Center for Youth Wellness

Helping Children in Emergencies: Keep Your Child’s Developmental Stage and Temperament in Mind

By Karissa Luckett, RN, BSN, MSW
for Center for Youth Wellness

Common reactions to stress will fade over time for most children. Let’s be honest: Your exploring, tactile toddler won’t suddenly start keeping their hands to themselves. Your continually forgetful preschooler won’t suddenly start hand-washing properly just because you’ve told them it’s important. Depending on their ages, stages and temperaments, some children will require more reassurance or more time to shift than others. This situation is unique, and so is your child. Keep realistic expectations. Be kind and patient with yourself.

General Recommendations:

Ask questions.  Of course, every parent or guardian wants to reassure their children. You can’t reassure someone until you find out what they’re worried about. When you ask questions and learn what your kids are thinking it gives you an opportunity to correct misinformation and calm concerns. Here are some conversation starters:

  • “There’s been a lot of talk about the Coronavirus (COVID-19). Tell me what you’ve heard about it.”
  • “How does it make you feel?”
  • “What questions do you have?”

Keep information accurate, simple and useful. Keep yourself well-informed and rely on trusted sources, so your child feels comfortable trusting you. It’s important to simplify information into clear small bites. Give kids practical guidance on what can be done to keep them safe and healthy.  While you want to be open with your child, resist the urge to give too much information or complicated explanations. Keep the conversation productive and positive. For instance, if you were to bring up vaccines, instead of saying there are no known vaccines for this virus, say medical experts are working on trying to develop one.

Keep yourself informed so you can be a trustworthy source. David Schonfeld, MD FAAP says to avoid sharing rumors or sensationalistic information, and to refrain from bringing politics or personal beliefs into the situation. “It’s a good idea to go to the most consistent source of information, like the CDC,” he says.

Age and Developmental Stage-Specific Recommendations:

When kids aren’t in school. Many schools are closed during this time, try to keep a scheduled routine as much as possible. Here are a few tips that can help:

  • Read books with your child. It’s not only fun, but reading together strengthens your bond with your child and helps their development.
  • Make time for active play. Bring out the blocks, balls, jump ropes and buckets and let creativity soar. Play games or go outside and garden. Let your kids make up new games. Encourage older kids to make up a workout or dance to keep them moving, or go outside for a walk.
  • Media time. Whenever possible, play video games or go online with your child to keep that time structured. Go easy on yourself regarding limiting screen time, however, limit news and virus coverage, as this can increase your child’s anxiety and bring heightened awareness if parents are watching the news continuously. If kids are missing their school, friends or other family, try video chats to stay in touch.

For infants to 2-year-olds. Infants may become more cranky. They may cry more than usual or want to be held and cuddled more.

For 3 to 6-year-olds. Preschool and kindergarten children may return to behaviors they have outgrown. For example, toileting accidents, bed-wetting, or being frightened about being separated from their parents/caregivers. They may also have tantrums or a hard time sleeping.

For 7 to 10-year-olds. Older children may feel sad, mad, or afraid that the event will happen again. Friends may share false information, however, parents or caregivers can correct this misinformation. Older children may focus on details of the event and want to talk about it all the time or not want to talk about it at all. They may have trouble concentrating.

For preteens and teenagers. Some preteens and teenagers respond to trauma by acting out. This could include reckless driving and alcohol or drug use. Others may become afraid to leave the home. They may cut back on how much time they spend with their friends. They can feel overwhelmed by their intense emotions and feel unable to talk about them. Their emotions may lead to increased arguing and even fighting with siblings, parents/caregivers or other adults.

For special needs children. Children who need continuous use of a breathing machine or are confined to a wheelchair or bed, may have stronger reactions to a threatened or actual disaster. They might have more intense distress, worry or anger than children without special needs because they have less control over day-to-day well-being than other people. The same is true for children with other physical, emotional, or intellectual limitations. Children with special needs may require extra words of reassurance, more explanations about the event, and more comforting and other positive physical contact such as hugs from loved ones.


10 Tips for Talking about COVID-19 with your kids,

A guide to keeping your child safe and reassured as coronavirus spreads:

2019 Novel Coronavirus,

Talking With Children: Tips for Caregivers, Parents, and Teachers During Infectious Disease Outbreaks,

Coping With Stress During Infectious Disease Outbreaks,

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19),

Handwashing and Hand Sanitizer Use at Home, at Play, and Out and About,

Helping Children during emergencies, CDC,

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