How can parents and guardians best help kids understand and process the COVID-19 pandemic? During stressful times, children – no matter what their age – want to know three basic things:
- Am I safe?
- Are my parents, or the people caring for me, safe?
- How will this situation affect my daily life?
Dr. Linda Schmidt, a child psychiatrist at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, provides the following guidance for families and children as they navigate new habits, regulations and emotions.
Your own anxiety can be contagious. Here’s how to help manage it.
Parents should be aware of their own anxiety and worry about the current situation. Living with anxiety and the uncertainty of this situation isn’t easy. Your children will know that you’re worried or nervous even if you try to hide it. Here are some suggestions about how you can manage their anxiety:
Know the facts. Get the most credible information and focus on fact-based information about the virus. Avoid excessive watching of or listening to the news. Limit your time on social media discussions about the virus (or avoid it altogether). Know and follow the guidelines for protecting yourself and your loved ones because that’s the best way to contain anxiety.
Practice good self-care. This is more important than ever. Get adequate sleep. Make physical exercise a priority. Use other ways of reducing anxiety like meditation, yoga or listening to comforting music (see Yo-Yo Ma’s Songs of Comfort). Be especially mindful of eating healthy, nutritious foods.
Talk with those who support you. This could include your partner, friends, therapist, neighbors or another trusted adult – keep social distancing in mind and utilize video calls or other forms of communication.
Be honest with your child if they ask you if you’re worried. Kids know when adults are not being truthful. You can respond with “Yeah, I’m worried about the virus but I’m following the guidelines about how to prevent the spread of the virus to help keep us safe and healthy.”
Talk with your child about what they know.
By now, school-aged children and adolescents have heard about COVID-19. They may be getting information online, from TV or the radio, from friends and, before schools closed, from teachers. They also might have overhead you. Don’t assume that they know the specifics and the situation, or that the information they have is accurate.
Ask open-ended questions. Some examples:
- What have you heard about the coronavirus?
- Where did you hear about it?
- What are your major worries or concerns?
- Do you have any questions that I can answer?
- How are you feeling about the coronavirus and all of this?
Once you know what information your child has and what they’re concerned or worried about, you can then fill in the gaps.
Validate your child’s feelings and concerns. One conversation is probably not going to be enough. As the outbreak continues and your kids get new information, other concerns and questions may arise and they’ll need to talk again. Let them know that they can come to you with questions or worries at any time. But don’t wait for them to approach you; it’s probably a good idea to have regular check-ins as they may not approach you with their fears. Also, don’t assume that your child understands everything you’re telling them. To ensure their comprehension, have them explain back to you what they heard you say. This way, you can be sure whether your child understood you.
Empower your children.
Model prevention behavior. Wash your hands with soap and water frequently, cough or sneeze into your sleeve, wipe your nose with a tissue and then throw it away, keep your hands away from your face and practice social distancing. Demonstrate these behaviors first to your children (here’s a fun activity you can try at home to demonstrate the importance of handwashing). For young children, make a game of it – for example, finding songs you can sing to wash your hands for a full 20 seconds.
Provide reassurance. Remind your children of other challenging situations in which they felt nervous or scared. Remind them of challenging family situations that you’ve gotten through and how the family worked together to get through it. This builds resiliency and hope.
Monitor your kids’ exposure to media. This is especially necessary for young and school-aged children. Make sure they are not overly exposed to news reports of infection numbers and death tolls. News reports are too fast for kids to absorb. In addition, children process this type of information much differently than adults do, and they think of the personal impacts more often than adults do.
Don’t blame others. During stressful times when we feel scared or helpless, it’s easy to look for someone to blame – even when there’s no evidence to support these reactions. This can lead to social stigma and can be harmful to certain groups of people. When talking with your kids about what they have heard or what they know about the coronavirus, listen carefully for anything that discriminates against other people or groups of people. Be sure to address this in your conversation. Be mindful of your own behavior; you don’t want to reinforce negative stereotypes in your own words and actions.
Talk it out. Encourage kids to talk about how they are feeling and respond to those concerns. Remember that loving and supportive relationships can protect against anxiety. Reinforce those relationships and remind kids how families help protect children.
Look for signs that a child is struggling to cope with their emotions:
- For young children; increased fear of separation, regression of skills (bed wetting, not wanting to dress themselves), hyperactivity or anger.
- For older children; increased isolation, irritability and seeming withdrawn or disinterested in school and friends.
If you see these issues, talk to your child and seek assistance if necessary.
Parents strive to make the world as safe as possible for their children. When things like this happen, it feels like the shield is broken. We can’t control certain things, but we can control how we express love and compassion on a daily basis. We can continue to set clear expectations and provide instruction about how to be safe and reduce risk of infection during this time. Reminding children and adolescents about day-to-day safety precautions they can take can support an eventual return of a sense of safety in your family’s life.
Additional Resources for parents and caregivers:
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s Parent/Caregiver Guide to Helping Families Cope With the Coronavirus Disease 2019
- Child Mind Institute’s Talking to Kids About the Coronavirus
- American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry’s Talking to Children About Coronavirus (COVID19)
Linda Schmidt, M.D.
Assistant Professor of Psychiatry
Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital