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How to Talk to Your Children about COVID

COVID-19 has changed the order of our world. Each of us has been affected by health-related COVID-19 issues whether it be due to infection, vaccination, or even politics related to the pandemic.

An event or group of events that negatively affect us faster than we can adjust to those events is one definition of trauma. Simply put, because of the pandemic, many of us have experienced trauma that has left a mark on our persons, families, and communities. Post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD describes the lasting effect that the pandemic may have had on each of us.

Last week, I, Dr. Oster, spoke to my niece who lives in South Florida. Her son Gavin is 11 years old and was recently diagnosed with COVID-19. Gavin's first response to knowing that he was infected was shame - shame that he let his family down and put them at risk. Gavin’s response to his diagnosis begs the question: how do we talk to children about COVID-19?

I reached out to the SLVH Behavioral Health Department and posed this question to Laura Burkhardt, and she offered some guidance that may be helpful to parents during this prolonged pandemic.Laura Burkardt

Hi Laura and thanks for this conversation. First, how can we help our children feel safe during this pandemic?

Dr. Oster, the ideas listed below are based on how our brains respond to threats and things to do to help calm an overactive nervous system:

  • Teach and encourage your child the usual safety measures for prevention: Washing hands, keeping six feet apart when possible, and wearing face coverings. This will empower your child. They will be able to trust in their knowledge and ability to be part of protection and prevention.
  • Share developmentally appropriate information. Answering your child’s questions will help them know the facts and prevent anxiety and worry that often arise in the unknowns. However, it is important to share what is developmentally appropriate. Protect your child from unnecessary exposure to graphic news.
  • Monitor how often you are discussing COVID-19 and be mindful to not talk about it more than is helpful. Rumination on the virus or COVID-19 related issues will only increase your child’s anxiety (and yours!). Model healthy conversations about COVID-19 without obsession.
  • Maintain a sense of normalcy. Make schedules that provide your child with a sense of stability and structure. Create opportunities for safe social interaction. Get creative to engage your child in pleasurable and healthy activities within the limitations of social distancing.
  • Perhaps the best way to help our children feel safe is to manage our own anxieties. Practice healthy self-care and find a healthy outlet for your fear and anxiety so that your children don’t take on your anxieties.

As a parent, how do you continue to allow your child to grow while helping them to express their fears?

If your child is experiencing fear, be present with them. Let them know they are not alone. Validate their emotional experience, reassuring them that it is natural to feel afraid right now. Also, teach them and model healthy ways to help calm their nervous system:

  • Put on calming music
  • Give them a warm bath.
  • Take deep breaths together
  • Go for a walk
  • Play a game

When your child is not currently experiencing fear, you could explore what they feel they are learning because of COVID-19. Be careful not to rush into finding the “silver lining” as this could inadvertently minimize their experience.

What things can you do to help your child feel in control of their lives?

Additional actions to consider:

  • Give your child choices in their daily lives (ex: What to eat for dinner. What game to play or movie to watch? What chores they want to sign up for)
  • Start a project together – led by your child.
  • Ask for your child’s help with chores and housework.
  • Solicit your child’s ideas for creating a new normal in the time of COVID-19. Get your child’s feedback on ideas such as a homeschool schedule, safe playdates, and creative projects.
  • Provide opportunities for your child to help others. Here are a few ideas to get the brainstorming started:
    • Write cards to patients in the hospital.
    • Volunteer to help a family in quarantine.
    • Take food to the local food bank.

How do we let children know that it's okay to feel stress in their lives?

  • Lots of children are afraid to show stress because they don’t want to stress out their parents or caregivers. By taking care of yourself, your child will be free to feel stress and can trust that you are there to support them.
  • Teach your child that stress is a natural physiological response to a threat, that it is normal and healthy to experience stress.
  • Explore with your child what they understand “stress” to mean. Help them explore how they experience stress: What do they think about when they are stressed? What other emotions do they notice when they are stressed? What do they notice in their bodies when they are stressed?

What are some suggestions for keeping the conversation going with our children and teens?

Check in regularly. Welcome questions. Be honest. And more than anything, be present.

By validating our children’s emotional experience while teaching/ and modeling healthy tools for coping, they will feel safe to share and empowered to act.

By the way, Gavin is doing fine physically with minimal COVID-19 symptoms. Luckily, he has a loving family and will learn from his experience.