By Tanni Haas, Ph.D. | Contributor
The pandemic has now been with us for months, and no one knows for sure 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, whether they show it or not, will take their cues on how to behave from their parents,” says Dean Beckloff, Ph.D., founder of The Beckloff Pediatric Behavior Center in Dallas, Texas. “When parents are anxious, kids become anxious as well. The first step in having a conversation is to check yourself, and ensure that you, as a parent, are calm with an inner confidence. Have a family meeting, be calm, and move to the next step, which is to find out what the kids know.”
“Our challenge as parents is to consider all the information and then ask ourselves: what makes the most sense for my child?”
Find Out What They Know – And What They Want to Know
Start the conversation by asking them, as child psychologists Drs. Felicity Sapp and Daniel Chorney of Anxiety Canada, a non-profit organization founded to raise awareness about anxiety, put it, “what they know, what their worries are, and what they want to know.” This will 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 of Harvard University’s T.C. Chan School of Public Health, “is to consider all the information and then ask ourselves: what makes the most sense for my child?”
Dr. Beckloff agrees: “The goal is to provide enough detail so they understand how to stay safe, but not cause them confusion, fear 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—it’s because they’re worried. 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.
Dr. Beckloff encourages parents to “let them know what the family is doing to take care of each other, the precautions that the country is taking, what precautions are taking place in our city and in our schools. Share with them what we know about kids getting this infection and why it’s important for everyone to participate in taking precautions in order to help those who are more susceptible. This is a very healthy way to promote positive esteem in our kids.”
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.”
“What is it that you really want your kids to feel? Confident. Not scared. Reassure them, if they do voice their fears, how you as parents are protecting them,” says Dr. Beckloff.
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 at the Child Mind Institute, 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 avoiding 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 and professor at Wheaton College, “you give them permission to be kids.”
Help your kids, particularly teens, deal with the polarizing viewpoints they may be witnessing by talking openly about these issues. “Listen carefully and positively affirm what they think about the issues,” says Dr. Beckloff. “If your opinion differs from theirs, then be prepared to give your reasons. Reason together. View this as an opportunity to help your teen to grow into a responsible adult. You may not agree, but work hard to not negate their reasoning. Ensure that everyone feels heard and empowered.”
“Your child may appear to reject what you say or believe, but they will take their cues from how you behave.”
Model Good Behavior
Finally, model whatever good behavior you recommend to your kids. As Wendy Thomas Russell, an award-winning journalist and 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.”
The main thing to remember, says Dr. Beckloff, is to exercise leadership. “Your child may appear to reject what you say or believe, but they will take their cues from how you behave.”
It’s tough, but we all need to do our part to make the pandemic a part of history.
Bio: 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.