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How to talk to your children about the constant uncertainty of the coronavirus

Beth Lipton

Beth LiptonApril 23, 2020

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Photo: Getty Images / Tom Werner

The morning I told my fifth grader that school would be closed for the rest of the year, she got angry. Through her tears, she yelled, “Do they even know how many kids they’re letting down?”

My response was to try to gently explain why it wasn’t safe to reopen the schools—but after a minute of stroking her arm and speaking what I thought was empathetically to her about the dangers, I looked at her face and realized that not only was I not helping, I was making her even angrier. I had taken the wrong tack.

Parenting is always complicated, but the COVID-19 lockdown has brought with it several new layers. There’s the day-to-day mundane stuff of trying to work and manage homeschooling and keeping screen time in some kind of check, the hamster-wheel of cooking and cleaning up family meals, and keeping the peace if there are siblings. But beyond that, we are dealing with the larger questions of how this time—and how we handle it—will impact our children’s mental health. What should we tell them about the virus? When we answer their questions, how do we get across the seriousness of what we’re all going through without scaring them? How can we help them manage what have to be a range of big emotions during this unprecedented moment? How should I talk to my children about coronavirus?

Find out what’s happening under the surface

We all want to be our best selves with and for our kids, but sometimes the stress or anxiety they’re feeling may come out in ways that can try your patience. This isn’t your kid trying to upset you; it’s simply a function of what’s happening in their developing brains.

For example, your child may have more trouble than usual regulating his emotions or calming himself down, says Hilit Kletter, PhD, director of the Clinical Trauma Program and clinical associate professor at Stanford University School of Medicine. Your kid might have trouble motivating, concentrating, and completing tasks (yes, even more than usual). This is because the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for problem-solving, decision making, inhibition of emotions, and concentration, is still developing (and will continue to do so until around age 26). To make matters worse during this moment, the prefrontal cortex becomes underactive in times of stress. So even kids who can usually be counted on to get schoolwork done may be struggling.

If your child is anxious or fearful even in moments of relative calm, that’s the amygdala at work, says Dr. Kletter. “In times of threat, such as with the COVID-19 epidemic, the amygdala releases a surge of stress hormones to activate the fight/flight response, our survival system. This response may become over-sensitized such that the amygdala creates false alarms.”

If your child is irritable or moody (again, more than usual), or easily startled, this is because of the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory, says Dr. Kletter, noting that this part of the brain is also underactive during stressful times. “It makes it hard for your child to remember that he or she has likely dealt with stressful situations in the past and been able to get through them,” she says.

Understanding that some of the behaviors you may be seeing in your child are because of biology and not willfulness may help you manage your own feelings when the pressure is on. If you can keep your cool when you talk to your children about coronavirus, about what we’re all going through, that can go a long way toward helping your family process it all, now and in the future.

Manage your own emotions first

Of course, we’re processing our own emotions as we’re trying to manage our children’s—and it’s necessary to let yourself do that.

“Children are very sensitive to their parents’ emotions. In fact, research indicates that even babies and toddlers are highly impacted by their parents’ emotional states,” says Chicago-based child psychologist Laura Fraint, PsyD. “In particular, children are quite adept at observing the nonverbal cues of their parents. So if you’re anxious, it is highly likely your child perceives that anxiety as well. It’s important that parents work to manage their stress levels so that they can be a source of stability for their children. It’s okay for parents to share that they feel worried, but then to reassure their child that they are making efforts to take good care of themselves.”

Having systems in place for managing your own stress is important for two reasons: You have ways to get relief, and your children see you model behavior that will be helpful for them to learn themselves. Along with maintaining healthy habits like getting good sleep and regular exercise and eating well, make a list of activities that relax you so you know what to do in stressful moments, says Dr. Kletter. These activities can include reading, listening to music, taking a walk, doing yoga, deep breathing, journaling, and meditation—and a few minutes at a time may be all you need to reset.

Give your children real talk about coronavirus, but not too much

“Parents should be direct and honest with their children,” says Dr. Fraint.  “Children feel most secure and least fearful when they are told the truth by their parents, and when they do not feel that their parents are trying to conceal hard truths from them. This creates trust between parents and children that is essential to a child’s sense of safety.”

Along with explaining what we know to be true, such as the specific rules around social distancing, it’s also okay to tell children that there are things you don’t know, and acknowledge emotions around that. “In an effort to be truthful, parents should communicate that there is a large degree of uncertainty and validate that the uncertainty can feel stressful and overwhelming,” says Dr. Fraint.

It’s also important to keep your discussions age appropriate. “Generally, the younger the child, the less words and explanation that you want to provide,” says Dr. Fraint. “For example, with preschool children, you want to tell them it is best to stay inside in order to avoid germs and to stay healthy, whereas you might want to provide an older child or preteen with a more detailed explanation about the virus and how it’s transmitted.”

Of course, every child is different, so following their cues is key. “The best thing you can do is to follow your child’s lead and ask open-ended questions,” advises Dr. Fraint. “What are they worried about? When you talk to you children, ask what have they heard about the coronavirus. What would like they to know? Be sure to answer questions directly and refrain from providing unnecessary details that might cause undue anxiety.”

Create a healthy routine

Children thrive on predictability, so creating a routine within the shelter-in-place guidelines can be a comfort to them. “Knowing what to expect can help counter the uncertainty,” says Dr. Kletter. “Schedule a routine similar to the one your child had when going to school, including study time, regular meals, and time for fun activities. Having a regular sleep schedule is also important to maintain a sense of well-being.”

Injecting movement into some of those daily rituals is also important. “Becoming much more sedentary can significantly impact mood, especially in adolescents,” says Dr. Kletter. “Make sure to have some exercise each day as well as activities that bring pleasure and value. Some ideas can include going walking, running, or biking—while maintaining 6 feet of distance—and active video games like Dance Party or Mario Tennis.”

Make the most of it

It’s okay, and even recommended, to have some fun during this time. “This is a special opportunity for parents to give their children their most precious gift: their undivided attention,” says Dr. Fraint. “Positive time between parents and children will lay the groundwork for future success, since psychologists have learned that secure attachment is a major predictor of strong relationships and academic success.”

Of course, for those of us trying to work full time while managing homeschooling, cooking, and household chores, there isn’t a lot of spare time for fun. But quality matters more than quantity, so make the best of the time you have. If what you can do is eat breakfast with your child, focus on them for those few minutes, no devices or other distractions. School-age and older kids can help out with tasks like preparing meals, so get them involved and use the time for conversation.

Looking back on that morning with my daughter, I wish I had just asked her how she was feeling, or encouraged her to let all her feelings out, rather than trying to explain the reasons why school was closed. If I had it to do over again, I might have taken a walk with her and asked open-ended questions, or just stayed quiet and let her talk when she felt like it, knowing I would listen. The one thing I did right was just being with her, unhurried and undistracted. Hopefully that softened the blow.

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