Supporting our Children During the Coronavirus Pandemic
The current coronavirus pandemic is causing a lot of anxiety for everyone, parents and children alike. As parents, we always want to provide our children with support and reassurance. But this pandemic and resulting disruption to our daily lives is unprecedented in modern times so it can be difficult to know how to handle it. So, what can we do to support our children and how can we answer their questions without causing more fear and anxiety?
I recently was interviewed by Jim Lefko with NBC News 4 San Antonio about this topic. Click here to see the video and read the article form their online publication.
The first thing we must do is to become aware of our own anxiety.
Your anxiety may be experienced as fear and worry, but it can also manifest as anger, attempts to control the environment (even if ineffective, like hoarding toilet paper) or denial. We must do whatever we can to process our own anxiety. This could be with another adult, with a therapist or through journaling or other forms of self care. Before you ever answer a single question for your child, they are watching and learning from you. They are learning how to respond to threatening and unknown situations.
How to talk to your children about the COVID-19 Pandemic:
The specific discussions you have with your children need to be tailored to that child’s developmental level and temperament. Parents should filter what they tell children. You don’t want to tell them more than they can process or cope with.
Under 4 years of age – they may not hear about it so unless you know they have been exposed to the news or are aware of the situation, you can wait for them to ask questions. They are most likely to notice changes in routine. You can tell them something simple such as, “A lot of people have gotten sick so we are staying home to protect other people from getting sick too.”
School age (Age 4-10) – Children this age have heard from peers, parents or news about the virus itself. If they had not already heard, they likely started asking questions with school closures or cancellations of other activities. If they don’t ask questions, you may want to find a time to start a conversation with them and see if they have questions. If they do not want to talk or do not seem ready, then don’t push them to talk.
Middle & High School (Age 11-18) - Your children in this age group have heard about the virus but they likely have a mix of accurate information and unreliable information. They have access to the internet through their phones and laptops so they will be doing their own research. Starting a conversation with children in this age group to ensure they are not becoming overwhelmed by to much access to media or confused by misconceptions from peers or unreliable news sources.
Regardless of age, there are some general principles for having conversations about the coronavirus.
Assess Understanding - Ask them what they already know. Start by reviewing what they have heard. Review with them which things are accurate, and which may be exaggerated or false. For an older, more mature child, you could use the opportunity to teach them how to find reputable information online such as from the CDC or WHO.
Elaborate on Questions - When your child asks questions, ask them to elaborate on exactly what they want to know. You will want to filter what you know about the situation. You don’t want to give so much information that they cannot process or cope with it. Answer their question in simple, general terms. Provide additional information only as they ask for it.
Check Understanding - Ask them what they understand from what you have said. Sometimes children make assumptions or draw conclusions that may not have been obvious. It’s also okay to tell your child that you don’t know the answer, but you will tell them when you find out.
Process Emotions - Allow them to have their emotions and help them to process these emotions. It’s okay to tell them that you are afraid. You are modeling a normal human reaction to a stressful situation. You are showing them that its okay to feel anxious and to talk about that anxiety. Then take the opportunity to show them how you deal with that anxiety in a healthy way. “The virus makes me worry too, sometimes when I feel like this I like to get out in nature, let’s go for a walk together.”
We never want to lie to our kids, but we do want to give some reassurance. You may not be able to say that the virus will not affect them or anyone they know. Here are some true and reassuring things you can say:
Many experts are working to create a vaccine and medications to treat and prevent the illness.
Many people are doing whatever they can (staying home) to prevent spreading the illness
There are doctors and nurses who are working hard to treat the people who are sick
I am here for you and I will do whatever I can to keep you and our family safe
There are things we can do to keep ourselves and others safe (hand washing, social distancing etc)
This is a good time to teach your children about things we can control and things we cannot control. This is a general principle that applies to most things in life which cause us anxiety. Focusing too much on things we cannot control will not help to resolve our anxiety and will likely make it worse. If we instead spend time focusing on those things within our control, it can help us to better manage the situation (as long as we don’t take the attempt to control too far). In the current pandemic, we can’t control how the virus is spreading across the world. We can wash our hands, distance ourselves from others, stop touching our face etc.
Monitor for signs of anxiety – Most children and teens will show some signs of stress, just like the rest of us. However, some children may struggle more than others. If your child is genetically prone to developing an anxiety disorder (such as a family with other members with anxiety disorders) then sometimes a stressful trigger can make the anxiety symptoms manifest for the first time. Check back soon for a post on recognizing the signs of anxiety in children and teens. In brief, anxiety can look different in children and teens. In addition to the excessive fears and worries common in anxiety, children can often show excessive clinginess, excessive reassurance seeking, sleep problems and physical complaints. If your child seems to struggle with the stress of this situation and has difficulty coping, or if their anxiety prevents them from doing school work or interacting with family, you make want to seek additional help from a psychologist or psychiatrist. Some children may also exhibit signs of depression during stressful periods. To read more about possible signs of depression in children and teens, click here.
What else can we do to help kids cope with the stress of the coronavirus pandemic?
As mentioned above, there are some things we cannot control. However, there are some things we can do for our kids to help them cope and minimize the stress of this epidemic.
Make things as predictable as possible. Have some sort of routine even if its not your normal routine.
Establish a regular sleep schedule. Wake the kids up at the same time each day and go to bed at the same time each night. It doesn’t need to be their normal school wake up time but keeping it consistent will help to keep their sleep cycle regulated.
Keep a healthy diet with meals at regular times. This helps to keep the routine of the day and prevent worsening of their mood and energy levels.
Exercise as much as possible. Normal exercise routines may be disrupted so you may need to be creative to find ways to stay active. Try an online workout video or take walks as a family.
Spending some time outside can help with the feeling of being confined at home. Exposure to sunlight first thing in the morning can help also help to maintain the normal sleep cycle as mentioned above.
Relax screen time limits but also provide alternative activities. It’s okay to let kids have some extra screen time, you and they will both need the break! But finding some activities can prevent screen time from taking over. Too much screen time, especially social media, has been shown to negatively affect mood and anxiety. Find a balance between maintaining some limits, but also having some grace for ourselves and our children during these challenging times.
Help them to maintain (virtual) social relationships. You may want to exclude video and phone calls with friends from counting toward screen time. Interacting with peers is important for development especially for teenagers and they will need it to get through this difficult time.
Above all, give everyone some grace. We all cope with fear and uncertainty differently. The weeks and months ahead may be difficult but it will help to remember that we are all in this together and everyone is doing the best they can.
Resources & References
For more information about talking to kids about coronavirus, see the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s tip sheet and American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations.
For more information about the coronavirus and children, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics website.