“It’s critical for parents to understand that they are the primary mediators for how their children will understand this experience,” said Matthew Biel, a child psychiatrist at Georgetown University School of Medicine. “It’s critical for parents to be thoughtful about how they talk about this with their kids, and how they talk about it with each other.”
Children, particularly those of preschool and elementary school age, should not be inundated with constant updates about the virus, Biel and other experts said. The barrage of news on the virus, with updates coming to phones and other devices, and being shown on television, can send a repeated rush of terror through young minds and have negative consequences. After the Boston Marathon bombings, researchers found that children who watched more than three hours of televised coverage on the day of the attack were more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder and develop behavioral problems. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Biel recalled young patients of his who had seen repeated footage of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center. “Each time, they saw it, the kids experienced it as a new event.”
One of the many extraordinary things about the spread of the coronavirus is how quickly things are changing. “In the case of a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, there is the event and the aftermath,” Biel said. “This event is rolling and evolving.”
That means parents, while staying informed and responsible as the situation progresses, should also limit their own intake. “This is exhausting emotionally and physically for us, and takes away from our ability to be good parents,” said Biel, who has two children of his own.
Parents should also shield their children from panicked displays of anxiety and fear. It might be helpful to use an imaginary “feeling thermometer,” to gauge your emotional state, said Aureen Wagner, a clinical child psychologist at the Anxiety Wellness Center in Cary, N.C. She tells parents to use the thermometer to take stock of their emotional state on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 refers to peak anxiety. The “thinking” brain works best when the “feeling” brain is under 5, she said. “If you’re at an 8, 9 or 10, that is not the time to talk to your child,” she said. “Similarly, if your child is at an 8, 9, or 10, it isn’t the time to talk with them.”
Parents also need to be particularly mindful about having adult conversations in front of children during a time like this, because kids are astute eavesdroppers and observers.
“Unless you’re physically in another room with a door shut, they are picking up data from you,” said Abigail Romirowsky, a clinical psychologist at the Ross Center in the District. “The level at which they are picking up data depends on their developmental stage, but it’s better to assume to your kids are seeing and hearing everything.”
Certain conversations, particularly ones that children have no control over – like fear of a food shortage, or worries about money – should be saved for a private phone conversation, or discussed after children are asleep.
What children need from their parents is clarity and reassurance.
“You can say the word ‘virus,’ but don’t forget to talk to them about their immune systems,” Romirowsky said. “You can say that our bodies have superheroes inside of them to fight the bad guys. People who are really, really old, they have fewer superheroes inside of them and they need all of us to protect them. So that’s why we’re trying to be careful, to help them.”
As parents grapple with massive changes to lifestyle and schedule, they must also work to introduce a new routine.
“One of the simple things that parents can do is to maintain predictability,” said Katie McLaughlin, a clinical psychologist and professor at Harvard University, whose research focuses on childhood stress, adversity and trauma. Research shows that lack of control and lack of predictability are major contributors to anxiety in children, she said.
She acknowledged that setting a schedule might be challenging as many parents attempt to work from home while caring for children who normally spend their day in school or at day care. “But even if it’s a slow process, where you layer in a little routine every day, it will be helpful for younger children.”
And as difficult as this time is, it may allow some families to come together in a way they normally don’t have time for. Parents and children can spend time together in the kitchen and cook, or work on a long-postponed household project, or play board games and watch movies. Kids can be given age-appropriate chores around the house, said Biel, the Georgetown psychiatrist.
“During this turmoil and difficulty, kids will learn that we’re all sort of co-citizens of a new kind of home for the next number of weeks,” he said.
Above all, maintaining the calm in the chaos will be important for every family, he said. Children need to know that their parents have their backs, even when there is uncertainty.
“Emphasize that over and over again,” he said.
He and other experts offered some suggestions to help parents with children who might be feeling stressed and concerned during this uncertain time.
- Kids do not need to be exposed to the news all the time, but it is important that they know what they can do: practice good hygiene and social distancing. Families might try having two check-in times each day, once in the morning and once in the evening, when kids can ask questions and discuss the virus. Adults who feel like they need frequent updates should try getting the news silently, by reading it on a personal device with headphones rather than watching on TV, so that children are not exposed.
- Give children responsibilities they might not normally have time for. “Tell the kids, we’re all in this together and working together; this can be interesting and a learning experience,” Biel said. His children, 9 and 11, spent a recent morning staining a fence. “They loved it, and it isn’t something they normally do at 11 a.m. on a Monday.”
- Establish a routine. This is something children and parents can work on together. Because children know their daily school routines well, it can be empowering for them to create a new home schedule with parents. Ideally, the new schedule mirrors the normal schedule, but it does not have to. It can be more of a summer camp schedule, if that is easier and preferable. “I get out my calendar for my preschooler and we talk about the week,” said Janine Domingues, a child psychologist at the Child Mind Institute in New York City. “It’ll take a little while to understand that we’re not going to school again for some time.”
- Help children maintain their social connections using technology. Social distancing does not mean social isolation, for adults or kids. “Right now, even our 4½-year-old is FaceTiming with buddies and sharing things he’s working on at home,” Domingues said. She also asks her parents to read her son a daily bedtime story over a video chat.
- Take cues from your children and respond accordingly. Talking to a 5-year-old is different from talking to a fifth-grader, but there are also differences in children of the same age. Some children might see school cancellations as a way to stay home, have fun and enjoy a little more screen time than usual. Some children may feel more comfortable if they get more updates on the virus; others might do better with less. And within a single family, siblings can be different, so the approach must be catered to the child. Children who feel particularly stressed and anxious need to be told that there are “kid worries” and “grown-up worries.” It’s a child’s job to wash their hands, and an adult’s to keep them safe.
- Minimize the sarcasm and dry humor. For adults, making light of the situation and talking about a “zombie apocalypse” might be a coping mechanism, but this is not the case for children. Even children as old as 11 may not fully understand dark humor. “Adults should use whatever coping strategies are helpful right now, but I would be cautious about this around kids,” said McLaughlin, the Harvard researcher. Those kinds of statements in front of children could cause them to develop fears about things that are not realistic.
- Find strategies for each family member to reduce stress levels. Children should spend time outside and find ways to incorporate physical activity into the daily schedule, as should adults. Relaxation strategies might include deep breathing exercises or a long bath, McLaughlin said. “Parents can model these things for their kids,” she said.
Sindya Bhanoo is a health and science reporter based in Austin.