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Coping in a Crisis

Expert tips from an MHS psychologist for parents and children.

Homeschooling between Zoom calls. Cutting up old clothes to make masks. Frequently sanitizing doorknobs, light switches, and keyboards with Lysol wipes. These are some of the new realities people around the world are facing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. To make matters more difficult, no one knows exactly when, or if, normalcy will return. Truly, the only thing that’s normal right now is feeling under pressure and out of sorts, as the outbreak taxes both our physical and emotional well-being.

Of course, it’s not just adults that are dealing with adversity—children’s schedules and comforts have also been upended. For kids, the pandemic can be especially grueling, which is why parents need to be reassuring in tone and behavior.

What can everyone do to confront these challenges and turn chaos into calm? “The key is to focus on what we can control,” says Dr. Erica Weiler-Timmins, the director of psychological services and training at Milton Hershey School. “We also need to set realistic expectations and understand this is a unique situation. We can’t do it all, but we can do our best.”

Read on below for more advice from Dr. Weiler-Timmins. Use these eight tips to help you, your children, and family members cope during this crisis and improve overall wellness.

  1. Maintain a routine.

    Sticking to a schedule and “creating as much predictability as possible will stabilize kids’ moods and bring needed structure,” says Weiler-Timmins. “Get up, eat, and go to bed at the same times each day.” Also try to lay out school lessons in advance and consider making checklists to build in clear goals and a sense of accomplishment.

  2. Exercise and stay active.

    In the middle of a stay-at-home order, it’s natural to be sedentary. Turn the tide by instead encouraging kids to exercise for at least 60 minutes a day. Lead the way by exercising yourself. “Take a family walk, go for a bike ride, or shoot hoops with your children.” It can be beneficial, too, to do craft projects or play board games. This togetherness will stave off natural feelings of isolation.

  3. Limit news coverage.

    It’s important to stay updated on COVID-19 developments, but too much information can be harmful. “There’s a lot of somber news being reported and after a while you have to turn off the screen. Try to keep your intake positive.” In addition, make sure that any news coverage you’re watching is appropriate for kids. If it’s not, just change the channel.

  4. Practice self-care.

    Going all day without breaks will lead to mental overload, particularly when you’re parenting younger kids who constantly need attention. “I suggest reading a book, doing some yoga, or learning to meditate. If you do this every day, you can fill up your energy reserves, while also getting some much-needed peace to clear your mind.”

  5. Don’t aim for perfection.

    Do you know that “perfect parent” who posts pictures of their “perfect family” on social media? Don’t compare yourself to this person. Concentrate on your own self-care and make incremental improvements, rather than dwelling on what appears to be perfection in social media. “Let’s be fair to ourselves. Focus on what we do have and what we have achieved.”

  6. Lean on friends.

    During uncertain times, relationships are more critical than ever. If it’s available to you, leverage technology to virtually connect with friends and find out how they’re managing their tensions. “Reach out to people who are good listeners and supportive. It’s helpful, too, to connect with family you can’t see in-person because of the virus.” Children can use technology to video chat with their friends, as well, as long as there’s proper supervision.

  7. Serve others.

    If you want an emotional boost and an escape from your troubles, try serving others. For example, if you know any medical workers, join your kids in writing them thank-you cards. Paint some stones with your kids and leave them outside houses in your neighborhood. Or cook a meal for someone who lives close by. “A lot of families are creating sidewalk chalk designs or putting hopeful messages in windows. Whatever we can do to be positive will be a huge lift.”

  8. Know when to ask for extra help.

    If you feel completely overwhelmed or more irritable than usual, Dr. Weiler-Timmins suggests contacting a mental health professional and being open about your stresses. “You can only take care of others when you’re good to yourself,” she says. It’s also important to be vigilant and recognize changes in children’s behavior. “The important thing to remember is that it’s OK to ask for help.”

For additional coping resources, visit the following websites:

Also, Pennsylvania has launched a new Support & Referral Helpline to provide counseling to those struggling to cope during the COVID-19 pandemic. The line is operated 24/7 by skilled caseworkers. The Helpline number is 1.855.284.2494. For TTY, dial 724.631.5600.

Milton Hershey School does not discriminate in admissions or other programs and services on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin, ancestry, sex, religious creed or disability. View full Equal Opportunity Policy.