Coronavirus, more specifically this new type called COVID 19, has now been labeled a pandemic by the World Health Organization. It has spread throughout the world, and is now in the US where there is understandably a heightened and growing level of concern over the past several days. Schools, businesses, and organizations are closing both proactively and reactively to address this important health issue, and it is unclear how things will continue to unfold in the coming days.
During this time many parents, professionals, and media organizations have asked me for information and guidance about how best to address these concerns and issues with children. I want to share my thoughts about this issue in general, as well as address some specific questions and concerns that have some up.
The first and most important thing to remember when it comes to children is that they gauge how distressed they should be based on the reactions and behaviors of the adults around them. This means that parents and other adults need to stay calm and model concerned but not over reactive emotions and behavior.
Encourage communication about the issue by asking questions and providing appropriate information. Make sure you communicate at a level that is appropriate for their age and developmental level.
- Ask what they know or have heard, and use that to start the conversation.
- Answer only the questions they are asking when they come to you. Don’t go overboard with information and details, especially with younger children.
- Deliver the facts and be a source of accurate information. It’s not helpful to lie to children by telling them nothing is going on. You also don’t want to tell them they don’t need to know anything about the situation. If you have older children you can use this as an opportunity to talk about where to get good quality information and how to spot false or misleading sources online and elsewhere.
- Be honest about what you don’t yet know. Tell them you will keep them aware of new information that is relevant to them so they don’t have to wonder if people are hiding things from them.
Don’t tell children not to worry, or that they shouldn’t have thoughts or feelings about this. Acknowledge and empathize with their feelings, and let them know that whatever feelings they may have are okay.
Use facts to combat fear. Focus on communicating what do we know and the evidence that shows this illness is not something most people need to be overly anxious about. Reinforce that children aren’t getting very sick, and that the vast majority of people aren’t becoming seriously ill or dying.
The essence of anxiety is feeling like something is out of our control, and we feel uncertain and fearful about that. In anxiety-provoking situations like this is it very helpful to focus attention on all the things we CAN control.
- Hand washing and hygiene (silver lining – kids all over the world are learning how to appropriately wash their hands!)
- Drink plenty of water, eat healthy foods, reduce junk foods
- Sleep well
- Don’t go to places where you know someone is sick; stay home when you are sick
- Avoid over-exposure to screen time and media, particularly around anxiety-provoking issues
- Continue doing activities that you enjoy and help reduce stress
Many of us are going to be dealing with school closures and having children home from school for days or weeks. Here are some tips on how to manage this, and even make it an opportunity for growth:
- Keep routines in place as much as possible, as this reduces stress and anxiety and helps kids feel more secure.
- Provide structure for the day in the form of a basic schedule or list of what will happen.
- Give kids a menu or list of activities they can choose from to help them stay occupied, avoid complaints of boredom, and minimize sibling fights.
- Avoid overuse of screen time, as this leads to worse mood, behavior, and sleep.
- Get kids outside to move (weather permitting) and provide indoor movement options as well.
- Engage kids in chores and household activities (silver lining – they can learn some new things and help out!)
If your child is exhibiting signs of more serious anxiety or panic, and you feel you have exhausted your own resources to support them, don’t hesitate to reach out to their primary healthcare provider, school counselor, or a local mental health professional. These professionals can help you identify if additional support is needed, and can help your child learn healthy coping skills while providing you guidance with how best to support your child.
Keep communication open with your children – face fears with facts.
Model calm, rationale, appropriately cautious behavior.
Keep stress levels as low as possible, as this is one of the best strategies for supporting a strong health immune system!
I hope this information is helpful as we all seek to navigate this situation over the coming days and weeks. While there is much uncertainty, this is an opportunity to help our children develop positive coping skills and resilience that will serve them well now and into the future.
Do you have specific questions or concerns on this topic you’d like me to address? Leave them in the comments and I’ll provide answers and resources!