By Emory Luce Baldwin, LCMFT and PEP Certified Parent Educator
These are difficult days. Families everywhere are reeling as we rapidly have to adopt social distancing and other measures to slow the spread of the Coronavirus. While it’s still in its early days, it is becoming more and more clear that our personal lives will be disrupted by the Coronavirus for months to come.
While parents are faced with rapidly rearranging their work and family logistics, they are also trying to figure out how to help their children deal with these new circumstances. There are few situations to use as a reference. A global pandemic is an extraordinary situation. Yet, let’s remember that humans have learned to adapt and deal with situations even worse than this one. We are all descended from ancestors who survived difficult circumstances in the past, and we will be able to get through this, too.
Children of all ages look to their parents to get a sense about what to think and how to feel about new situations. If parents seem upset, then children will likely believe they should feel anxious, too. Conversely, a parent who can find a way to face challenges calmly and positively will help their children feel at peace and hopeful, too.
So, the first order of business is to take care of yourself in order to help your kids. This may mean limiting your time with social media or other information sources and creating a healthy balance of work, exercise and social time for yourself. You can also ground yourself by remembering that you and your family have a lot of good things going for you. You have been through tough situations before, and you have what it takes to get yourself and your family through this situation, too.
Once you are ready to talk with your kids, it’s always good to start by first asking them about how they are doing. This is always the most effective way to begin any important conversation with children and teens. Check in with your kids to find out what they already know. Check in if they are asking questions. Check in if they aren’t asking questions. Check in if they seem upset. Check in if they seem unconcerned.
When you check in with your kids to ask, “How are you doing with this Coronavirus thing?” you will encourage your children to share out loud what they have been hearing, to sift through what they believe and don’t believe, and to figure out what they think about it all. Conversations like these, in other words, are invaluable for helping kids make sense of their experiences.
As adults, we know how important it is to get a sense of what’s going on, and we also know how frightening it can feel when a situation doesn’t make any sense and we don’t understand what’s happening. Similarly, children also feel more confident when situations make sense. And they feel more anxious and afraid when situations don’t make any sense to them.
Because children are younger and less experienced, they often need some help making sense of new and difficult situations. Encouraging your children to share with you what they are learning and what they think it all means will help them get a sense of what’s going on and help them feel more confident that they’ll be able to deal with what’s happening.
Here are some questions you might ask when you encourage your children to share their thoughts and feelings with you:
Sometimes I think we adults are afraid of asking our kids questions like these. Maybe we fear that we won’t have the answers or that we might make our kids feel worse by encouraging them to express their feelings. Yet, children are comforted by just being able to talk about the things they don’t understand with someone they love and trust, like you. Even the scariest thoughts are easier to deal with when they are spoken out loud to a sympathetic listener.
It’s also helpful to remember that children don’t really expect, or need, their parents to have all the answers. What they do want from their parents is the sense of “Whatever happens, we can figure out what to do. Whatever happens, our family will be able to deal with it.” Reassuring your children that, whatever happens, “we’ll figure this out” and no matter how hard it might be, “we’ll find a way to deal with it” is – by far – the most effective way you can comfort and encourage your child.
When your child does share that they are feeling confused or worried or upset or scared, that’s the time to just acknowledge how they are feeling. Simply saying, “It seems like you are feeling confused about this,” or “I hear you are very upset about the possibility that Grandpa and Grandma might get sick and die,” shows your children that you are paying attention, that you understand their feelings and that you care about them. That in and of itself is very comforting and encouraging.
If your children express that they are feeling sad or scared, you can simply reflect back what they are saying. Most kids do not want to hear, “You don’t need to worry!” and they don’t want to be smothered with lots of well-intentioned pity. Just echoing their feelings, “It is a very sad thing to think about, ‘What if someone in our family dies from this virus?'” and empathizing, “I’m feeling sad and worried about that, too” will help comfort your child.
It can be difficult not to fact-check your children, or correct them while they are talking. Being children, they will probably talk about thoughts and feelings that will sometimes seem remarkably ill-informed, self-centered or possibly way off-the-mark. Yet, when adults ask their children what they think and then quickly comment or criticize, children and teens are likely to go quiet, get defensive or even blow up angrily, “You aren’t even listening to me!” So, hold off.
Children do not feel worse when you encourage them to talk about their worries. They feel better because you are showing them that their feelings matter. Talking out loud about troubles and worries helps children sort through and figure out what they are feeling and what is bothering them. By helping your children sort out their thoughts and feelings, you will put them in a much better position to figure out how to deal with what they are facing.
You may have noticed that I haven’t said anything yet about what to tell your children about the Coronavirus. I’ve left that until last, because encouraging your children to talk and listening to them closely is always the first step when talking to children about difficult problems.
I realize that there is very important information that you will want your children to have about the virus. We are asking our children for an extraordinary amount of understanding and cooperation now and in the coming months. Cooperating with safe health practices to protect themselves, and their family members, is going to be extremely important.
Your children will be most likely to really listen to you and pay attention to what you say when they have first experienced you really listening and paying attention to what they have to say. Your listening and close attention to their thoughts and feelings strengthens the bond between you and your child, creating even more understanding and cooperation between the two of you.
When you want to answer your children’s questions or when there are things that you need to tell them, your good sense will help you to be careful not to overwhelm them. More information is not always going to be more helpful. A child, for instance, might not understand what a virus is or how it makes someone sick, and you could tell them about that. But the same child might be confused or overwhelmed by a description of how immune systems work.
When it comes to figuring out how much or how little, to say, you’ll always be on solid ground when you let your children’s questions guide you. Children have pretty good instincts about what they are ready – or not ready – to know. If your child doesn’t ask about how viruses kill people, then don’t talk about it. If your child does ask how viruses kill people, then give them a simple, age-appropriate answer, such as “healthy people have bodies that can fight off the virus, like the time you had the flu last winter and then you got better. Old people and sick people’s bodies aren’t as strong, so they can’t always fight off the virus and get better.”
Children also have pretty good instincts about how much – or how little – they can talk about serious and scary subjects. Younger children, especially, prefer to take in information or deal with difficult feelings in small doses. It’s not unusual for a child or a teen to be talking seriously about a sad subject one minute and then abruptly switch gears and say, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” This ability to sense when “that is enough for now” is a sign that your children are doing a good job of self-regulating their own emotions. Or, in other words, your children are paying attention when their internal signals tell them “this much information is useful” or “too much information is going to overwhelm my abilities to deal with this right now.”
One of our best and strongest instincts as parents is to want to comfort and reassure our children and teens. We can do that by listening to their worries and understanding their fears. We can give them good information to correct the misinformation they hear. And we can reassure them by helping them put their fears into context. If your children’s fears are running away with them, you can help them remember that they are basically okay, and their family is basically okay. Reassure them that they are safe for now, and that you are using reasonable precautions to keep them that way. You have the information and ability to keep yourselves healthy and safe. Acknowledge with them that the situation is serious and possibly dangerous for your family – and also express to them your confidence that as a family, you all have what it takes to figure things out. Tell your kids, again and again, that whatever happens, you believe that your family will be able to deal with it.
And finally, give your children a hug. Touch is an infant’s first and most important soothing contact with other people. Warm hugs, holding hands, back scratches, hair ruffles and foot massages are all good ways to give your children reassurance and support. In difficult situations, touch is very comforting, for your kids – and for you.
For more parenting support, enroll in our series of free webinars, Parenting Support During the Coronavirus.
This article was featured in the April edition of Washington Parent Magazine.
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