The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in fear, loss and anxiety for families around the world. But perhaps one of the most difficult effects of the crisis on children is the sense of uncertainty.
“We don’t know what is going to happen, how long this will last or what life will be like when this is over, and it is hard for any of us to tolerate this level of uncertainty,” Genevieve von Lob, a psychologist and author of “Happy Parent, Happy Child,” told HuffPost. “For our children it can be even more difficult as a few weeks or even months can seem like a very long time in a young person’s life. However learning to manage the uncertainty is actually an important lifelong skill which will help our children to build resilience.”
Adults and children alike have been asking the question “When will this be over?” And unfortunately there are no clear answers, which can pose a challenge to parents on the receiving end of the inquiry.
“This question is a reflection on what Dr. Seuss called ‘The Waiting Place,’ and as you know from the character in ‘Oh, the Places You’ll Go!,’ it’s not a place that children care for very much,” said Craig A. Knippenberg, a therapist and author of “Wired and Connected: Brain-Based Solutions To Ensure Your Child’s Social and Emotional Success.”
So how should you answer if your child asks that question? Knippenberg, von Lob and other experts shared their guidance.
Lead With Honesty
“The most important thing is to be honest,” von Lob noted. “We don’t know what is going to happen, how long this will last or what life will be like when this is all over. Explain to your child that while you cannot give them an exact date, you are checking the news updates regularly and will let them know as soon as you find out.”
Offer clear, honest, age-appropriate information based on what you know of your child’s temperament and developmental level. You don’t have to give all the sad details to young children, but a general explanation that people are very sick and doctors are trying very hard to save them is useful. It’s also helpful to remind kids that even though we don’t have all the answers right now, scientists and government officials are working very hard and doing everything possible to figure out solutions.
“Explain to your child that while you cannot give them an exact date, you are checking the news updates regularly and will let them know as soon as you find out.”
“Since ultimately we don’t know the answer, avoid saying things like, ‘soon’ or another vague reply. On the other hand, ‘I don’t know’ isn’t sufficient either,” said Rachel Busman, senior director of the Anxiety Disorders Center and director of the Selective Mutism Service at the Child Mind Institute. “Letting your child know the things you do know and also the things you don’t conveys honesty. Let them know that there are things that are uncertain and at the same time, share with them the active steps that your family, town or state are doing to stay safe and keep things progressing.”
Make It An Ongoing Conversation
Make sure this talk is part of an ongoing conversation about this global crisis. If you haven’t explained what’s going on, be sure to initiate the discussion by asking your children what they know about the coronavirus situation and then sharing facts and correcting misinformation.
“Children know something’s going on, and if parents aren’t willing to talk about it, they will worry why it’s so horrible that grownups won’t discuss it,” said Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist and Duke University psychiatry professor specializing in family and child mental health. “They may assume things are even scarier than they are, and they may suppress their thoughts and feelings for fear of upsetting their caregivers.”
If parents show they’re willing to talk about difficult topics like the pandemic, it lays the groundwork for kids to feel comfortable coming to them when they’re dealing with bullying, stress, friendship issues, peer pressure and more.
Validate Their Feelings
Another way to lay that foundation for open communication is to tell your children you understand what they’re feeling and that it’s OK to talk about it.
“Lead with validation, which means that you convey to your child that you get it,” Busman said. “Saying things like, ‘I know this is so hard’ and ‘It’s really hard to be patient and flexible’ can be a good way to start.”
Encourage them to share their emotions by asking them what they think about the situation right now and how they’re feeling. Tell them you know how they feel and sometimes you’re angry/scared/sad too, and share the ways you deal with those emotions.
“If your child is asking a lot of questions such as when school will start again or when they can visit their grandparents, it may be that they have some underlying anxieties and fears,” von Lob noted. “The most important thing is to validate all their feelings and acknowledge that you recognize how hard it is for them that you can’t give exact answers on the timings right now.”
Emphasize Safety And Security
“Provide comforting reassurance. In the egocentric world of children what they really need and want to hear is that they are safe and who will be there to take care of them,” said Denise Daniels, a child development expert and creator of The Moodsters, a brand focused on fostering emotional intelligence in kids.
She advised giving kids lots of hugs and reassuring words like, “We love and care about you. We will always do our best to protect you and keep you safe and healthy.” Tell them ― and show them ― that you’re there.
