By Stephanie McFarland, MS, LISW on Tuesday, April 14, 2020

How to identify and manage stress amid COVID-19

Stephanie McFarland, MSW, LISW, Des Moines Public Schools

Stress and anxiety are very normal reactions to the unique circumstances we are facing due to the coronavirus pandemic. It is OK to feel this way, says Stephanie McFarland, MSW, LISW and coordinator for behavioral services at Des Moines Public Schools.


However, when those feelings start to have a negative effect on these five core areas of our life – eat, sleep, exercise, work and play – it is time to establish coping strategies or seek professional help. For access to mental health resources, click here.

It starts with identifying signs of stress. For adults, many of us know our stressors but for children, it can be more subtle.

Here are some common indicators of stress in children:

  • Children age 0-5: picky eating, irregular sleep patterns, more frequent temper tantrums
  • Children age 5-12: more acts of defiance, seeking things they can control
  • Children age 12-18: avoidance of family time, increased screen time, decreased self-care

What can parents do when they notice these signs of stress in their children?

When younger children act out due to stress, "our job is to remain calm so they can borrow some of our calm," McFarland says. Allow children a space where they can talk about what's bothering them. For older children, they key is setting limits and offering them choices to help them feel more in control of their situation.

RESOURCE: Self-care habits for kids to help them cope

Here are 5 more tips to help manage stress in your household:

1. Keep existing routines in place as much as possible. For more information on the importance of routine and how to establish them in your family, click here.

2. Get creative! "You’re not supposed to have your regular life replicated in your house. It just doesn’t work that way," says McFarland. So within the five core areas of our life – eat, sleep, exercise, work and play – where can you do activities more creatively? McFarland shared that in her family, they've been taking pajama walks (exercise) and having picnics on the living room floor (eat). 

RESOURCES: Family-friendly exercise | At-home lunch recipes 

3. Manage your own anxiety and stress. “If you’re having some anxiety, it's your job to regulate that anxiety in ways that are helpful to you because kids regulate off the adults in their life.” Practice self-care habits or seek professional help, if needed. Find 24/7 access to mental health resources at

4. Make a plan. This may seem a little difficult right now, but you can alleviate some of your family's stress and anxiety about the “what ifs” by coming up with a plan, even if it is simple. Remember: We are only in charge of how we think, feel and behave. 

5. Communicate. Connect. Check-in. This is a big one, says McFarland. Kids sometimes use behavior as a communication tool when they don't have the words. Model using words to identify feelings or talk about how you are practicing self-care. Also consider that each of your family members may communicate, connect and check-in in different ways: one child may enjoy hugs while the other would prefer words of encouragement. 


stephanieStephanie McFarland, MSW, LISW, coordinates behavioral health services for Des Moines Public School. She also sees patients in a clinical practice where she specializes in adolescent issues.

This blog post was adapted from a discussion filmed on Facebook Live on April 13, 2020, as part of a "Mental Health Monday" series presented by the Iowa Healthiest State Initiative, Make It OK and Please Pass the Love. 

Watch a full replay of McFarland's discussion at the top of this blog post.