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Using the Arts to Build Distress Tolerance with Children and Teens during COVID-19

Over a week in April 2010, a BP-operated rig discharged 4.9 billion barrels of oil into the Pacific Ocean, killing thousands of marine animals and contaminating their habitats. My daughter was four. I talked to her about the spill, the negligence of the company, and the impact of humans on the earth and animals. We cried and cried. We looked at pictures of animals with oil in their feathers, covering their eyes and noses. We looked at the line of oil on the coast and located it on the globe.

We were in distress for the animals. And we were grieving a terrible loss. 

Then I showed her photos of the helpers. The National Ocean Service employees, veterinarians, and thousands of volunteers. She looked up at me with puffy eyes, “What can I do, Mommy?” So at preschool the next day, we set up an animal cleaning station, and the children took turns washing the mud-covered plastic animals. One after another, they exclaimed, “Look I got all the mud off!” “Me too!” “I had to be really careful of its eyes!”

Yesterday, the fourth day of COVID-19 school closure, our family pretended to wash my daughter’s doll’s hands while singing and playing with the bubbles. We played “Dr. Bunn-Bunn” and gave each other check ups. We talked a little about the difference between a cold, a flu and the coronavirus. Mostly we laughed and fell in each other’s arms. We connected during a time of extreme isolation, when she cannot touch a friend’s shoulder or braid their hair.

Playing “Dr. Bunn-Bunn.” Dolly washes her hands for 30 seconds.

An oil spill and coronavirus are very different disasters, but they share an important theme: Distress can take over our bodies: we need ways to make sense of it and to process it, rather than hold it in. 

How can we cope with distress and anxiety when things are terribly wrong? What activities and tools do children need to process their experiences during difficult, even traumatic, times? What do we need to build distress tolerance?

We need to play.

My friend has three children, B (age 13), R (age 9) and the 2 year-old “baby.” She shared this exchange with me:

B: I am trying to set up a dueling thing for the baby.

R: A dueling thing?

B: Yes. Just come see. He needs to be able to duel this dragon so he stops whining.

R: Oh, well, he’ll need a sword.

B: He already has one, see? He is a Monster Hunter.

R: In that case he will need this cloak. Monster Hunters need cloaks too.

From The Little Green Monster: Cancer Magic! 2018. Illustration by Jackie Gorman.

Using play and creativity, my friend’s older kids theorized about why the baby was upset and what they could do to help.

Let’s all find ways to play each day during the Coronavirus outbreak. Try drawing with your non-dominant hand. Make emotion faces out of pasta or other dried goods. Say silly phrases and make faces in the mirror. Become a monster hunter, or a monster creator like I did when I wrote Little Green Monster: Cancer Magic! during breast cancer. Play is for everyone. My imaginary monster friend helped me handle the intensity of treatment. I couldn’t have done it without him.

We need to process strong emotions.

Ice melting my worries away. Sharon Chappell, 2020.

Notice when you feel stress, anxiety or sadness during this difficult time. Give everyone in the home permission (including yourself) to not be okay. When your children feel their emotions boil over, take a moment to breathe. Then, try one of these activities together. 

Play with Temperature: Worry, anxiety and anger all feel hot. Cool down with temperature. Put ice cubes in the bathtub or sink. Watch them melt. Move them around like an iceberg. Envision your brain cooling down, your body relaxing and melting like ice into water. Breathe.

Emotion Dice: When you are at rest, play this emotion game. Download The Little Green Monster Project’s Emotion Dice, print, cut out and tape together at the tabs. Take turns rolling the dice. When you land on an emotion word, make that facial expression. Name colors, sounds, words that remind you of that emotion. Perhaps write a story using all the emotion words on the dice.

We need to reflect.

Coronavirus, by Maya Rodriguez, 7 years old. 2020

Living History: Create a journal about living with coronavirus that you can share with someone (or yourself!) in 10 or 50 years. Include photos, news articles, drawings, recipes, jokes and quotes from your family. Use the journal as space to look inward, to see yourself as important and valuable: What makes you special? What do you want to learn about? What is your safe place? How do you help yourself and others? What makes you, YOU?

We need to experience joy.

Salad Spinner Art. Christina Page Finley, 2020.

Salad Spinner Art: Christina Page Finley’s joy is making art with children at Jellybeanstreet. “Salad spinner art,” she says, “is my favorite. There are so many different types of salad spinners (the push button ones are best for kids under 4 or a lazy susan can work in a pinch). Gather a spinner, paint (tempera or acrylic) and paper cut in a circle. Put the paper in the spinner, add some paint. And, go ahead… give it a spin. We can’t resist smiling when spinning or watching someone spin their paint. Laughter is wonderful medicine.”

Jellybeanstreet Orange County facilitates art workshops with children and turns their work into abstract fine art, raising money for charity worldwide.

Especially for Teens: Photo Eye Spy

“Photo Eye Spy” Playing games with Ouisi photos.

Mindfulness is about letting the body focus and slow down. (You can even eat a raisin mindfully!) Each day, try a mindful practice and learn which ones you enjoy.

In Photo Eye Spy, look carefully at the world around you, and take close up photos. Breathe slowly and deeply as you look. Then, check in with friends: share your photos in Google Drive or through text. Tell them, “Hey! Thinking of you. How are you doing? Here is something I saw today. What did you see?” You can also create a journal of your day in photos, print the photos out and play games, or make collages with them. Check out Ouisi for more visual play ideas. 


–From Home School to Public School. A Kids Podcast from Story Seeds.

–Support Your Children and Teens with Anxiety during Coronavirus. The New York Times.

–Teaching through the Coronavirus, Resources for Teachers, Parents and Students,” Teaching Tolerance

Sharon Chappell, PhD, is the Executive and Artistic Director of Well Beings Studio. She is a teacher educator, breast cancer survivor, parent and artist in Fullerton, CA. Sharon is also the author of Little Green Monster: Cancer Magic!, available for donation to families and friends impacted by cancer.

Are you a parent, artist, teacher, health and wellness provider with an arts activity to support emotional well-being? Submit to the Well Beings Studio Blog! Contact:

Mental health is important. If you need support, contact The US Health and Human Services Department will help you talk about your concerns, and connect you with resources, such as a therapist or hotline. You can also visit your local 211 website (in Orange County, CA ours is If you are in crisis, please dial 911.

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