Using honest, reassuring language is key.
Last week, I had to break the difficult news to our 5-year-old, who had been counting down the days to his birthday on his own homemade calendar: “Remember how I said it’s possible we might not be able to have your party as we planned because of the virus? Well, we won’t be able to have it next week, and we don’t know yet when we will have it. But I promise we’ll do something fun on your birthday.”
He nodded solemnly—we had prepared him for this possibility—and asked, “Will I still turn 6 years old?”
After assuring him that he would, in fact, still be a year older, I sighed with relief about his biggest concern. When the big day did roll around this week, his more worldly brother, age 9, had a different concern. During our very small but fun family birthday celebration, our older son developed a headache and threw up. As he was vomiting into the toilet with my husband beside him, he asked, “Do I have the coronavirus? Am I going to make everyone sick?”
Having kids is hard. Having kids at home for extended periods is harder. Having kids at home for an indefinitely extended period during an unprecedented worldwide pandemic of a new, frightening virus… well, most of us are probably lot more comfortable watching this play out on the big screen, Hollywood-style, than actually living it.
There’s no playbook for this scenario, and many parents are struggling with their own anxiety, whether it’s over the virus itself or the measures in place to reduce its spread, many of which will have disastrous financial consequences on a big and small scale. Add to that the stress of being confined to home with little ones and having to explain, probably repeatedly, why they can’t have friends over or play at the playground, museum or other favorite haunt, and simply getting from one day to the next is the best most of us can hope for.
I consulted Dr. Neha Chaudhary, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and cofounder of Brainstorm, Stanford’s Lab for Mental Health Innovation, for how to get through this challenging time. Whether it’s answering kids’ questions, keeping their anxiety—or yours—at bay or finding ways to convey the seriousness of the situation without frightening them, the tips below should help.
Talk About It, Honestly And Age-Appropriately
By now, you’ve probably already been talking to your kids about the coronavirus because the majority of them are home from school. But whether your schools are still in session or you’ve been home for a week already, it’s important that you regularly check in to find out what questions they have.
“Parents should be prepared for some kids to ask the extreme questions, like what happens if someone dies, and whether something is going to happen to them or their parents,” Dr. Chaudhary said. Dr. Chaudhary emphasized the need to help kids feel safe with reassuring language about what we know.
Research following the 9/11 attacks found that kids whose parents tried to hide what was happening ended up more anxious than those whose parents spoke openly and honestly about what was happening—the kids who didn’t know what was happening could tell something was wrong and it was worse not to understand it. Kids pick up on stress and anxiety, and if they don’t feel like they know what’s happening, their imaginations will fill in the blanks.
“Parents should first gauge what kids already know so that they can build on that knowledge to fill in gaps or dispel information that’s inaccurate,” Dr. Chaudhary said. “Describing how we protect against spreading infection when we have colds or other sicknesses is a good starting point to help kids wrap their mind around what’s happening.”
Emphasize The Positive And What They Can Do
Be honest but emphasize the positive—yes, some people have died from this disease, but children’s risk is low.
“The best way to break the news about school closings or canceled activities is by reframing it as a good thing that will keep people safe as children are likely to understand the importance of safety even when quite young,” Dr. Chaudhary said.
The scariest thing about a disease is not feeling like you can control it. Teaching good hygiene and making hand washing fun can be ways to help kids feel like they have the ability to keep themselves and their family safe.
Social distancing is likely the toughest part of this experience, but remind them that they are heroes for keeping themselves, their family and other people in the community safe.
Be Prepared For A Range Of Responses
Some children will be thrilled that school is cancelled. Others will feel depressed at not seeing friends. Others might feel anxious about falling behind.
“It’s normal for some kids to feel worried and fearful while others may not fully comprehend what’s going on, or may be excited for the time at home and off from school,” Dr. Chaudhary said. “Whatever they may be feeling, parents should focus on making sure that kids feel validated and seen—that their feelings are real and that’s it’s okay for them to feel what they are feeling.”
For children who are already prone to anxiety or have an anxiety disorder, a schedule can go a long way to restoring a sense of normalcy to life. Make sure it’s a schedule that’s realistic for your family, or better yet, involve your kids in creating the schedule together.
“Focus on basic lifestyle measures that can support health, wellness, and immunity like getting enough sleep, good nutrition, exercise, and mindfulness,” Dr. Chaudhary said. “Making a habit (or even a creative game) of focusing on these areas as a new family activity can be a nice way to calm all the nerves.”
Keep News Watching At A Minimum
The research after 9/11 also found that too much exposure to media coverage could increase anxiety, something parents probably have already felt during the current situation.
“Parents can support their kids by turning off the news as much as they can and instead explaining what’s going on in a way that’s clear and calm, Dr. Chaudhary said. “This eliminates uncertainty, confusion, and lack of understanding from watching the news directly.”
Keep Them Busy
A wealth of resources exist to keep kids busy both online and offline, and staying busy is the easiest way to stave off anxiety, boredom and complaints. Whether you’re trying to homeschool your kids or just trying to keep them occupied while you get work done, check out this list of more than a hundreds things to do while home during coronavirus closures. I’m updating this list as I can, so check back for more information on online services offering discounts or free access or other ideas that come along.
Stay Connected to Friends and Family
There’s never a “good” time for a pandemic, but we have something past generations didn’t: unprecedented ability to stay in touch across the world. Consider scheduling “virtual play dates” with their friends and doing regular video chats with grandparents or other relatives.
Some families are taking advantage of apps like Marco Polo to let their kids stay in touch with one another. Others are playing party games on apps, online or through video chats. They can even write and mail actual letters to friends. What’s important is that they don’t feel isolated. Think of the current recommendations as “physical distancing” rather than social distancing.
Address Your Own Anxiety
Right now is the perfect opportunity “to model how to stay centered during a time of crisis,” Dr. Chaudhary said. Children will notice and respond to how the adults around them are reacting. Managing your own stress and anxiety will avoid transferring it to your kids.
Get Fresh Air And Exercise
Plan to go outside at least once — preferably more — each day. You need to avoid getting too close to other people, but that doesn’t mean you can’t visit parks or take a walk in the neighborhood. Avoid playground equipment since the virus can remain on surfaces for many hours, but kicking around a ball or playing with their own toys outside is fine. In fact, everyone in the family needs to be getting some exercise each day for physical and mental health.
One of the toughest things for kids is not being able to see their friends or play with other children their age in general. Be prepared for breakdowns and crying fits, especially if your child is prone to them. You may sound like a broken record, but remind them gently that the goal is to keep them—and their friends—safe.
“A small dose of empathy usually goes a long way,” Dr. Chaudhary said. “Let your child know that you know how upsetting it must be, and that you wish things could be different. Then reiterate what the rules are, and that the goal is to keep everyone safe. That’s the best you can do right now as a parent.”
Is there a question from you or your child that this article didn’t address? Email me at email@example.com and let me know what you’d like me to add to this article.