“The most overarching answer to how to approach your children to answer the question when will this be over, is to stress safety and security at all ages,” said clinical psychologist John Mayer.
“With younger children the answer should be very firm and confident ― even when you might not be,” he explained. “With older children, continue with this strong and secure message, but add on how they can be part of the solution and help by doing the things we need to do to stay healthy and safe ― the quarantine, masking and gloving up, etc. The theme is ‘We’re all in this together, so let’s all fight this as a family. This will be over.’”
Focus On The Present
Encourage your kids to take each day as it comes and focus on the present, rather than worrying about the future. Remind children of recent fun times you’ve had as a family while on lockdown at home to show the benefit of living in the moment and enjoying every experience.
“Living life in a more mindful way is always a good idea,” said psychotherapist Noel McDermott. “It’s often said that projecting into the future creates anxiety in the here and now, so rather than dealing with the issues of when all the time, try looking at yours and your children’s anxiety and stress management techniques.”
“The most important thing is to validate all their feelings and acknowledge that you recognize how hard it is for them that you can’t give exact answers on the timings right now.”
McDermott encouraged parents to foster healthy habits when it comes to exercise, eating, routine-setting, learning, creativity, relaxation, group discussions and more. These techniques can help manage anxiety and depression by making the present feel satisfying and removing the urge to fixate on the future or past.
“For children who worry a lot, help them find ways to manage such as having a worry monster who eats their troubles before they go to sleep or encouraging them to write down or draw their fears,” said von Lob. “We can also support our children to slow down and come into the present moment ... by teaching them to take slow, deep belly breaths, or going for a walk in the park and taking the time to listen to the birdsong or smell the spring flowers.”
She also suggested having each family member take a moment at dinnertime to share a good thing that happened that day and something they’re grateful for.
Highlight What Is In Their Control
Focusing on the here and now is a good way to remind kids of things that are in their control. Remind them they’re keeping the family safe and healthy by washing their hands and helping to wipe down surfaces and items. It may also be helpful to discuss actions they can take to help others right now.
“Maybe they can help the elderly neighbor next door by offering to bring out their trash cans,” Gurwitch suggested. “Maybe they can write a nice note to put on the door thanking mail carriers and delivery people. Maybe they can write letters to hospitals or put stuffed animals in the window for ‘I Spy’ games.”
Parents can remind their kids that everyone is social distancing to keep their families safe and protect hospitals from getting overloaded. It may also be worth noting that the isolation will hopefully end more quickly if everyone does their part.
Kids may also benefit from making a list of things they’d like to do in the future when people stop sheltering in place. They might enjoy drawing pictures of them doing these activities. Another thing that is within their control is what’s going on at home.
“You can discuss changes the family could make if your child has some particular irritations, i.e., the sibling who keeps coming into their bedroom, the family member who’s hogging the electronics or perhaps children just want to hear less news,” Knippenberg noted. “Fixing these problems might bring some welcomed relief.”
Promise To Keep Them Updated
“Let your child know that you will keep them posted as you get information about returning to school or other activities,” Busman advised.
Although you can’t give your child a specific date right now, be sure to tell them you’re checking news updates regularly and will share what you learn. Tell them about your trusted sources of information, like the CDC, WHO and local public health officials. Make sure young children aren’t seeing any media coverage of the crisis, as the images and reports may be distressing and developmentally inappropriate.
“I am a huge proponent of weekly family meetings, so parents can provide up-to-date information and answer questions,” Daniels noted. “This would be a great time to review your family’s safety precautions. We want kids to feel empowered!”
The power of positivity cannot be overstated in times like these. It can particularly help kids develop a healthy mindset.
“Keep it simple. Use your calm and collected voice,” said Daniels. “Your voice should convey that you have every confidence that everything will be OK!”
One positive piece of information you can share is that although we don’t know when this crisis will end, we do know that it will end eventually.
“Reassure them that this is a temporary situation, it is not going to go on forever and we will get back to our normal lives again,” said von Lob. “It can help to remind them of the positives and that although it may not always feel like it, many good things often come from challenging times. Focus on the positives, and the inspiring examples of the way people are helping others and how we are all uniting each week to applaud our health workers.”
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