Parents are already working to manage their own rising fears about COVID-19 (commonly known as novel coronavirus) and a possible pandemic. Add to that the burden of quelling children’s worries and trying to keep them from picking their noses and wiping their fingers across germ-infested public surfaces, and you have a recipe for grown up meltdowns. How can you strike a balance between frightening your kids with dire warnings and over-insulating them from an emerging crisis? How do you walk this tightrope without losing your own footing?
Acknowledge and normalize feelings. When I was about eight years old, I had a pretty awful stomach bug, and our pediatrician instructed my mom to drive me straight to the hospital to be admitted. I was terrified riding there in the “way back” of our station wagon, and I can still hear my mom calling out from the driver’s seat, “Think of this as an adventure!” She so wanted to comfort me, but this didn’t help. If your kids sound, act, or look worried, let them know that this is a normal feeling. Explain to them that many people are worried about things that are new or unknown. Pretending there’s nothing to worry about, when in fact there is, can be confusing for kids, and also can do damage to their developing abilities to “trust their guts.”
Ask and answer questions. Ask your children what they know about the novel coronavirus, and what they’d like to know. Probing this way will help you avoid overloading a child with more information than they need, or missing out on opportunities to correct misconceptions. If you have children who are at very different developmental stages, you may need to talk with them separately so that you can address questions that meet each child’s specific needs.
Just the facts, please. Choose your media sources carefully. Monitor reliable sources like the CDC, WHO, and other government agencies, and stay away from anything that sounds sensational. Networks want to keep you dialed in, and unfortunately, can “enhance” situations to keep your eyes glued to the screen. If you are watching things that fuel your own anxiety, it will be hard to model calm for your kids.
Assure safety. Let children know that kids and younger adults (like you) are at very low risk of serious complications from COVID-19. Also, remind them of all the helpers involved – the government agencies, health care workers, and researchers especially.
Adopt a stance of curiosity. This is actually a great time for some age-appropriate education. For the elementary crowd, you can learn together about viruses. You can talk about the history and importance of vaccines and how they are developed. Let’s add some math to the mix: The CDC and WHO websites are chock full of colorful bar and pie graphs right now. Lastly, those same sites can give you a unique opportunity to foster curiosity about world geography. Along with exploring new information, enhance feelings of familiarity and security by bringing kids back to things they do know about, and may even have first hand experience with – common colds and the flu.
Combat xenophobia and racism. This is an excellent opportunity to instill in your child respect for and inquisitiveness about other people. Explain to your children that the virus is not specific to one country or group, and teach them about how to stand up for people who are different than they are – against racism.
Practice or adopt healthy limits on technology. Children and teens need limits on tech time every day. This is especially important when they risk having important questions answered with misinformation, or could have fears fueled. If you’re a parent who listens to the news while driving carpool or has the TV news in the background throughout the evening, trade in for some music or a new series the family can enjoy together. You can get the facts when your kids aren’t around, and filter what’s relevant to them.
Keep kids connected. It’s important children not feel alone, and teens keep in touch on their phones. Work to strike a balance that allows for important contact with friends and also keeps kids grounded in reality. You might encourage more playdates or hang out times with healthy friends and family.
Plan for child care. If schools do close, and you have to work, where will your children go? For many people, this is one of the worst case scenarios (outside of becoming ill with COVID-19). Even if you have the ability to work from home, it can be tough to be productive with kids of any age around. Have you heard the saying, “It takes a village?” Talk with healthy, trusted neighbors and school friends about possible kid swaps. Chances are that they are worried too, and that everyone would be happy to have options that feel safe and familiar to their children.
Encourage self efficacy. Children will feel empowered if they know what they can do to prevent getting sick or spreading disease. Go over hand washing techniques and sneeze and cough etiquette. You can also come up with some new and creative greeting alternatives to hugs, kisses, or handshakes. In our house, we rub elbows, and the practice elicits a lot of giggles.
Let kids help you prepare. Are you stocking your pantry or freezer? Tell your children it is in case lots of people are sick, and it’s smarter not to go to the store, and then let them help you plan meals they will enjoy. If it’s looking like schools might close, have kids help you make a list of things they can do at home. It might be an excellent time to order a few new board games or arts and crafts supplies from amazon.
Practice good co-parenting. If your children live in two homes, now is the time to practice your best co-parenting:
- Extend your co-parent an extra measure of grace during this time when they may be experiencing higher than usual stress levels.
- Work to maintain consistency in parenting schedules to provide the children a sense of stability, AND:
- Be as flexible as you can be about sharing responsibilities if school or childcare become unavailable.
- Offer children extra points of contact between stays in each home. Kids may worry if their other parent is safe if they sense a social climate of fear and tension. A phone call or web chat can go a long way .
Keep to routines. As much as you can, keep both yourself and your kids in your normal routines. Even in the event that schools close and activities are cancelled, you can stick to bed times, eating habits, and family rituals. The same goes for family rules. Now is not the time to bend them. Structure makes kids feel safe, so it can create a sense of normalcy to hear you saying, “No shoes in the house,” or “food stays in the kitchen, please.”
Embrace family time. Busy families work hard to carve out quality family time. You may get handed some you didn’t ask for. In the unlikely event that your family is quarantined, or even if you are just home from school and work and trying to avoid public spaces, take this opportunity to create some new family memories.
Be present. Kids need to know that your focus is on them during this time. When you aren’t working, put the phone and tablet away and do things with your kids that allow you to look them in the eye or embrace them. When kids feel uncertain about situations, they naturally need more attention and affection.
If you are struggling to adopt these practices, or if you or your child are so anxious that it’s concerning you, please reach out for help. If you can’t venture out, telehealth is a viable option for therapy with adults and teens. A therapist who specializes in children and adolescents can help you take steps to reduce anxiety for yourself and your children.