Never in your lifetime did you think that you would experience a global pandemic such as COVID-19.
One day, all seemed normal in your world, and overnight:
- School was cancelled indefinitely
- The grocery store shelves were empty, and
- You‘ve been asked to work your full-time job from home while also responding to, “Mommy, can you help me…?” every 5 minutes.
Your life was turned upside down and you have absolutely no idea when it’s going to return to normal again.
You’re a grown adult, with information from a variety of sources to keep you informed of the changing state of our country, and yet you still feel anxious, stressed, panicky and completely out of control because of this pandemic.
If you’re feeling this way as an adult, can you imagine how your children are feeling? Their world changed overnight too, but unlike you, they don’t have access to all the information keeping them up to date on the state of our country.
And of course, as parents, we don’t want them to know all the information.
It scares us.
It makes us feel anxious.
It makes us wonder if we’ll lose our job, our house, or even worse, the life of someone important to us.
We don’t want that for our kids, so we think that kids being oblivious to the pandemic is in their best interests.
But based on my conversations with and observations of kids this week, unfortunately, it may not be.
Our kids aren’t living in a bubble. They may not know what COVID-19 means, nor do they fully understand the epidemiology of a virus, but they have heard the word Coronavirus enough to know one thing:
And what’s worse, for many kids, no one is really taking any time to actually talk to them about it.
From my conversations with kids this past week, I’ve learned that kids understand that:
- There’s been a major change to their daily routine: either they aren’t going to school or daycare at all, or their daycare drop–off routine has changed dramatically.
- Their parents are at home, but there’s no time for playing. Mom and/or dad have lots of work to do and can’t be bothered (and get very frustrated each time they are bothered).
- They can’t see their friends, grandparents or any people outside of their immediate family.
But what they don’t understand is “why?”
Why can’t I go to school and see my friends?
Why do I have to talk to grandma on the iPad instead of walking over to her house like I usually do?
If you have so much work to do, why don’t you just go to work?
In my playroom this week, I’ve seen plenty of play themes and watched the body language surrounding the topic of why things are so different:
- Children getting off school buses, unsure of whether to go towards their parents or the teachers who are waiting for them
- Characters being organized “the way it’s supposed to be”
- Children handcuffing me the second they enter the playroom (often a sign that the child feels out of control in their own life),
- Children reminding me that I need to clean the toys thoroughly, and wash my hands, and (most significantly),
- Children letting out a sigh of relief when I say, “Let’s talk about why you’re not in school this week…”
In an effort to protect children, we often leave them in the dark. As adults, we think that this can be valuable in some situations, when the kids have no idea that anything is happening. However, from my experience as a play therapist, it’s rare that a situation like this even exists.
Kids are almost always aware that something is going on.
They can feel the tension within their parents and teachers.
And they deserve to know what’s going on…at their level.
How to Tell Your Child About the Changes in Their World
While kids deserve to get some information about what’s going on with all the restrictions in place for COVID-19, they don’t need to know everything. You know how anxiety-provoking it is to be bombarded with information about the virus. We don’t want or need to do that to children, but to be helpful to them, we do need to give them something to explain to them why their lives have changed so much.
Children need just enough information for their age, and nothing more. Using statistics and instilling fear into children to get them to listen isn’t advisable as you’ll likely encounter lots of behavioral issues like nightmares, bedwetting, separation anxiety and temper tantrums. Instead, they need simple, age-appropriate information to explain why their lives have changed so much.
As their main “person” in this world, they’re looking to you to explain:
- Why their world has changed
- What they can expect in the short-term
- What they can expect in the long-term
If you don’t know answers, it’s OK for those answers to be “I don’t know” as long as your answer conveys that you’re here for them and you’ll keep them informed to the best of your ability.
How to talk to 1-2 year olds
Kids this age may know that their routine has changed and that things feel different, but they don’t have the same fears that older kids do. Simply letting them know about what their day looks like can be very reassuring for them and can decrease the frequency of tantrums, separation anxiety and other challenging behaviors that can show up during times of distress and uncertainty.
No daycare today. Today is a mommy and daddy day, but you will go back to daycare again someday to play with your friends.
No daycare today but Miss Jen is going to come to our house to watch you so mommy can get some work done. You will go back to daycare again someday to play with your friends.
How to talk to 2-3 year olds
Kids this age are more aware that their routine has changed. They notice the fact that daycare drop-offs aren’t happening, or that they are being grabbed from parents at the main door instead of their typical routine of getting dropped off by a parent into their classroom.
They don’t really understand much about what a “virus” is, so their fear has a lot to do with why things in their life have abruptly changed. Too much change in their routine can result in tantrums, defiance and separation anxiety. With this age already being coined “the terrible twos” minimizing these challenges as much as possible is essential for your mental health!
This is a time of year when people can get sick. No daycare this week so that we keep you and your friends from getting sick. You will get to go back to daycare again someday, and I’ll make sure to tell you when that’s going to happen, OK?
This is a time of year when people get sick so we have to wash our hands. Miss Ashley will take you to your classroom right away to wash your hands and mommy will say good-bye to you at the door. Someday, mommy will be able to drop you off at your classroom like we used to, OK? Daddy will pick you up tonight just like he always does.
One saving grace for this population is that their one main goal in life is spending as much time with mom and dad as possible. Thanks to COVID-19, their wish has come true! You might actually see some improvement in behaviors in your household with your two-year-old loving all of the time you’re spending together.
