Clarifying the chaos. It is a responsibility of parents/guardians, teachers, and other adults in a child’s life to attend to their well-being, to help guide them through development, and to help them find “the answers” to life’s many questions. With the recent outbreak of COVID-19 and unprecedented government policies, there is, without a doubt, uncertainty, confusion, and chaos affecting all individuals — adults, children, and adolescents alike. Caregivers may thus be unsure of how to approach conversations with children regarding the outbreak and may worry they don't have “the right answers” to give in this context.
While we cannot personally control the spread of the illness, predict the outcome of the outbreak, or eliminate the uncertainty present in this situation, hope is not lost. We have research findings and knowledge of childhood development, as well as knowledge of how past experiences with disease outbreaks have affected children — all of which informs strategies for discussing difficult topics like this with children. With that in mind, parents and caregivers should consider the following strategies:
Make yourself available to listen, talk, and answer questions. Don’t avoid talking about it – instead encourage the child to ask questions. Most children will have heard about it by now and not talking about it can lead them to worry more. Children will often come to you if they’ve heard something frightening, or you can gently “feel them out” to see if they want to discuss it. Find out what they are thinking and what they have heard about COVID-19. Directly address and correct any misinformation or misunderstanding. Be honest and open in answering questions and admit if you don’t know the answer. Keep in mind your child’s age and developmental level—give them the information they need (i.e., answer their questions) without overwhelming them (see table below for examples). Encourage them to continue asking questions and keep the conversation open. But, don’t feel the need to force a conversation if they aren’t ready — you can, instead, focus on other strategies (see below) that may ease their minds.
Remain calm and reassure the child as much as possible. Attend to your own anxiety/stress to prevent it from coming through in conversations with the child. Try to process any fears you may have before you talk to your children — discuss your own fears with a friend, partner, therapist, etc., away from your child’s earshot. Children will look to their caregivers for how to respond in these situations, so it is important to model remaining calm. Emphasize that you and other adults in their lives are there to keep them safe and healthy. Emphasize the safety precautions being taken for them and the family as a whole (e.g., school closures to “clean out schools/prevent spreading”; hand washing; not visiting grandparents, etc.).
Accept and validate their emotions. Children may respond in very different ways (e.g., they may be irritable, clingy, disappointed about missing out on events). Be patient with them, show empathy and understanding for what they are going through, and calmly set limits when needed (e.g., for tantrums/outbursts). Don’t dismiss their fears – listen, validate (e.g., that sounds pretty scary, and it’s normal to feel scared right now), remain calm, and reassure. Normalize any disappointment they may feel – it’s OK to be sad/angry at missing out on important events (birthday parties, graduation celebrations, etc.).
Monitor your child’s access to virus-related information. Provide positive distractions. Stick to a routine. Limit your child’s viewing or access to upsetting information about the outbreak and give them time away from reminders. You may explain that some of the information out there is based on rumors/ is not accurate. Continue to talk to them about factual information in an age-appropriate manner. Furthermore, children respond best when there is predictability in their environment. So, try to keep their routines as consistent as possible (e.g., regular mealtimes and bedtimes; schoolwork time; chore time; play time; technology time). Finally, try to enjoy the time together as much as you can (e.g., play games, cook meals together) and take time to yourself when needed!
Sources of information:
• Child Mind Institute
• Centre for Disease Control and Prevention
• National Association of School Psychologists