Television, radio, newspapers, social media, online articles, expert interviews, press conferences - there are countless ways to get information about COVID-19. For many parents it can be overwhelming and confusing to process all of the information. We know to wear a mask, social distance, and wash our hands to help keep our family physically healthy. But what can we do to help keep our children emotionally healthy?
The guiding principle for parents when considering their child’s emotional health in these circumstances is to help alleviate their child’s stress and anxiety. When children experience stress or anxiety it can prevent them from focusing on school work, affect their social relationships, and can even impact their physical health. But because children understand traumatic events differently than adults, understanding where your child is developmentally is crucial to knowing what information is appropriate to share with them.
Regardless of your child’s age, when children learn about events like COVID-19, it is not uncommon for children to be initially concerned about their own health and safety. They may wonder, ‘What is going to happen to me? Who is going to take care of me?’ Parents should calm these worries by explaining that their child’s health is their top priority and they are working to ensure their children are safe, like practicing social distancing. It’s important to take children’s feelings seriously and not dismiss them, as research shows this has tremendous value in the development of children’s self-esteem.*
As Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. explain in Smart Love Solutions in Early Childhood, it is best to “not overwhelm children with information. When giving children bad news, it is always best to give bare facts followed by reassurance ….. Then follow their lead about how much more they are ready to hear.”**
For children six and under, try to shield them from news or the Internet, as young children’s thinking is very concrete and they have a hard time distinguishing between fantasy and reality. For example, if they see people on TV wearing hazmat suits they may believe that those events are right outside their front door. If your young child has learned about a tragedy or event, ask them what they heard and simply listen to them; there is no need to add information or offer an explanation as this age group tends to get scared easily. If your young child is asking questions know that what they are really concerned about is their own health and safety, not an explanation of how or why the events happened. Parents can say, ‘I know that was hard to see/hear. Sometimes bad things happen, but mom and dad will take care of you and protect you.’
For young children who have seen or heard about traumatic news, it is not uncommon for them to exhibit behaviors like separation anxiety. At this age, they feel safest when they are with their parents and can develop a strong need to be near them when they feel scared. When parents provide closeness, listen to their feelings and fears, and offer lots of comfort and distractions, they are not only helping their children move past their scared feelings, but they are also modeling how to handle stressful situations by getting help from loved ones.
Young children may also experience nightmares because of their scared feelings. Nightmares are not only frightening, but they are also problematic because a good night’s sleep is essential to help alleviate anxiety and stress - for children and parents. If young children are having nightmares, parents should provide comfort to help alleviate fears and reduce anxiety. One idea is to, before bedtime, explain to them that they are the author of their dreams and perhaps they are writing those unpleasant dreams because they are feeling anxious about the news. Parents can read books at bedtime like Mommy, Daddy, I Had A Bad Dream! to help them understand dreams and relieve some of their anxieties.
Again, it is best to try and keep tragic events and news away from young children. If you have older children, help them understand that they have more information than their younger sibling and remind them that you are available to help them with any of their questions or concerns.
Children 6 to 12 will likely be more exposed to hearing about traumatic events from school, friends, TV, or the Internet. When at home it’s a good idea to sit with your school-aged children while they watch the news or are on the Internet so you can be with them when they learn about difficult news. Similar to young children, their thinking is still concrete, but if you are near you can help put things into context. If your school-aged child learns about news while away from you (via text, friends, etc.), be all ears and listen. Parents can ask what they have heard and clarify what is accurate versus not. Help them evaluate how they are feeling by asking questions like, ‘Wow, what do you think about that?’ as this age group is developing their own sense of morality and they can engage in some logical reasoning. Be sure to provide opportunity for your child to talk about their feelings, but don’t push them to discuss. If things are too scary they may ask, for example, to turn off the TV. Be sure to follow their intuition that the content is too much for them to handle and turn the computer, iPad, or TV off. For older school-aged children there may be opportunities to discuss difficult realities like pandemics, quarantines, and the function of government. Help your child evaluate their thinking, by asking ‘If we are healthy, I wonder why experts are asking us to stay home?’ Or ‘I wonder with what kinds of things government can help us?’ But try to stick with your child’s concerns and don’t push your opinions or political views.
