LEXINGTON, KY. (April 1, 2020) – It seems that the world is changing day by day, and it can be confusing, frustrating, and even terrifying for us and our children. I hope that our series of blog posts will help you and your family navigate the coming weeks. We thrive on structure and the ability to predict the future. Not only have we been thrown a virus that makes us concerned for ourselves, our family, and our community, our daily life has changed in a matter of days.
Here is what you need to do:
- Be honest. Answer your children’s questions.
- Be comforting and supportive.
- Adopt a new routine.
- Limit social media and unmonitored access to the news.
- Look for the helpers and how people are coping in a positive way. Find hope.
Younger children may have questions like: what is a virus? How does my body fight it? Why can’t I go to school? Will I get sick and die? What will happen to my grandma and grandpa? Will my parents be okay? Why are we worried about toilet paper use? Why do I have to wash my hands so much? Children’s National published a helpful resource on how to answer questions like these.
Older children miss their friends and don’t understand why they can’t go see them. Adolescents are distraught by not being able to hang out with their friends in person and being stuck at home with their parents. High school seniors are struggling to cope with canceled spring break trips, proms and graduations – highlights they have been looking forward to all year. To adults, their concerns may be minor when you’re trying to telecommute or are facing reduced wages, but remember, this is their world and they need to hear that you understand this is hard for them.
People react to stress differently at different ages. In younger children, you may see acting out behaviors and regression. Your child may throw a tantrum over a minor thing. Your recently toilet trained child may now be having accidents. Your big kid may not want to sleep in their big kid bed anymore and may want to sleep with mom and dad. Older children may become sullen and withdrawn. Adolescents may argue more. Children of all ages may refuse to do chores (even more than one might expect). Exercise patience and understand that these are expressions of stress in your children. Be comforting and provide reassurance. Below are some tips on how to address that stress.
First, tell the truth in an age appropriate way. Be honest. The Clay Center for Young Health Minds has a great resource list for how to talk to children of all ages.
- Tell a young child that there is a new germ going around and we need do a good job not spreading it. We do that by staying apart, washing our hands, and covering our coughs with a tissue or the inside of our arm. A child psychologist published a helpful video where she explains how the disease spreads and what to do.
- For elementary age children, they should be able to understand the basics of how the virus works. For them, Governor Beshear’s child-friendly briefing he gives daily at 5 p.m. is appropriate. Links to his child-friendly briefings are available through news sources online.
- Young and older children process their emotions and events through play. Provide opportunities to explore their thoughts and feelings through unstructured play. Let the child direct the narrative and join in as they instruct you to do so.
- Middle and high school age children should be able to watch and discuss the news. Sit with them as you watch the news and review information together. Be available to hear their concerns and answer their questions the best you can. Make sure they have access to correct, up to date sources of information, such as through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Reassure your child that most people who get this virus get better, but we need to make sure we don’t spread it too fast so that our doctors can help. Also reassure them that it doesn’t seem to make kids very sick. Advise them that kids can spread it without knowing it, which is why we need to keep schools and activities closed.
Advise your children (and yourself) to avoid getting their information from social media in times like this. People are likely to share more extreme and inaccurate information on social media, which can serve to create stress and panic.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has a great resource that addresses the topics discussed above and provides come ideas for coping during this time. Scroll down at that link for a table on how to help children cope with stress at different ages.
During this time, we all need a little stress relief. Below are some coping skills for all ages.
- Try and adopt a “new normal.” Create a new structure and routine.
- Go a walk (away from others).
- Run around in the back yard.
- Do arts and crafts. Make Play-Doh. Make wacky bubble art.
- Do an exercise video. Many are now being offered for free by various companies. Go Noodle is loved by many kids.
- Do a guided meditation together or relaxation together. Many are available online.
- Have a dance party with your child’s favorite music.
Alissa Briggs is a psychologist in the UK division of adolescent medicine, and Jennifer Perry is a social worker in the UK division of forensic medicine.
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