Q: I don’t want to freak my kids out about coronavirus. I’m trying to keep my stress away from them. I also need them to take the new regulations seriously. What should I tell them?
A: Coronavirus has caused severe disruption to regular life that everyone has experienced over the past number of weeks. Each person and family has had to find ways to manage the psychological and emotional toll of quarantine, social distancing, and stressful home dynamics. Last week, Kav L’Noar sent out some helpful tips about managing the days in ways that can reduce some of the pressure. The article discussed maintaining some level of structure and sanity while stuck at home for an extended period.
Now I’d like to focus on a few ways to talk directly to your kids and loved ones about the coronavirus and its effect on our lives. The ideas below are probably most appropriate for pre-teens and teenagers, although some may be applicable to younger kids as well.
Explain the “why”
As we look around and see almost everyone in our neighborhood looking healthy, it may be hard for our kids to understand the point of all of this. Compounding their misery is the thought that this is unfairly or unreasonably heavy-handed. What’s the problem with hanging out with their friends? I have found that explaining to kids visually has had the greatest impact. A good example is the simulations published in recent Washington Post column. In addition to opening up a general conversation about the coronavirus, when we can give the why, we attach meaning to our actions and to our suffering. My current misery—our whole community’s misery—is going to save thousands of lives. As the popular meme goes “ Your grandparents were called to war. You’re being called to sit on your couch. You can do this!”
Be truthful…and also reassuring
A lot of conversations in the past couple weeks have started with one of my kids or one of their friends (before the new more strict guidelines were in place) asking: “is it true that…?” or “I heard that…”. Typically, those questions or statements were based on partially correct information filtered through an anxious lens. These kind of questions provide the opportunity to correct misinformation. In most cases, providing your kids with correct information in an age-appropriate way, even if it is a little scary, can serve to reduce fear of the unknown. It will also allow your kids to trust you and rely on you when they feel frightened. They will also be more willing to receive your assurances when they perceive you are being honest with them.
Here’s a sample “script” that may be helpful:
(Reassurance): We are doing our part in keeping ourselves and our neighborhood healthy (Good information): The coronavirus is a really difficult illness, and it’s affecting people around the world, including in our city. (Reassurance): Most people who get it will be okay… (Adding meaning): …but we are doing this so that the people who would get the most sick are less likely to get it. (Encouragement): We’re going to try to make the best of this situation… (Empowerment): …and we can also help other people get through it by calling them up and getting groceries for them (if that’s permitted). (Connection): Please ask me any questions that come up for you about any of this! Accept that this is really stressful
“everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
Within a couple days of onset of the quarantines, attentive parents were posting on social media what type of schedules their children were going to maintain. To whatever extent children’s and families’ can have daily routines, the better they will feel. But whenever I discuss parenting, I typically like to quote the insightful Mike Tyson discussing his opponent’s plan to beat him in a boxing match: “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Hopefully no one in quarantine actually gets physically hit or harmed, but the truth of the message remains.
Order in the home can give a semblance or normalcy
Families are dealing with an exceptional level of stress. It is important to acknowledge that with all the chaos in the world around us, having some order in the home can give a semblance or normalcy. Maintaining a standard of cleanliness, a daily schedule, regular school work, or in-house exercise regimens, can all be very helpful and important. But there will also be days, even weeks, where we run out of steam and need to simply get through the day.
As financial strain becomes more relevant for more people, multiple children pulling parents in different directions, and general burnout from this long slog, it is okay to feel stressed out. Because things are actually pretty stressful! Part of accepting that reality is allowing yourself to not push yourself too hard to do the things that are not really necessary. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
Remember that there is an end to this
In the research on the effects of torture, two of the main components that makes torture so bad psychologically is that a person is a) powerless, and b) there is an indefinite time period. Part of what makes this period so difficult, torturous even, is that we are hunkering down without quite knowing what the end looks like. However, as we look at other countries that are just now emerging from the other side of this, we can see that there is an end to this period of extreme measures. It may be a couple of months (and yes, that is really tough!), but this situation is not forever. Reminding ourselves of this can help stop the anxious thinking patterns. We may worry over how much stamina we will need to make it through. It can help us take this situation one day at a time, because that’s really all that we can do.
While we all navigate these extremely uncertain times, this can be an opportunity to open conversations with your children and loved ones. Conversations that may have been difficult when we were in the full swing of life, may be easier now.
These ideas are just a few that can help facilitate connection within families. Let us all wish each other strength, endurance, patience, and health!
Dr. Ethan Eisen
‘Ask the Kav L’Noar Therapist’ is a series running every fourth Monday of the month. If you would like your question to be considered for the series, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence will be kept in the strictest confidence.