The Pandemic Guide
The pandemic has now been with us for several months, and no one knows when it’ll pass.
How can parents talk to their kids about it in a way that’s realistic and helpful but doesn’t make them worry? Here’s what the experts say:
The first and most important thing is to stay as calm as possible when you speak to your kids. “Kids look to adults for cues on how to behave or react,” says Jody Baumstein, a licensed clinical social worker, “so as hard as it may be try to stay calm while talking to your kids.”
Find Out What They Know & What They Want To Know
Start the conversation by asking them, as child psychologists Drs. Felicity Sapp and Daniel Chorney put it, “what they know, what their worries are, and what they want to know.”
This’ll help you: 1) clear up any misunderstandings (there are lots of false rumors circulating, especially on social media); 2) address the topics that concern them the most (some kids worry about what could happen to them, others are more anxious about their family and friends); and 3) assess how much information they can handle (some kids find comfort in knowing as much as possible while others prefer to know just what’s necessary. “Our challenge, as parents,” say child psychiatrists Drs. Karestan Koenen and Archana Basu, “is to consider all the information and then ask ourselves: what makes the most sense for my child?” Dr. Adam Weiss, a pediatrician, agrees: “the goal is to provide enough detail so they understand the situation and how to stay safe, but not cause them fear, confusion, or anxiety.”
Encourage Them To Ask Questions
No matter how well you explain the pandemic, your kids are likely to have a lot of questions. When kids ask questions, especially the same questions repeatedly, it’s rarely just because there’s something they don’t understand, but it’s because they’re worried. “Asking the same question over and over,” says Dr. Davis Fassler, a child psychiatrist, can be “a way for a child to ask for reassurance.” For example, if your kids keep asking why it’s so important that they wash their hands with soap every time they’ve been outside, it’s likely not because they don’t know the answer but because they’re concerned with whether they’re washing their hands well enough to protect them from the virus.
Answer your kids’ questions and address their worries, but also acknowledge when they bring something up and you don’t have a good answer. “Given how much uncertainty there is,” Ms. Rachel Ehmke of the Child Mind Institute says, “try to be comfortable saying ‘I don’t know.’” Ms. Ehmke adds that it may be tempting to want to reassure your kids that things will be better soon, even when you aren’t sure yourself: “But teaching children how to tolerate uncertainty is key to reducing anxiety and helping them build resilience.”
You can’t promise your kids that the pandemic will be over soon, but you can help empower them by talking about what they can do, in their own small way, to fight it. As Dr. Jamie Howard, a child psychologist, puts it, “kids feel empowered when they know what to do to keep themselves safe.” This includes wearing a face mask at all times when they’re outside, following social distancing guidelines, and avoid touching their face and shaking hands with anyone.
However, don’t put too much pressure on your kids. Reassure them that many smart adults (like public health experts and science researchers) are working hard to fight the pandemic and develop a vaccine. “When you reassure children that the adults are managing the situation,” says Dr. Jamie Aten, a child psychologist, “you give them permission to be kids.”
Model Good Behavior
Finally, model whatever good behavior you recommend to your kids. As Wendy Thomas Russell, the author of ParentShift and other parenting books, puts it, “you can’t expect a 6-year-old to wash her hands or a 10-year-old to isolate from his friends if their parents aren’t willing to do the same.” It’s tough but we all need to do our part to make the pandemic a part of history.
Tanni Haas, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Communication Arts, Sciences, and Disorders at the City University of New York – Brooklyn College.