Parenting children with special needs during COVID-19

Parenting a child with special needs or chronic conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic requires drawing on your strengths and returning to the basics.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has disrupted family routines around the world. For families with children who have special needs, such as children with medical conditions or developmental disabilities, these disruptions are amplified. Public uncertainty makes schedules unpredictable and maintaining previous routines a challenge.

Kids with special needs and their parents may feel anxious, just like any family.

At the same time, families with complex needs have a hidden strength: They're resilient, and they know what it takes to adapt to the unexpected.

If you're in this situation during the COVID-19 pandemic, know that you can navigate uncertain times successfully. Here are some suggestions:

Rely on your experience

Think back to strategies that have worked for you in the past. Go back to the basics. This might include:

  • Keeping a consistent schedule for meals, medications, exercise and bedtime
  • Planning gradual transitions that suit your child's pace
  • Using visual cues to illustrate schedules and activities
  • Scheduling quiet time to reduce sensory input and de-stress
  • Offering warm praise for a job well done
  • Promptly correcting or redirecting negative behavior and offering a chance for a redo

Help your child feel in control

Explain that everyone is working together to keep the virus that causes COVID-19 from spreading and making people sick. This is why some schools and playgrounds may be closed. Likewise, having a playdate or going to a friend's house may not be an option. Explain that kids can be a big help, too, by following such practices as:

  • Washing hands with soap and water often, for 20 seconds each time, or cleaning hands with an alcohol-based sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol
  • Sneezing or coughing into a tissue or a bent elbow, not hands, and throwing used tissues in the trash
  • Staying home more
  • Helping to clean and disinfect commonly used areas in the home, such as doorknobs and light switches
  • Avoiding big groups of people
  • Keeping 6 feet (2 meters) of space between themselves and others outside of the house
  • Waving or giving smiles instead of hugs, fist bumps and high-fives
  • Wearing a face mask at grocery stores and in other public places

Revisit your child's treatment plan and care needs

If your child has a treatment plan — which might include things such as a list of prescription medicines, therapy instructions, and emergency and medical contacts — make sure that it's up to date and accessible. It may help to have it in the form of an electronic document that you can easily share. In addition:

  • Identify potential alternative caregivers, in case you or your child's regular caregiver is sick. Focus on people who aren't at higher risk of becoming severely ill with COVID-19.
  • Gather specific instructions for caregivers, including information on your child's medical conditions, doctors and therapists, daily schedules, and preferences.
  • Check in with your child's doctor about plans for continued care during the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtual visits (telemedicine), such as video calls, may be a good alternative to in-person visits.
  • Stock up on at least one month of medication and medical supplies, if possible. Ask your child's doctor about larger supplies of prescription medications. Consider using drive-thru windows, curbside pickup, mail order or other delivery services.
  • If your child continues to receive support services at home, talk to health care providers about ways to minimize risk of exposure.
  • Visit websites of support groups and organizations you've typically relied on in the past. They may have specific information and resources for you and your family to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • For specific health concerns, don't hesitate to call your child's doctor whenever you feel it's necessary.

Manage stress

During the pandemic, everyone feels added stress. It's good to recognize that, since the circumstances likely won't resolve overnight and the COVID-19 pandemic probably isn't going away soon. But it's possible to manage stress so it doesn't get overwhelming. Consider these tips:

  • Take breaks. Remember to make some time for yourself. Wake up a few minutes early to gather your thoughts. Pause a minute or two before bedtime to do some stretches or deep breathing. Take time to gather your mental reserves.
  • Limit access to the news. Being informed is good. But information overload can heighten anxiety about the disease. Limit reading, hearing or watching the news. Also limit social media use that may expose your kids to rumors and false information.
  • Stay healthy. Even though schedules feel off, prioritize getting enough sleep, eating balanced meals and staying active. These fundamentals will reduce stress and improve everyone's state of mind.
  • Connect with loved ones. Stay connected with grandparents and friends via phone or video chat. Or write a letter. Maintaining your family's support network is a key coping strategy.
  • Have some fun. Share relaxed moments with your family, when you're not focusing on work or school. Play games with your kids, go for sunset walks, do cooking projects together and enjoy home movie nights.
  • Let go of unreasonable expectations. During the pandemic, accept that things may not always go as planned and that you or your child may make mistakes. That's OK. Stay positive. Be kind to yourself and remember that the most important action is to simply make sure your child feels loved.

You and your family can successfully navigate the COVID-19 pandemic by relying on your strengths. This means drawing on your hard-earned resilience, using strategies that have helped in the past, planning for your child's medical care and needs, and taking time to manage your stress. You've got this.

July 21, 2020 See more In-depth

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