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10 Strategies for Talking to your kids about Covid-19

I just came from a really interesting webinar that was presented by NAEYC that I wanted to share the gist of. Many of us are struggling to understand the Covid-19 pandemic and it is doubly hard to explain it to young children. So this presenter gave some really clear understanding about children’s development and why it is so hard for them to understand whats going on and also some great practical tips for coping during the crisis.

1. Children have a lot of difficulty with misinformation. They don’t get all the information and they misunderstand a lot of that information. So even if you were really careful to present information to your child in a way you think they understand, its possible they still won’t get it. This is because of their developmental stage – their brains just do not process the same way adult’s brains do. As a result, they pick up snippets here and there – something on the TV, a hushed adult conversation...and it all adds up to a pretty confused picture for the child.

2. As a result of this difficulty assimilating information, children really rely on their safe adults to help them. First, understand that the children pick up on signals from their adults – if they are anxious then the kids are anxious, if angry then they are angry, and if confused, then yes, they are confused too. This is not to say you should hide your emotions from your children – on the contrary, an open and vulnerable conversation is just the ticket for your children to draw close to you in this time. But be aware that there is a right way and a wrong way to have this conversation. So here are a few tips:

a. Initiate a conversation with them. Ask them how they feel, what questions they have. Then do your best to address their concerns. Don’t assume you know how they feel.

b. Be genuine and honest with them – don’t pretend everything is OK. We adults have a bit of a tendency to brush over children’s questions and fears thinking we are shielding them. Nothing could be further from the truth! Skimming over children’s questions and fears just sends the message to them that their questions and fears are not important.

c. Model for them coping techniques like breathing, going for a walk, mindfulness meditation, yoga, saying a prayer – whatever you do to cope with your emotions. This will really help them as they watch you dealing with your emotions honestly. Ask them what they like to do to feel calm and do their version of mindfulness.

3. Its really important to not have tense conversations in front of children. Don’t talk about possible impending financial doom, or the politics of wearing a mask or not, or how you feel about the government’s handling of the crisis. In other words keep adult concerns between adults. If they do overhear an adult conversation be reassuring without being dishonest and be aware of presenting false reassurance as a bandaid. But its better to just not have those conversations around them. We often, for some reason, think that because they are young and only 3 feet tall that they do not hear our conversations. On the contrary, they soak up every word we say! So be wise in where and when you have those tense conversations.

4. Because young children are ego-eccentric (a fancy social science word that means their world evolves around them) at their developmental level, they won’t understand the causes of the pandemic. This causes them to have what child development experts call “magical thinking”. They essentially make up causes and this means they end up with a tremendous sense of personal guilt. They think maybe they caused the problems their adults are having. They think, I kissed grandma last week and now she is sick and its my fault. Its sometimes helpful to be attuned to expressions of this and be quick to reassure them of their lack of responsibility in this.

5. Don’t tell kids not to worry because they will. Instead help them deal with their uncertainty and fear. Present positive information and a hopeful perspective.

6. Establish a predictable routine to restore a sense of certainty in their lives. You can’t tell them when they are going back to school but you can tell them when dinner will be. I know its hard for adults to understand this, but children thrive when they can do the same thing every day at the same time in the same way. They just love routine and order. This is the best thing you can give your children at this time.

7. Keep busy doing the things you love to do as a family: reading together, hobbies, journaling, art/music promote expression of feelings, playing games together, relaxing activities.

8. It is important to limit your intake of media. Continuous coverage of the news is neither helpful or productive and ultimately won’t give you move information than you actually need. It will only fuel your own anger and anxiety. What is it that we are all watching constantly? That’s right – the death count which mounts day by day. Now think about this – is that helping you be more informed or is it fueling your anxiety? My suggestion is to unplug and connect with each other.

9. Crisis brings out stress responses in everyone: you need to realize that children need to focus on their own needs first. Kids will be clingy, cry more, be sad, erratic in their responses. Don’t make them feel guilty about this but do help them navigate those big feelings.

10. Finally, remember that what you are doing is of value. Helping your children navigate this crisis so their mental health doesn’t suffer is far far more valuable than whether they are doing all their school work on a computer or attending all the zoom circle times

. As I said in an earlier blog – in this crisis there is no such thing as “behind”. Everyone is behind. What is more important is that you look after yourself and your children during this time.

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