The pandemic situation is stressful and hard to understand for everyone — it’s safe to say that no one really knows what will happen. It’s a stressful period full of uncertainty. But talking to kids can make a big difference in helping them cope with the situation.
As adults, we’re struggling to make sense of this new normal. But we have to remember that for kids and teenagers, it’s even weirder. They’re also experiencing the worries and anxieties related to COVID-19, and they need all the support they can get.
“I think first and foremost, parents and caregivers need to talk to their children and their teens. Don’t wait for them to bring it up. Even preschool children have heard of coronavirus,” says Robin Gurwitch, Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University.
Parents often tend to overlook just how much children can understand and how they tend to absorb information. It’s easy to think that it’s safer to shield them as much as possible, but that’s not a healthy approach.
“If you haven’t already done so, our advice is to take a breath and start the conversation. Words could be as simple as, ‘There’s been a lot of talk about coronavirus or COVID-19, tell me what you know about it.’ For teens, you may use that opening or you may even say something like, ‘Tell me what your friends have been saying about it.’ By listening, you will hear their understanding, and you will be able to gently correct any misinformation and misperceptions that they may have about the disease.”
Talking about COVID-19 can help reduce their anxiety
Of course, talking about a pandemic is not exactly the most comfortable thing a parent can do. But it can do good, researchers stress.
“Research after the Boston Marathon bombing found that stress reactions in children whose parents tried to shield them from that event had more stress reactions, more distress than parents who openly talked to their young children about the event,” adds Gurwitch.
Of course, when talking to a child, it’s important to consider what information they need to know and understand. Try to adapt the information for their level of awareness. For instance, children’s ability to understand information about COVID-19 will be low in very young children (i.e., less than age 3) and will become more sophisticated with age. You can discuss the basic symptoms and basic prevention methods, and explain why some of the preventive measures are taken.
Even if it’s just acknowledging the problem, it’s an important step forward.
Stress in children can manifest in multiple ways
It’s also a time where we need to be a bit more understanding with children. The changing situation and the uncertainty that they too must face can manifest in several ways, Gurwitch explains.
“What we often see is that they may be more irritable and whiny, even sometimes more defiant than usual, which is challenging, because as adults, we’re a little bit more short-tempered and a little bit less patient. So we have to make sure we take a breath and recognize that their irritability and defiance may be a problem of distress.”
Try to be more supportive than usual, Gurwtich suggests. It’s important to acknowledge children and try to help them feel better about themselves.
“I can’t underscore [enough] the importance of positive praise for children of all ages, but particularly young children so that they see that you recognize that they are being a help and they’re doing something well. You will increase the chances that they’ll feel better about themselves and repeat that behavior too.”
Encourage them to be responsible and practice good hygiene
However, if ever there was a time to encourage children to be more responsible and practice better hygiene, the time is now. This is almost certainly the most important moment in modern history to practice good hygiene, and the outbreak can be used as leverage to get your message across.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says we should channel our concern into good hygiene — and it’s an excellent opportunity to make something good out of what is a pretty unfortunate situation.
Encourage your children to wash their hands with soap and water frequently (particularly after going to the toilet, coming from a public place, and before and after eating). Children can be taught to sneeze in their elbow or in a tissue that they immediately throw away.