her friend’s house right now”and let your child steer the direction of conversation from there. Or if you child expresses that their doll is sad, validate those emotions, “I see that your doll is sad about not being able to go to their friend’s house. I understand that, I feel sad when I can’t go to my friend’s house too.”