UC Answers: How can I help my kids understand COVID-19?

Clinical psychologist offers guidance to stay emotionally and mentally healthy

Staying healthy emotionally and mentally requires work. UC clinical psychologist Maria Espinola, PsyD, offers some insights for parents and students to pressing back-to-school questions. Espinola is an assistant professor in the UC Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences. 

As a parent, how do I talk to my young children about COVID-19?

I think it’s important for parents to stay up to date with the latest recommendations from the CDC, then ask their children what they have heard about the coronavirus and correct any misinformation. The information parents give to their children should be appropriate for their age, using examples that children can understand. Small children tend to respond well to seeing the virus as a cartoon villain that we are all working to protect each other from.

In that way, they can see themselves as mini heroes for taking the precautions that are needed to stop the virus. Teens need more information and more frequent conversations. All children, including teens who don’t seem to listen, need to feel safe and loved by their parents so it’s important for parents to emphasize that they want to see them wearing masks and maintaining social distance because they love them and want them to be safe and healthy. It’s also fundamental that parents model behaviors that can help stop the spread of the virus as well as healthy ways to cope with the stress brought by the pandemic.

How can we as a community help young children understand the importance of wearing a mask, hand washing and social distancing?

As a community, it’s fundamental that we model behaviors that make it easier for children to remember to engage in these behaviors. Some ideas include using signs with cartoons wearing masks, stuffed animals wearing masks and offering free masks in children’s sizes. Also, we need to praise children when we see them engage in these behaviors.

Parents can also help children feel more at ease about wearing masks by having them pick a design they like, by decorating their masks at home with drawings, stickers and glitter and by having them make masks for their dolls and stuffed animals. Stores are selling kids’ masks that feature superheroes and unicorns.

Social distancing can be promoted by increasing children’s comfort around the use of FaceTime and virtual meetings to talk with their friends and family. Hand washing can be promoted by buying soaps with colors and designs that children find fun and also by having them sing a 20 second song while washing their hands. PBS as well as the local channel “Science Around Cincy” have released videos to encourage children to wash their hands.

How can students stay emotionally and psychologically healthy as they start UC amidst a pandemic?

I encourage students to build structure and divide their schedules into three types of activities: self-care, building mastery, and fun. Self-care activities include exercising (go for a mindful walk or do yoga in one the beautiful parks that Cincinnati has to offer) eating healthy, sleeping eight hours per night, and taking breaks during the day to do something that soothes them such as drinking a cup of Chamomile tea, taking a bubble bath or listening to relaxing music.

Students can build mastery by completing tasks that help them build their sense of competence and achievement. Those tasks can include school-related tasks such as homework assignments, studying or work-related assignments. Daily tasks that are simple but that still have to get done such as laundry or organizing paperwork are helpful to accomplish as well.

In terms of fun activities, I encourage students to engage with the arts by creating art, writing, playing an instrument or drawing. They can appreciate art by watching a movie, visiting a museum online or attending a virtual concert. It’s good to engage with nature so consider bird watching, gardening, kayaking or hiking around the River Gorge in Kentucky as good examples. Stay connected with others by calling friends and family and attend virtual social meetings.

Are there resources at UC that help students cope with stress and anxiety?

Absolutely. UC students have multiple options. Students can schedule appointments with therapists and psychiatrists by calling University Health Services at 513-556-2564 or the UC Department of Psychiatry at 513-558-7700.  Students can also access short-term counseling options by calling Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at 513-556-0648. 

What can I do as a parent to ensure my son or daughter is mentally ready for the challenge of higher education?

I think it’s very important to let them know that you understand that most people experience significant stress at some point during college even if they didn’t experience stress earlier in life. The goal shouldn’t be to eliminate stress completely but rather find ways to regulate stress to a manageable level. Let them know that we have stress for a reason.

Having zero stress about the possibility of failing an exam might lead them to not study at all. Having excessive stress can paralyze them and actually impair their ability to do well in the exam. That’s what we call a “self-fulfilling prophecy." We fear a negative outcome so much that we develop excessive stress about it and then make that negative outcome more likely to happen.

When students speak to me about their fears, they often mention their fear of disappointing their parents so letting them know that you will be there for them no matter what would be very important. I know some parents might be reluctant to say this because they fear that this statement would be interpreted as a “free pass.” Ideally, you want to encourage them to treat themselves with compassion and hold themselves accountable. In a student’s life, that usually means that they:

  • Try their best
  • Recognize if they are not getting the results they need
  • Seek help (e.g. tutoring services, mental health support, disability accommodations)
  • Acknowledge that they might need to take other steps (e.g. drop a specific class, reduce hours at work)
  • Take the necessary steps to overcome barriers
  • Take the time to recognize and feel proud of what they learned during this process.

As a parent, you can offer support at any point. One of the main reasons students come to see me for therapy is because they believe there’s only one way to achieve a specific goal. Helping them brainstorm ideas on how to reach their goals and bring attention to the resources that are available to them can be extremely beneficial. 

Featured image at top is Dr. Maria Espinola. Photo/Colleen Kelley/UC Creative + Brand.

Find more help

To respond to an increasing demand for resources, Espinola created a YouTube channel where she shares free multicultural psychology resources in English and Spanish, including videos on how to survive a crisis, how to beat Coronavirus insomnia and how to use grounding skills to reduce anxiety.

See more UC Answers to your important questions.