With the entire globe in a tailspin during the COVID-19 crisis, it’s not easy to know the best ways to help our children manage the stress, anxiety, sadness and even trauma they might be feeling.
The emotional toll on children is intensified as the virus becomes more visible, with shuttered signs on windows and doors, 6-foot boundaries in public places, and police patrolling parks and playgrounds. Perhaps the most dramatic symbol of how the virus has shaken our sense of normalcy is the sight of everyday people wearing masks. Since the Center for Disease Control recommended wearing masks to slow the spread of the virus in early April, more people are covering their faces when out in public—a sight that can be frightening for young children and upsetting for older ones.
As these visible signals of the pandemic become more prevalent, how do we talk to our kids and best help them address worries? While there’s no one “right” answer, of course, here are several solid techniques to keep in mind when talking to children of any age, followed by more age-specific tips below.
Open the Door for Conversation Wide – and Keep it Open.
According to Janine Domingues, PhD, a child psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, not talking about something can actually make kids worry more. Specifically tell your child that you’re available to talk—and with that door flung wide open, keep talking, listening, and checking in with your child. For older kids, you might ask them what they think about specific current events and for younger kids, ask them how they felt when they couldn’t see someone’s face. You can reassure your kids that you’ll continue to keep them updated as you learn more.
Listen to their Questions, Follow Their Lead
As with any tough conversation with children, it can be overwhelming to provide too much information. Instead, consider first asking what they know, which gives you a baseline to start from—especially with younger kids, since you don’t want to introduce a lot of new information that might scare them. Then you can ask what they’re feeling and what questions they have, and tailor your comments from there.
For many of us parenting through this pandemic, there are lots of questions we can’t answer since so much is still unknown. My parenting friends and I remind each other that this is okay, and that it’s being available to our children that matters most. Nearly every night at dinner my husband and I ask, “What questions do you have today?” What comes up from our tweens and kindergartner vary widely, so we try to stay nimble, honest and reassuring—or very often, just listen.
Give Space and Validation for their Feelings
Seeing the visible signs of the pandemic and witnessing how it changes the way people interact might resurface feelings of grief, worry, or stress. Seeing someone in a face mask might trigger an association with serious illness and cause kids to worry afresh about themselves and the people they love. Let your kids know that it’s normal to be stressed out and sad at times. Helping children name their feelings and and accept them as both real and temporary will help them cope.
Beyond these fundamentals, there are a few considerations for finding the best developmentally-appropriate way to talk to kids of different ages:
- Perhaps overused, but Fred Rogers’ mother’s advice to “look for the helpers” in the face of crisis offers a critically important way to shift our perception of what we’re seeing now. Teaching very young children to think of people who cover their face to protect others as helpers is not only accurate, it transforms those masked people from scary folks to friendly heroes. You might encourage an “I Spy” type conversation during a walk through your temporarily-transformed neighborhood to spot as many helpers as you can (recognizing that not seeing people is also a sign of helpers staying home).
Elementary School Aged
- School-aged children might benefit from the same re-framing, combined with a little more insight into how the changes they’re seeing and experiencing are meant to help fight the virus. As with little kids, it can be sad for your elementary aged child to see empty places and parks, but if we view it as everyone stepping aside and staying in so that our healthcare workers have the best chance possible, then when we see empty or strange looking places, we’re seeing love in action.
- Find a few age-appropriate resources to help your child understand that this is not “a new normal” but an intensive effort backed by science—that won’t last forever. For example, this Washington Post simulator on flattening the curve, this short video on how the immune system fights disease, and this 8-minute movie on how the coronavirus affects the body and why our individual and community responses matter all give school-aged children useful information to help them interpret their changing world and feel more in control.
Tweens and Teens
- Tweens and teens can benefit from the same type of perspective shifting and kids-focused data and information, with even greater emphasis on finding information and perspectives to help them navigate. It’s important to remember that your guidance in finding and interpreting information is still needed for tweens and teens—even when it’s not asked for. Older kids are more likely to get (often misleading or inaccurate) information from friends or social media, so parents play a crucial role in making sure that their kids have the facts. Unfounded rumors about when school might reopen, how active the virus is in your area, or whether or not they’ll be able to advance to the next grade, for example, will only serve to fuel their anxiety.
- By losing in-person social connection, tweens and teens have lost a valuable part of their lives, at just the time developmentally when they’re working out how to define themselves in terms of their friends and peers. Helping them to hear other young people talk about their feelings, whether from a source like this short by The Atlantic, or encouraging them to set up one-on-one Facetime or Google Hangouts with friends is important in helping them to find their footing—and their voice.