Depending upon the language development of your two-year-old, you may also find it valuable to give the changes in their life a word to use to explain the cause. Some kids this age may have already heard “coronavirus” being said around them and may use this word as a reference for why things have changed.
If they haven’t heard the word or you’d like to create a less scary term than “virus” to use with your child, you can give them a word you approve of to use to explain:
We can’t go to grandma’s house because of the germ we talked about, remember?
We can’t play at the park today because of the germ. We’ll go back again once the germ has gone away.
How to talk to 3-5 year olds
Kids this age are starting to hear more. The other kids at preschool or daycare may be talking about germs, telling stories about what’s happening from what they’ve overheard from adults and scary misinformation might be in their minds on repeat. It’s important to give them enough information to quell their fears, while also recognizing that they are still preschoolers. Too much information can lead to separation anxiety, nightmares, and regression in toilet training.
You remember when you talked about germs last month and how they can make you sick? Well, there’s a special germ right now that’s making people sick. If you get it, you are going to be fine, but it can make other people, like grandma, feel really sick. So we are just trying to be safe so that people like grandma don’t get that germ. We’re washing our hands more, preschool is closed so that you and your friends don’t give the germ to each other, and we are staying away from grandma and other people to help keep them from getting the germ and getting sick. I know that this is confusing and it’s OK to have questions. If you have any questions, you can ask me anything anytime you think of it, OK?
How to talk to Elementary-Aged Kids
Kids this age are probably in the worst phase of childhood for a situation like this. They have been hearing the word coronavirus at school, have friends who’ve been telling stories that are more advanced and scary than those of preschoolers and have had their world completely turned upside down by the abrupt cancelling of school and transitioned to online schooling. This is all very, very weird for them, but their parents aren’t really sure what they can handle yet. So they likely have mostly scary information and not a lot of supportive or helpful information.
Parents of this age of kid like to expect that their child has the skills to communicate. They believe that if their kid has a question or is feeling a strong emotion, she’ll just talk to her parents about it. While kids develop this skill with age, it is still not within our human nature to always verbalize our feelings in a productive manner. As adults, we can still get snippy with our loved ones when feeling stressed, instead of talking it out with our spouse or other family members. If as adults we have a tendency to do this, it’s unlikely that an elementary-aged child is going to have the skill to communicate their feelings in a healthy, productive manner either.
Kids this age need to know that you understand that this is a weird feeling for them and reassured that you’re going to be there for them, not just physically during the “work from home” days, but emotionally as they process what it means to have a virus spreading around their town. They need to know that you are a safe person to talk to (and if you’re feeling anxious and tense about the pandemic, your child may hold back feelings for fear of making things worse for you).
They may need you to be the one to start the conversation so that they know it’s safe to engage in conversation about this scary topic for them. They’ve noticed the increased tension in the home, talks about finances, job stability, household supplies and the health of loved ones; they do not want to be another reason for tension in the household, so they may choose to hold in those feelings.
Parent: I think that it’s time for us to talk about why you’re not in school this week.
Parent: I know you’ve heard about this thing called a Coronavirus. Do you know what that is?
Child: I don’t know…not really.
Parent: The Coronavirus is a germ that is worse than a cold or a flu. It’s a germ that won’t really cause any harm to you, you might feel a little sick, but that’s all. But for people who are older, like grandma and grandpa, it can make them much sicker. They might have to go to the hospital if they get it.
Parent: So, we are doing what we can to try to keep people like grandma and grandpa from getting it. That’s why there is no school and why we won’t let you hang out with your friends or go visit grandpa and grandma. We want to make sure that the germ doesn’t move from person to person.
Child: Ok…so when can I see them again?
Parent: That’s a great question. Unfortunately, we don’t know the answer to that. We just have to wait and see. If we all do a really good job of stopping this germ, then I think it could happen sooner, but I just don’t know for sure. But I promise that I’ll tell you more whenever I find out.
Parent: That was a great question and you might have more, today or another time. If you have any questions, you can ask me anything, any time, and I’ll do my best to explain it to you, Ok?
Your child’s personality is really going to affect how this conversation goes. Strong-willed kids may have the typical one-word answers to your questions or refuse to engage in conversation in general; anxious kids might want to go into elaborate details that aren’t necessary and might actually worsen the already high anxiety she has about the virus.
There shouldn’t be a need for pushing for your child to engage more; that might just lead to more problems in the long run.
But if your child is overly anxious about the topic of Coronovirus, it may be helpful to utilize a resource that explains the concept in a way that makes sense for their age, that doesn’t put so much stress on you to say it “just right” without scaring them.
For younger children, this social story helps to explain how the Coronavirus affects their life and discusses what to expect for their future as well. Social stories are often created for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, but this particular social story is written well for any young child, with or without any diagnosis.
For older children, this comic strip explains Coronavirus in a way that is entertaining, which unfortunately is not a word that older kids use to describe their parents!
There may be a need to limit the amount of questions your child has if he is overly anxious and getting into adult-level details. If that’s the case, reach out to us and we can help to guide you further in how to talk with your child about this or to get your child setup with counseling to learn how to better cope with the anxiety.
That’s it. It’s really pretty simple. You don’t need to be an epidemiologist to start a conversation about how much the Coronavirus is affecting their lives. You don’t need to have all of the answers; you just need to make sure that they know that you’re here for them during all of this uncertainty. And most importantly, that you will get through this odd time in life together.