Between the time I am writing this (early March) and you are reading it there will have been countless scary headlines about the coronavirus, and some new useful facts, discoveries, and policies, too. It feels like a crazy time and adults and children alike are anxious, confused, and unsure what to do or to believe. So how do we parent our children through all this? It turns out that familiar common-sense parenting guidelines still apply, just as basic handwashing hygiene rules are still our best strategy. Here are some of my thoughts.
Children typically find it even harder than adults to sort through the barrage of information and messages they are receiving. Their brains are less mature and they have less knowledge and experience to provide context. Engage your kids in age-appropriate discussions about COVID-19, viruses, quarantines, vaccines, public health, and so on, relying on credible, responsible, informed sources, rather than the flood of alarmist or denialist media out there. Let their interest and maturity be your guide. You could even use this as an opportunity to help your children learn to be thoughtful consumers of news.
The uncertainty of what will happen, the onslaught of news, people behaving in strange ways (like frantically searching for hand sanitizer) – all these and more can contribute to fears and anxieties in our children. Provide a place where they can feel comfortable talking about their scary thoughts and fears. Be curious about what’s going on in their heads, what they have heard, and what their feelings are. Listen and don’t assume they feel as you do. Don’t belittle them or their feelings. Provide understanding and empathy, without over dramatization. Provide comfort for their emotions and clarity for their anxious thoughts. Be on the lookout for changes in behaviors that may reflect deeper concerns. Provide help and support as you would at any time.
A middle school teacher told me, “Bullying in school has skyrocketed. Any sneeze or cough they hear, students now yell out ‘coronavirus’ and tell them they need to be quarantined. One student left a classroom crying because the teasing was so bad.” Kids may bully when they feel scared or powerless. Teasing happens when we are not thinking about what it feels like for the person on the other end. In these situations, adults need to set limits on unacceptable behaviors and respectfully help kids uphold those limits. In addition to limits, it is important to help kids find more appropriate ways to behave, beyond teasing others or driving you nuts.
It is possible that schools may close or modify their schedules. Outside activities may be suspended. You may be struggling to find childcare or trying to work from home with a house full of antsy kids. Like snow days, all this can throw a wrench into family functioning, especially as we don’t know how long it will go on. As much as you can, stick to regular routines, including bedtimes, meals, chores, and homework. Make sure you allow for physical activity and some commotion – they are kids after all. Prioritize healthy eating, plenty of rest, hydration, exercise, and other basic self-care measures. At the same time, practice flexibility and adaptability as needed. The structure helps kids get through the unusual challenges of this time, reminding them that most things have not changed, and your flexibility models an essential coping tool.
A teenager told me last week that it seemed ridiculous that they were considering closing schools. “We’ll all just hang out together at the mall,” the teen said. If schools and public places are off-limits, your children may chafe at the restrictions or complain of boredom. An important conversation for the whole family is about how you would like to use any unexpected time together in ways both enjoyable and productive. Once parents have set the general parameters, kids should get plenty of say on how they occupy themselves. Dig out the family games and puzzles, create some new ones. Read aloud to each other. Tell stories. Research what families do in other cultures or did together in olden times. Be mindful that the right mix of time alone and time with others will vary among family members.
Screen use limits may be more challenging during “corona/snow” days. What would be reasonable limits for your family members, especially if folks are home all day, every day, for a week or more? Limits should address both screen time and screen content. Depending on the age of the child, scary news stories, movies, or social media feeds should be prohibited or monitored and discussed. A daily check-in about what kids heard or saw could lead to useful family discussions and provide a chance to keep an eye on how your kids are doing.
Our brains are hardwired to scan the horizon for danger and to alert us so we can protect ourselves. Anxiety happens when that process runs amok and interferes in our functioning rather than helping us respond to challenges. Anxiety looks for worst-case scenarios, hones in on them, and tells us that the worst is definitely going to happen. Anxiety is about how things are going to go badly, not about what is actually happening. It looks for confirmations of our fears and ignores or discounts everything that contradicts them. And this month all the ingredients for feeding anxiety are only a screen click away.
The first step in managing anxiety is to pause, take a moment, and breathe. Help your body to calm down. Relax places that are carrying tension (for me it is my shoulders and my gut). Tune into the present around you rather than focusing on the anxious thoughts spiraling through your head. There are wonderful meditation and mindfulness options out there for yourself and to do with your children including books, apps, YouTube videos, blogs, etc. Try out a variety to see which you prefer.
Once you’re in a calmer place you can start challenging your anxious thoughts. What am I thinking is going to happen? Where did I get that idea? How likely is it that the things I fear will actually happen? And if it should come to pass, what can I do about it? What resources do I have or can I acquire to deal with it? Here is where information from reliable, knowledgeable sources is so important. And where all the compelling, fear-mongering sources can only make anxiety worse.
Once you have challenged your own anxious thinking, talk to your kids. Children worry most about what will happen to them. Will I be able to see my friends? Will we be able to go on our vacation? Will I have to repeat this grade if school closes? Will you lose your job? Will we run out of money? If you die, what will happen to me? Will I die? It is important to reassure them that someone will be there to take care of them no matter what happens. And then to address their specific concerns in a matter of fact way, with optimism that your family will handle whatever comes up. How much factual information you share, how nuanced your discussion, depends on the age and maturity of your child. It is also helpful to remind children of challenges that they or the whole family dealt with in the past, and got through to the other side. Children will take their cues from you, your nonverbal behaviors as much as from the words you say.
Mr. Rogers once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” And there are so many people in the news and behind the scenes working hard to help us through this pandemic. Maybe you know a doctor or someone in science or public health that you can talk about together – how this person is helping all of us. Maybe there is a teacher or friend who has been reassuring to the child individually. And maybe together you can figure out ways to be helpers, too. Maybe one child can be responsible for figuring out some meals using the food stocks in the house. Maybe another can come up with some family activities that can be done at home. Perhaps a grandparent or elderly neighbor might need some errands run or other extra help. When we help others, we also are helping ourselves.
Resilience is about bouncing back when things have gone badly. It is also about continuing to function while things are going badly. Continuing to function doesn’t mean pretending that nothing is happening, sticking your head in the sand. It means doing what is necessary to keep on going. For many of us, this will include washing our hands, staying home when sick, or limiting our news consumption to sources that are helpful. Some families will experience more serious difficulties. These could include economic hardship, illness, or family members away from home due to a quarantine or unusual demands of work. If your family is going through this, seek out resources that can help you. If you are more fortunate, consider ways that you can extend help to others.
Bouncing back refers to recovery once the challenge has passed. There will be a return to some things as they were. There will also be some new normals, both personal and communal. Just as, following exposure to a virus, we develop antibodies that protect us in the future (a fact that is talked about a lot these days), so too will we develop strengths and resilience from this period that will serve us well in the days and years ahead. May this experience be an opportunity for your family to grow closer and stronger.
Register for PEP’s free Parenting Support During the Coronavirus: Ongoing Webinar Series for access to all 11 of our free hour-long programs providing parenting strategies, support, and answers to your questions. PEP also has dozens of on-demand videos on common parenting challenges available.
Annie Schiener is a PEP Certified Parent Educator and Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist with Jonah Green and Associates.