Kids and COVID-19: Therapeutic Family Activities to Support Resilience

The first draft of this illustration was created as a professional resource, but as Social Distancing entered the global vocabulary and #quarantinewithkids started trending, I wanted to create a resource for parents who are helping kids process the experience of being a kid during a pretty scary time.

There is a great visual floating around parent circles on social media right now that says something to the effect of “what kids will remember is how they felt.” This is both really true and a bit untrue – depending on how old a particular child is now. What we know about developing minds is that memories are more likely to be coded when they are emotionally charged (which the exception of trauma, which is so emotionally loaded that brain processes – including memory formation – often go offline). Because of this, it’s likely that even younger kids will remember their experience in their family during the pandemic.

Making meaning: a therapist-approved list of family activities that can help kids process COVID-19

Older kids (kids who are about eight and older) are likely to remember much of this experience. Most will remember it as a chaotic season – it IS a chaotic season. One way that parents can help kids cope with the coronavirus pandemic is to 1. Provide some shelter for kids from the chaos, and 2. Help kids organize this chaotic experience into a narrative that promotes resiliency.

How do we help kids organize this chaotic experience into a narrative that promotes resiliency?

Stories are how we move in the world. As adults, the stories we’ve been told and the stories we tell ourselves are what shape our self-esteem, our expectation of others, and the ways we navigate life. We navigate the world by stringing experience into story.

One professor in my graduate training to be a psychotherapist would say, “Kids are outstanding observers and terrible interpreters.” Which is to say, kids see a lot, and even our best attempts to shelter them will fail. What they do with what they observe – the stories they tell themselves about it – will shape their memory and their mental health in years to come.

UPDATE: After writing this article, I took some of these ideas, combined them with kid-friendly games and doodles, and created the COVID Kid’s Activity Book, designed to help kids and families in their journey together through COVID-19.

A therapist-designed activity book created to help kids process COVID-19 and thrive beyond quarantine

Order a Printed Book or Download the Printable Version Here:

When kids observe things that they don’t understand – experiences that feel chaotic, disorganized, or nonsensical – they naturally begin to weave it into a story, but often the story they tell is that they are too much, a problem cannot be overcome, or that they need to take on an unhealthy role or responsibility to survive. When parents, educators, or therapists actively work with kids to give them help in organizing what they are experiencing into a narrative, we get to help shape that story: guiding it toward a narrative of safety and protection even in uncertain times. In this collaborative storytelling, kids get the foundation and the tools to support mental health and resiliency. (And retelling those important stories can be equally helpful!)

Image that says: "Right now, kids need help making meaning from what they are experiencing."

During a time of crisis such as this, making meaning together becomes one of the chief tasks of parenting. You don’t have to make it okay. You don’t have to shelter them from all of the scariness. You don’t have to entertain them. You just have to help them know that they are not alone, they are loved, and they are part of a family that will get through this.

To assist you, brave parents, in helping tell these stories with your kids, I’ve created the following resource. I want to acknowledge that my adaptation of these tools and games leans heavily on the work of Bethany Bylsma and the activities she provided in a Family Therapy lecture at The Seattle School. These activities are designed to be interactive ways of storytelling and experience–organizing – activities that involve different parts of the brain and the body – movement, tactile experience, arts, etc.

Interactive Ways of Storytelling and Experience–Organizing with Kids

1. Sunshine/Rain Clouds

Image of a shining sun, covered up by a raincloud with a lightening bolt. Next to the image, text reads: "Sunshine/rainclouds. Each family member names best and worst part of the day. This can take focus off the problem, help us learn our strengths, & cultivate gratitude."

In this activity, each family member names the best and worst parts of their day. Taking time to name the best and the worst lets kids know that all of their experiences are welcome. It helps take the focus off of problems or problem-behaviors and grows recognition and pride in things enjoyed or excelled at.

It also makes space for gratitude for the things that went well – an element researchers say is critical to resiliency. Families may wish to intentionally include gratitude, perhaps by renaming the game: “sunshine, clouds, and rainbows”

2. Event-Specific Scrapbook

Drawing of a notepad with scribbles and pictures. Text says: "Scrapbook. Stories help kids make sense of what's happening. Making a scrap-book together about how your family is getting through COVID-19 can help kids cope by giving them a narrative."

A pandemic scrapbook might be the absolute last activity you as a parent might enjoy doing, but just as young children benefit from reading a storybook over and over to make sense of all that it contains, creating a scrapbook about your family’s experience as you progress through this difficult time can be a roadmap for younger kids to make sense of what’s happening and remember they are cared for by their family.

