This column is the third in a series providing information and suggestions about parenting through the COVID-19 pandemic. Therapists, authors and child experts Jim Wellborn, Ph.D. and Stacy Jagger, LMFT will be helping parents explain to their kids what is happening as well as how to deal with the various challenges of having kids home for the next month or more. They will be giving you suggestions and advice about setting up schedules, dealing with bored and irritable kids, continuing their schoolwork from home, keeping them occupied, maintaining friendships and social connections, managing and monitoring screen time and taking care of yourself so you can take care of your kids.
Once you have helped your kid understand the basics about the virus and how they can do their part to stay well (see previous columns on talking to your small child or teen about the virus), there will likely be some specific questions kids may have. Here are some common questions and concerns with suggestions for how to respond:
Will I/you/grandma die? There are two parts to this question that you are faced with. First, how to reassure your kid about whether someone they know is going to die. Here are some resources for children, here are some for teens, with ideas about how to reassure your child about death and dying. The second part is how to talk to your child about death. This is a topic that can really benefit from laying the groundwork before you are actually faced with an actual death. So use this moment to talk about the cycles of life (and the afterlife, depending on your faith traditions). Here are some excellent sites with information about how to explain death to children.
Why do people wear masks? Should I wear one? Let them know that some people are extra thoughtful about making sure they don’t give germs to other people, and many are listening to the Centers for Disease Control's advice that wearing masks could be helpful. You can make a game of creating some masks (if you haven’t already decided that everyone needs to wear masks for health reasons.)
Why can’t I play with my friends? The most straightforward answer works best. “It can be really easy to catch this virus so we have to wait to play with our friends until we know for sure everyone will stay well” — notice the general “so no one will get sick” rather than “you will make them sick” or “they will make you sick” which can lead to kids concluding they should be afraid. Then focus on hanging out with the family for a while. “We are going to have fun with each other for a while. We have to do our part to stay healthy before we hang out with friends or go to school. Then you will be able to play with your friends again.” There will be a future column just for this thorny, contentious aspect of social isolation recommendation to manage the spread of coronavirus.
When am I going back to school? This one is difficult because you don’t have a specific time frame to provide your kid about when school routines will return to what used to be normal. The focus of your response can be on fairness and lots of people not being well enough to go to school.
“Everyone is going to wait for a while. There were so many people getting sick that they decided to have people stay home until everyone is well again. It wouldn’t be fair if some people got to go to school while a lot of other people couldn’t go because they weren’t well enough yet. So, they are going to start school again when most people are feeling well again.”
How do I know if my child is worrying too much about all this? Some kids may be extra perceptive or are prone to anxiety and worry. Other kids may have been exposed to some scary talk about what is going on. Here are some ways to tell if your kid is worrying too much:
- Experiencing nightmares or strong fears about going to sleep
- Being overly concerned with hygiene, germs and cleanliness (just when you thought how nice it would be if they were)
- Being preoccupied with or being extremely emotional about death and dying
- Extreme clinginess (that is different from when they follow you around saying “I’m bored. Can you play with me? What are we going to do now?”)
- Needing lots of reassurance or asking the same questions over and over about things that are associated with the virus
If your kid seems to have trouble with worry or anxiety about the virus, it might be worth checking in with a mental health professional for some ideas about ways you can help your kid with their anxiety and fear. There are also some books that provide ideas for helping overly anxious kids.
James G. Wellborn, Ph.D.
Dr. James G. Wellborn is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Brentwood focusing on adolescents and families. He is an expert on motivation, coping in childhood and adolescence, academic engagement, parenting and adolescent development. An invited speaker to groups, agencies and churches on parenting and teenage issues, he conducts workshops for parents, teens, teachers and counselors on parenting teens, teenage issues, adolescent development, motivating teens, mental health issues and intervention strategies. Dr. Wellborn is the author of Raising Teens in the 21st Century: A Practical Guide to Effective Parenting. Dr. Wellborn and his wife live in Nashville, Tennessee and are the parents of two grown children and, now, of two adorable grandchildren. You can learn more about Dr. Wellborn by visiting his website at www.DrJamesWellborn.com.
Stacy Jagger, LMFT, RPT-S
Stacy Jagger is a mother of four and a therapist to many. She is on a mission to restore wonder to childhood, connection to families, and intimacy to relationships. She is the architect of the 30 Day Blackout, a break from technology designed to bring parents and children closer together and unleash the natural creativity in all of us. A musician at heart, she designed Music with Mommie, a parent-child bonding class that utilizes instruments and play to facilitate connection. Stacy has spent the last several years of her career building Music City Family Therapy, her practice in Brentwood. She lives on a small farm outside the city with her husband of 20 years, a pony named Mister Rogers, a few dozen chickens and a gaggle of ducks.