COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. The pandemic is unprecedented, prompting fear and forcing new ways of engaging in everyday activities.
Kids are often at an advantage because their brains can’t fathom the magnitude of a disaster. But this is different.
Across the board, kids and teens need reassurance. They also deserve honesty. How can you strike the right balance?
The best way to approach conversations about the coronavirus with your kids and teens will depend on their age, maturity and intellect. Keep in mind that information about the pandemic — and its ripple effects — is constantly evolving. The nature of your conversations will also be influenced by how closely COVID-19 is impacting your family and community.
Listen First. Talk Second.
Start by listening. Determine what your kids know — and what they think they know. Dispel any myths or false beliefs they may have taken in from conversations with their peers or by overhearing your conversations.
Once you’ve established their level of understanding, encourage them to ask you questions. Answer them succinctly, being careful not to overwhelm them with more information than they’re able to process. Pay attention to their responses. Make sure they grasp your explanations before confusing them with more details.
Give Age-Appropriate Information
Explain the need for changes such as social distancing and wearing masks in public in a way that your kids will understand. While younger kids will be able to comprehend how viruses are spread from one person to another, save flatten-the-curve explanations for older kids and teens.
For younger children, liken the virus to a cold, reminding them that they stay away from their friends when they’re sick so that their friends don’t catch their cold, flu, etc. Talk about good hygiene habits we use to prevent spreading illness, like washing our hands well and covering our mouths when we cough.
Offer relatable examples to help them understand the disruption in their normal activities, like school, gymnastics, swim lessons, and playdates. You might want to remind younger children of other times that school was closed — due to a snowstorm, for instance — and then reopened once it was deemed safe.
Elementary, middle and high school age kids will be able to handle more in-depth information, including what the government and community leaders are doing to keep everyone safe. Help them separate facts from rumors, and to become discerning consumers of news, including on social media (which is where teens get the majority of their information).
Be a Good Emotional Role Model
Regardless of their age, kids need to feel that someone is in control. This gives them a sense of security.
Without sugar-coating a dire situation, try to reassure them that everything will be okay in time. Getting through difficult times and situations builds resilience. Modeling the ability to feel uncomfortable emotions — and to persevere with guarded optimism — is a lifelong gift you can give your children during this time.
Kids have strong emotional antennae. No matter how hard you try to cover it up, they can sense your fear, anxiety, sadness and anger. Talk about how you’re handling difficult emotions, and how they can manage their own.
Be honest with your kids … within age-appropriate reason. Let them know that you’re feeling a lot of intense feelings now, too. But even with older kids and teenagers, remember that you’re the parent. Your kids look to you for safety and support — not the other way around.
They’re Always Listening …
One of the classic ironies of parenthood is that kids will listen only when you don’t want them to. You might have to call them three times to come to the dinner table, but when you and your spouse are talking among yourselves, their ears will perk up.
Be aware of your conversations about the coronavirus not only with other adults in your home, but also when you talk on the phone. Little ears are listening, and might take things in without context.
Limit the amount of news you consume in their presence so that they’re not exposed to more information than they can handle. The news is often sensationalized, and made even more dramatic by the daunting music played at the beginning of COVID-related stories.
Think about how heart-wrenching and frightening it is for you to hear about and see some of the images on the news; are these scenarios your child will be able to handle?
Give Kids a Variety of Coping Tools
Now is the perfect opportunity to teach your child tools to calm their anxiety. Even preschoolers can learn deep breathing exercises. Also, guided meditation is an excellent tool for kids of all ages. If your child can sit still, they can listen to a brief guided meditation sequence. Consider making it a shared family activity.
Try to find the silver lining. If you look hard enough, there are plenty of positive news stories about people finding creative ways to support their families and communities. Challenge your kids to share one positive thing they’ve seen, heard about or experienced at the end of every day.
Look for ways to help others. Altruism benefits the giver and the recipient. Encourage your kids to show their appreciation to those on the front lines (medical professionals, essential services like mail carriers, grocery store clerks) by writing letters to or drawing pictures for them.
Routines provide a sense of stability and predictability. Even though your schedules have likely shifted due to work-from-home and homeschooling, keep as much of a routine in place, without being too rigid.
Teach your kids to respect other family members’ needs for their own time, whether it’s to sit quietly and read or to connect virtually with friends. With everyone spending so much (if not all) of their time at home, introverts may not be as able to get the space they need.
Finally — and foremost — offer extra doses of love and affection, even to your cantankerous teenager. Expect to see some emotional and behavioral regression across all age levels. Understand that it’s a normal reaction to a crisis. Keep checking in with your kids; conversations about the coronavirus should be ongoing, particularly as the situation evolves.
Minding Your Kids’ Mental Health
With your support, most kids and teens will be able to weather this storm. But some will have a more intense emotional reaction than others. Now, more than ever, it’s important to be in tune with your child’s mental health.
It’s normal to expect some regression, but if your child has been potty-trained for years and begins wetting the bed … or if you see a disruption in your teen’s eating or sleeping patterns, don’t minimize it.
While every child is different, risk factors for serious issues include a pre-existing mental health issue, prior experience with trauma, family instability or loss of a loved one.
If your child is having difficulty sleeping, eating or concentrating for more than two weeks — or is showing signs of severe anxiety, depression or suicidal ideation — reach out for professional help. Until it’s deemed safe to see clients in person, mental health professionals (including psychotherapists and psychiatrists) are using telehealth platforms to conduct virtual therapy sessions.
After the dust of this pandemic settles, experts are predicting a surge in mental health issues. Know your child and continue to be vigilant in recognizing any changes in their emotional state or behavior.
The Ultimate Balancing Act
Parenting is a constant balancing act between offering love and support … and promoting growth and independence. Between providing reassurance and safety … and being honest. Between protecting them … and preparing them for the real world.
Preparing them for a real world that involved a pandemic was once beyond imagination. Unfortunately, it’s now a stark reality.
You play a critical role in helping them navigate this reality. Now, perhaps more than ever, knowing how to effectively communicate with your kids and teens — in an age-appropriate manner — will help you strike the right balance.
Parenting doesn't come with a handbook.
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