As I dropped my daughters at school this morning, a little boy shouted to them, “Hey, have you heard of the coronavirus?” We laughed a little at this, then moved on. But in the back of my mind, I started to wonder about how much kids are being affected by the constant coronavirus discussions going on around them. Recent studies have highlighted how anxiety and worry are on the rise with children around the world. Surely, even if they don’t mention it all the time, they are picking up on comments from their community and from the media? How can we be sure that they are getting the right information? Being a parent is a series of navigational steps that takes you into the unknown. Dealing with a global health crisis for all of us is unchartered territory so it is important that we guide our children into understanding, processing and reacting in sensible ways. Here are some practical steps to follow to reassure your child that, whatever happens, they can be fully prepared and keep calm in the months ahead.
Why are children worrying?
Our notions of childhood are constantly changing and what we expect childhood to be like has altered over the last hundred years. Adults can often have a romantic notion that childhood is worry-free so sometimes dismiss little worries as unimportant. However, we are becoming more aware of what children worry about and discussing anxiety in children is debated openly in the media and in schools in recent years. We are discovering much more about a child’s brain and their development. Children are such active listeners, they consume information like sponges and raise questions about all aspects of the world. Any parent of a toddler knows this too well. We have to expect that they are aware of the coronavirus and need those questions answered. According to David Spellman, a clinical psychologist, the media coverage of the virus has been sensationalised and this can impact children negatively if left unresolved. It is vital that we fact check our information and share appropriate facts with our children so they know what can be trusted, Spellman has suggested. Think of the images we see in our daily newsfeed – people wearing face masks, hospital staff wearing full clinical body suits, supermarket shelves empty. Coupled with language such as ‘quarantine’, ‘flights cancelled’ and countries on ‘lockdown’ these images be frightening for children and need to be explained in a rational way so they can make sense of the situation. Consider the following ways to help your child rationalise the health crisis and how it might impact them and people they know.
Choose the best time and place.
- Try to pick a relaxed time of day, perhaps when driving, having dinner or watching TV. Before bed is often a time when worries appear but this is not always the best time to discuss them as this can lead to an unsettled night. Best to reassure and delay until the next morning.
- Pick a secure and calm space, sitting side by side watching sport or their favourite programme can be a good time. Having less eye contact whilst discussing things in a rational way can help a child process the information and ask questions without feeling under the spotlight.
- Keep your tone laid-back and non-urgent. It will only instil an unnecessary sense of fear to sound anxious as a parent.
- Use open questions so that they can take control of the conversation and feel like they can discuss the topic honestly as ideas pop into their head.
Choose the best facts and tell the truth.
- Facts backed up by evidence are vital to making sure your child feels they know what this virus is about. It also helps you feel prepared to have the discussion if you have done some research.
- If questions come up you can’t answer, tell the child you will find out the answer as soon as possible and let them know. Try not to get on a search engine in front of them to get the answer as they may see things that increase anxiety.
- Positivity is key. It is important not to dismiss fears but essential that children know that this kind of global epidemic has happened before. Talk to them about the times they have had colds or illnesses and recovered. Keeping things in perspective for the child will help them maintain a reasonable view on the virus.
- Let them know there are doctors and hospitals that will look after the sick and that there is global attention on developing a vaccine for COVID-19. If someone becomes ill, the professionals will care for them. Children need to know that this safety net is there, ready to kick in when needed.
- Involve them in making plans for practical things you can do as a family to prepare. Perhaps organising resources or making a chore rota will enable them to feel they have a role to play.
- There is an opportunity for making them feel grown up and take responsibility for others. Washing hands, looking after grandparents, not coughing in front of others can be behaviour intitiatives that make them feel grown up and knowledgeable about the situation.
- Encourage them to be a kindness ambassador at school or in the community by looking after other children who might be worried or unsure about the best ways to wash hands.
- Discuss stockpiling with them. Having some supplies in the house is sensible and asking them what they would like to buy will make them feel involved. But make sure they know why mass stockpiling is a bad idea for others who may not have the finances to buy lots at once. This will develop a community spirit and an ability to think of others.
After all, many children are probably discovering information about the coronavirus on a daily basis. If you have opened the discussion on this topic with them and they know they can trust your honesty, they are more likely to convey their worries as and when they appear. Keeping calm is vital to children being able to process and cope with what may be a difficult time ahead for all of us over the coming months. Once they have the facts, they will hopefully develop a logical understanding of the situation and then not over-react when calm heads are required. You are their parent and what they will want is to have open honesty with you when things might seem a little frightening. This type of honesty will knit the family closer and help the child feel secure in times of uncertainty. Surely, something every parent wants for their child.