How Can You Help Your Child During Stressful Times?

Written by Abigail G. Allmon and Gwendolyn F. Price

        Adults have become accustomed to the phrase “these are strange and uncertain times,” but children are also having to make large adjustments to these circumstances! As they get used to homeschooling and finding ways to keep in touch with friends, it’s important for them to be emotionally supported in these difficult times. A family friend was talking about how he has been taking daily walks with his young son. On these walks his son opened up about his feelings, what he is looking forward to post-quarantine and his hopes for the future. These are conversations that may not have happened without the unique experience of the pandemic. In these strange times there is a silver lining: children learning how to cope with difficult circumstances, and this can help set them up for emotional success later in life.

        Parents play an essential role in their children’s emotional development, but now, their role is now exaggerated. Children’s contact with teachers, peers and other caretakers like babysitters is limited, making parents one of the few role models children have to learn to regulate, manage and express their emotions. One of the important ways children learn these emotion skills is through social referencing (Walden, 1993). This concept describes how children look to the adults around them and mimic their responses to different situations. For example, if a stranger enters a room, often young children will look to their caregiver and if the adult responds positively, then the child will match this reaction. On the other hand, if the adult appears distressed, the child will also get upset. Learning healthy emotion regulation is an essential aspect of a child’s development. When children can observe their parents managing and dealing with emotions in a positive way, they can learn this beneficial pattern and apply it in their own lives.

Research Tip: When a child has a strong example to look up to during difficult situations, they are more likely to follow those healthy patterns in the future.

          Parents’ level of emotional support can also have a drastic effect on their children’s academic goals. Emotional support includes both controlling and encouraging behaviors. Children who have controlling parents have lower rates of self-efficacy, particularly in skills in scientific fields (Scott & Mallinckrodt, 2005). Though there are many restrictions that local, state, and federal governments are enforcing, parents can still give children some freedom in how they spend their time under stay-at-home orders. Parental encouragement helps children have higher rates of self-efficacy. As a result, girls high in self-efficacy often have higher career aspirations, especially in traditionally male dominated fields. When children feel that they have to work for their parents’ approval and love, they are less likely to choose activities and fields in which there is a higher risk of failure. When they feel that they are supported unconditionally, they are secure in their attempts to try new things and explore more difficult skills. Children who feel supported, then, are more likely to work harder and pursue higher academic goals.

Research Tip: Giving children a healthy amount of freedom can improve their self-efficacy and higher career aspirations.

Children are more likely to take risks with strong parental support. This aligns with the popular Attachment Theory, that children will be more inclined to explore their surroundings if they have a stable and secure attachment to their caretaker (Byng-Hall, 1995). When children know that they are supported and loved, they can approach new problems with excitement and assuredness of their abilities. As kids face new obstacles of having to adjust to online friendships and classes, along with the fear surrounding the virus itself, they can face these difficulties knowing that their parents are a source of comfort and security.

Research Tip: Children feel more comfortable and confident in new situations when they have a “secure base” in their caregiver and know they can trust that person.

Emotional development contributes to the development of moral behavior. One study found that in stressful situations children were able to complete problem solving tasks more quickly, and importantly were less likely to cheat, when they received encouragement from their parents (Sprinrad, Losoya, Eisenberg, et. al., 1999). Simply affirming children’s abilities and intelligence can bolster their self-esteem and benefit their academic development, as they are more likely to learn material more thoroughly and perform better on assessments when they avoid dishonest methods like cheating. This can further augment the development of higher career aspirations, as they can be confident in their own skills. Parental emotional encouragement that facilitates this moral behavior can also help children to form solid friendships, as their honesty and morality promotes trust when making friends. Higher self-esteem helps them to tackle new projects confidently and will benefit them in their current online educational environment as well as when they return to in person learning environments.

Research Tip: Strong parental encouragement benefits children’s moral behavior, which is important for their academics and formation of friendships.

            Though strong emotional support from parents is of course ideal, parents do not have to be constantly positive. Some research shows that differing levels of emotional support between the two parents can actually improve their kids’ understanding of complex emotions, contributing to their emotional and social development (McElwain, Halberstadt & Volling, 2007). There are bound to be instances of frustration, such as one parent undergoing a stressful adjustment to working from home, while their child is also struggling with negative emotions such as disappointment or anger. When the child recognizes that this parent cannot respond properly to the child’s feelings, and instead turns to the other parent or caregiver, this can contribute to a development of empathy, as they learn to take into account others’ feelings and emotions. Through these experiences in varying emotional support between parents, children come to understand how difficult communication is, and in doing so become more sensitive and adept at resolving conflict.

Research Tip: A variety of parental support can aid in children’s development of emotion understanding.

There are important consequences, though, to frequently reacting negatively when children express their emotion. This can potentially lead to dysregulation of their emotion if they are not taught how to properly handle it. One study found that when parents are distressed, it can affect how they respond when children also show signs of distress. Not allowing children to express their emotions properly can force them to find other ways of dealing with their emotions, such as acting out and misbehaving (Fabes, Leonard, Kupanoff, et. al., 2001). As most adults are currently working from home, they are likely spending more time with their partners and understandably, there are bound to be more arguments and disagreements among spouses. When children are regularly exposed to this fighting, it can increase their levels of aggression, so it is important for parents to limit the amount of arguing in front of their children (Jenkins, 2004). Having peaceful discussions with one’s partner after an argument can teach children how to resolve conflict.

Research Tip: Letting children express their emotions verbally — even negative ones — can help avoid those emotions being expressed as behavioral issues.

            There are certainly cautionary measures that parents should take to prevent their children from mishandling their emotions. However, parents have an opportunity throughout these circumstances not just to prevent misbehavior, but to make advances in educating their children about emotional development. Their positive emotion modeling and encouragement of their children can promote healthy expression of feelings, which will significantly benefit them now and through adulthood.


Byng-Hall, J. (1995). Creating a Secure Family Base: Some Implications of Attachment Theory for Family Therapy. Family Process, 34 (1), 45-58.

McElwain, N. L., Halberstadt, A. G., & Volling, B. L. (2007). Mother- and Father-Reported Reactions to Children’s Negative Emotions: Relations to Young Children’s Emotional Understanding and Friendship Quality. Child Development, 78 (5), 1407-1425. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01074.x

Scott, A. B., Mallinckrodt, B. (2005). Parental Emotional Support, Science Self-Efficacy, and Choice of Science Major in Undergraduate Women. The Career Development Quarterly, 53, 263-273.

Spinrad, T. L., Losoya, S. H., Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R. A., Shepard, S. A., Cumberland, A.,Guthrie, I. K., & Murphy, B. C. (1999). The Relations of Parental Affect and Encouragement to Children’s Moral Emotions and Behaviour. Journal of Moral Education, 28 (3), 323-337. doi:10.1080/030572499103115.

Walden, T. A. (1993). Communicating the meaning of events through social referencing. In A. P. Kaiser, & D. B. Gray (Eds.), Enhancing children’s communication: Research foundationsfor intervention (187-199) Paul H. Brookes Publishing, Baltimore, MD. Retrieved from