Expert Q&A: Supporting Your Child During Times of Crisis 

Managing your own stress is key to helping your child cope in times of crisis, such as flares or virus outbreaks.  

Question: In times of crisis, such as a flare or a virus outbreak like the coronavirus, how can I best support my child’s mental health? 

Answer: I worry about parents’ mental health as much as I do children’s, because it usually rolls downhill. It is very difficult to encourage parents who are already overwhelmed with all the tasks that they are charged with (i.e, taking care of a household plus helping a child manage the disease) to find time for themselves. But I can assure you, structure is your friend and structure is your child’s friend. You’ve got to find time to structure in “me” time [such as] getting the social support you need from your friends.  

Parents often tell me “my child needs a good cry.” And yeah, so do I sometimes! There’s nothing wrong with that. Where that becomes problematic is when it becomes a child’s coping mechanism – to just break down and cry. That’s very different from needing a good cry. We all need that. You as a parent need to give yourself license to just sit down and have a good cry. And again, there’s nothing wrong with a child experiencing emotion. It’s when it becomes persistent and it starts to interfere with things that it can become problematic.   

[That being said], I also encourage parents to “watch your attitude” because your children are. Children pick up very quickly on how you handle and cope with anxiety. So, be a good model. Think out loud. Model for them how you work through a problem, rather than just to say, “Oh my goodness, it’s awful,” because the walls have ears. Kids are very perceptive and can sense when you, as a parent, are also anxious. That’s not to say you need to be a perfect parent, because nobody is. But it’s like what they say when you board an airplane, if there is a loss in cabin pressure, whose mask are you supposed to put on first? Yours as the parent. You must take care of yourself first before you can really be available to help your child to work through any of these challenges.   

  I’m always impressed with parents who have children with arthritis because they are some of the most resourceful human beings on the face of the earth. Families who have structure, who have multiple contingency plans, in the event of a disease flare, or something coming up [like the coronavirus], are those who are going to do much better.  

With respect to “how do I support my child emotionally?”, I say, again, support yourself emotionally first. You’ll find the rest of it will come quite easily after that. Make this a family affair and do things as a family [take walks or play board games]. [But again], make time for yourself. Stay involved and stay engaged with social support.   

John Chaney, PhD 
Regents Professor, Department of Psychology 
Oklahoma State University 

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