Things you could include might be:

1. Art made during social distancing/isolation or made about their experience
2. Leaves or flat objects found during walks
3. Photographs
4. Responses to age-appropriate journal prompts or art prompts
5: If you have a natural-born recorder in the family, you can let them have responsibility for writing down everyone’s “sunshine/rain clouds” for the day.

Be intentional and active in helping shape the scrapbook into a narrative that tells the story of your family’s resilience. Include photographs of loved ones together, ask them to make art about being with their family, their favorite activity with the family, what it’s like to cook/walk/play together, etc.

3. Family Crest

Drawing of a family crest. Text says: "Family Crest. What is your family about? How do you get through challenges? Making a family crest can help kids feel connected and protected."

What is your family about? How do you get through challenges? If you had a family motto what would it be? Making a family crest can help kids feel connected and protected. Some families may enjoy the craft of making an actual shield out of wood or paper-mâché, while for other families, an artistic family member can fill in the shield on a large sheet of paper while the family brainstorms together what should be on their shield and what it represents.

4. Talking Stick

Drawing of a stick. Text says: "Talking Stick. If someone isn't getting space to talk, use a talking stick to give permission to speak. This slows a family down, creates bonding via eye contact, and gives everyone a chance to be heard."

There isn’t always space for the quietest family member to talk – especially if there are strong personalities or exceptionally extroverted family members. During family conversations, it may be helpful to have a talking stick. This may sound like a throwback to 1980’s new age self-help groups, but using a physical tool to help a group of people slow down a conversation, connect through passing, and pay attention to who is speaking really works!

Extra activity: Your family can work together to create your own talking stick and give it its “magic powers.”

5. Scribble Game

Drawing of a drawing. Text says: "Scribble Game. Partners scribble on a paper for 2 to 3 seconds, trade, and then make art with their partner's scribbles. Parents can explain how family will help make sense of things that are confusing."

The scribble game invites collaboration, and parents can help direct this activity in a way that offers kids safety and containment. To play, the first partner scribbles on paper for 2 to 3 seconds, then trades the paper and their partner makes art from the scribbles. There are many variations, the game can continue back and forth in 2 to 3 second bits, the partner can complete a drawing, or the drawing can be passed to a third or fourth player. Kids love being able to create WITH a parent.

Parents can explain how this game shows that family can help make meaning of confusing things – just like how scribbles can become characters when we let someone else help us make sense of them.

Note: As many kids are currently isolated from grandparents, this can be a fun game for kids to play with grandparents they are not currently able to see in person. Use a drawing app and share the image back and forth for an opportunity for kids and grandparents to connect beyond video chat.

6. Make a Moment

Drawing of a person in motion. Text says: "Make a Moment. Get bodies moving! Ask kids to act or dance out their feelings. Pay attention, then join in and act/dance a caring response."

Many kids learn best when they are moving! As a prompt for this activity, invite kids to act or dance out their feelings. Pay attention, and then join in an act or dance a caring response. This activity is sometimes used in family therapy as a way to act out a situation that could have ended differently, and to allow kids to experiment with alternate endings: it can be used in this way at home to repair after an argument or oversight that caused hurt feelings.

Final Thoughts

Research is pretty clear that when families take time to talk about crises, express feelings, and validate the experiences of each family member, kids develop greater emotional resilience and an increase in their ability to adapt to challenging circumstances. Experiencing an adult with healthy emotional regulation, taking part in shared activities, having space for meaning-making activities, and feeling supported all help give kids tools process and express emotional experiences.

When families connect and make space for these experiences during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, there a greater potential for kids to not just make it through unscathed, but experience growth in their own emotional regulation and capacity to extend empathy to others.

I hope those of you quarantined with kids read the above as invitation, not expectation. This time is overwhelming for everyone, but as we seek resources to occupy and distract, may we look for everyday opportunities to help shape the stories our young ones will tell about this extraordinary point in history.

Content like this is available entirely thanks to Patrons who support my work translating critical psychology research and theory into relatable illustrations. You can partner in this work with me via the link at the end of this post. If monthly Patronage isn’t for you, you can still say thanks, support my work, and have a reference sheet by purchasing the digital download of this illustration below:

Therapy Interventions for Families with Young Children

Activities for Professional Teachers and Counselors:

The 6-part illustration included free in this post is an adapted version of an 8-part visual reference sheet of family therapy activities to use with families that include younger children. As a bonus: many of these activities, which can be used as therapeutic interventions, can be done via telehealth. Download the 8-part resource above.

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