Being a parent is an ever-winding ride. Just when you think you have it “all together” (I guess some people feel that, right?), life inevitably twists and you are left trying to figure it out all over again. The recent coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. Many of us parents are trying to figure out how to adjust to the impact on our jobs, school/daycare, social connection, spring break, society, getting essentials (e.g., diapers, milk, mac-n-cheese, etc) and other every day routines. Let alone figuring out if or how to share the news with our children. Many of our first instincts is to protect our children from the frightening news and we worry about increasing fear in our children by sharing information about the virus; however, research demonstrates that the more we keep children out of the loop in these situations, the more they actually worry.
Our brains are complex meaning making machines working on hyper-speed. They are constantly piecing information together, trying to connect dots, and filling in the blanks to better understand the world around us. When we do not give our brains a word bank (aka context, facts, etc), it automatically fills in the blank on it’s own and often times with things that are even more frightening than reality. Have you ever seen a shadow in your room in the middle of the night and your mind tried to convince you it was a danger, but really it was the laundry you have not put away? That is your brain filling in the blanks.
Here are some helpful tips and considerations to use when providing that word bank to your children in these challenging times:
- Manage your own fears and anxiety. Many of us parents have our own emotional reactions to the pandemic. Of course we do, we are humans and these are stressful times. Be mindful of how yours is coming across to those around you. For me, my irritability increases and my patience decreases. When our brains are activated (think fight/flight/freeze), our meaning making machine goes on the fritz and we are not as able to think logically or help our children co-regulate. Try practicing grounding or mindfulness exercises, self-soothe with your 5 senses, use deep breathing. Once you are in a calmer state, then approach the conversation with your child.
- Lean into the discomfort and talk about coronavirus. Most children have already heard or seen something regarding the virus. Our instinct might be to avoid talking about it, but that can conversely increase their own worries and reinforce anxiety in the long run. As parents/caregivers, we can act as the filters and provide them with developmentally appropriate information and facts. This can help them feel informed by someone they trust and reassure them. Keep the facts short and sweet, as it might be overwhelming for them. Do your best to be honest, clear, and calm. Remember children react not only to what you say, but also how you say it. You may not know every answer, and that is okay, own it. Having them know you are there for them is what matters most in frightening times.
- Follow your child’s lead and cues. Make time to talk and space for your child to share their experience. Follow their lead. Some children might not want to talk too much about it, while others might want to spend longer. Encourage your child to share with you what they have heard about the virus, how they are feeling about it (be careful not to lead them – “Are you worried about coronavirus?”) and any questions they might have. Work to reassure and correct faulty information with facts. Remember our brains are trying to fill in the blanks and often get it wrong, assign incorrect blame, or catastrophize. This is a time to ‘check the facts’.
- Focus on what you/they can do to stay safe. Shifting the conversation from what is out of our control to what is in our control can be helpful in these times. Focus on empowering your child to act in ways that keep themselves safe (e.g., washing hands with soap for the ABCs – 20 seconds, using hand sanitizer, covering their coughs (we call them ‘vampire coughs’ in our house), practicing physical distancing from others, and other CDC recommendations). Additionally, you could include their help around the house to set up stations for Kleenex and hand sanitizer. Giving children a sense of control and input, can help shift the anxiety rather than avoiding and reinforce it.
- Keep communication going. Open communication is important, especially in stressful times. Share with children that you will keep sharing important updates as they occur and that they can come to you with their feelings and questions.
Other helpful resources:
https://www.flipsnack.com/KeshetChicago/coronavirus-social-story/full-view.html E-story about explaining COVID-19 to young children.
https://www.brainpop.com/health/diseasesinjuriesandconditions/coronavirus/ Animated video for children about Coronavirus.
https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/talking-with-children.html for specific facts and language about explaining COVID-19 to children.
https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/NASN/3870c72d-fff9-4ed7-833f-215de278d256/UploadedImages/PDFs/02292020_NASP_NASN_COVID-19_parent_handout.pdf Parent resource from the National Association of School Nurses.
https://www.cdc.gov/childrenindisasters/helping-children-cope.html CDC on helping children cope in a disaster.
Talking with Children about COVID-19
CHARLOTTE JOHNSON, MA, LPCC