“Ask children if they have any questions, but if they are not ready to talk, let them come to grips with the news on their own time table. Don’t interfere with your children’s coping mechanisms. Children have many ways of protecting themselves from the full awfulness of tragedy. For example, they may make light of what has happened. Puncturing children’s denial of the awfulness of events may flood them with painful emotions they are not ready to handle.”**
Not until your child is an adolescent are they able to engage in abstract reasoning and more complex conversations about these topics. They are often processing their world and trying to make sense of it. They may have passionate views and strong opinions about the news or social justice topics. Help your teen learn to evaluate events by being an active listener and recite what you hear them saying. It could sound something like, ‘it sounds like you think it’s not right to restrict travel.’ Parents can share their values and opinions as a way to help teens consider another perspective but it should be done in a respectful manner.
“Let your children know you are affected by the tragedy, while at the same time you show you are optimistic about the future. Children often feel there is something wrong with being upset or expressing upset feelings; this is an opportunity to tell them that you and other adults feel troubled too.”**
You can lay the groundwork for open dialogue with comments like, ‘As you know, we need to be in quarantine to keep our family and community safe. Sometimes unpleasant things happen in life and it can be really frustrating and disappointing that this happens. While we can’t take this away, I am here to care for you and support you - that is something you can always count on. It can be helpful to talk about these things. How are you feeling about what is going on?’
If the news is becoming too traumatic or inflammatory, parents should also try to regulate their teen’s access to information via electronics. This may be challenging, but is important to try your best. Parents can communicate, ‘We care about you and want you to be safe. That’s why sometimes we need to say no. It’s not to deprive you, but to protect you.’ When children say, ‘But everyone else does it!’, parents can respond, 'I can appreciate that’s hard, but sometimes I have to make decisions as a parent that I feel is best for you.’ Be sure to hear your child’s complaints and unhappiness and offer your compassion.
If your child is having a hard time missing family or friends, parents can empathize with responses like:
‘It’s hard that we can’t visit grandma or grandpa, but it’s important that they try to stay healthy and that means that they can’t receive visitors. Maybe we can call them together or video chat with them?’
‘I know it’s hard to stay at home and not visit friends or go to the playground, but it’s important during this time to follow the guidelines of health experts and keep our family and others safe. Maybe we can play your favorite game? Video chat with friends? Is there a game you can download that you can play with your friends online?’
During these challenging times it’s important to “give your children some slack. Children often show their upset feelings by becoming irritable, fearful, having trouble sleeping, fighting with siblings, or bursting into tears at the slightest frustration. These behaviors may continue for weeks. It’s important to keep this in mind, so that instead of saying, ‘What on earth has gotten into you,’ when your eight-year-old bursts into tears because his jacket zipper is stuck, you can say, ‘I can see you are really upset. Maybe you’re still thinking about the terrible things that happened. I still feel badly about them, too.'**
And most importantly, “make yourself more available than usual [to your children]. One of the most helpful things you can do to help your children cope with the news of a disaster is to spend as much time as possible with them. Children always feel safest in their parents’ presence.”** And when children’s fears, stress, and anxieties are reduced or alleviated their moods will improve, they will sleep better, and they can continue with their development into happy and healthy adults.
Adapted from Breaking News. (November 2019). Seminar by Carla Beatrici, Psy.D. Smart Love Family Services.
*American Psychological Association. (2011). Resilience Guide for Parents and Teachers. www.apa.org/helpcenter/resilience.aspx.
*Sroufe, L.A. (1996) Emotional development: The organization of emotional life in the early years. New York: Cambridge University Press.
** Smart Love Solutions for Early Childhood. (2012). Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. Smart Love Family Services.