This column is one 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, RPT-S 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.
Everyone is freaking out. Kids are home but can’t go out. Schools have closed but school work continues. You can’t find bananas in the grocery store. There are stacks of toilet paper in the corner of the living room. Kids have questions! And, kids have a knack for asking the very questions you don’t have answer for or don’t know HOW to answer.
“What is COVID-19?” “Am I going to die?” “Why aren’t we going to school?” “Why can’t my friends come over?”
How you talk to your kids about this pandemic will be a significant factor in their level of stress. It will also set the stage for how they deal with the ongoing effects of COVID-19 and it’s economic effects over the next couple of years. Here are some suggestions about how to start a conversation with your kids about COVID-19.
Match explanations to your child’s age. First of all, keep conversations with children age appropriate. Even if you are worried, it doesn’t help either us or our children to worry about things over which they have little or no control. Use your best judgment about what to say and not to say to your child.
Limit exposure to news. This may be the most difficult thing to do. It’s EVERYWHERE (like the virus)! Be aware of when you have the news running in the background. Pay attention to who is around when you are talking about it. For children, keep their news watching and listening to a minimum. For your teens, pay attention to what news they are consuming online and through social media. Find out what they have heard so you can get your two cents in to correct some of the misinformation or exaggerations they are encountering.
Get the facts. Be sure you have the real facts about the virus. There are some crazy theories out there. If you are going to talk to your kids about the virus, you need to know what you are talking about. The best places to go for information are official, science-based sites. Here are a couple of resources for you to keep up to date on the best and most accurate information available on COVID-19, minimizing exposure to the virus and what to expect over the long term.
- Centers for Disease Control. The place America (and much of the world) goes to get information on diseases and their treatment.
- World Health Organization. The place the world goes to get the same kind of information.
You will also need to know about social distancing, a critical part of our country’s effort to keep hospitals from filling up too fast resulting in unnecessary deaths. This is a good video explaining why social distancing is crucial. We will have more to say about this in the upcoming column on socializing during the shutdown.
Talk about it. It will be important for you to talk to your kids about what is going on. Don’t down play it. Don’t avoid it. When they ask questions, answer them. (See below for suggestions about how to talk to them about what all is happening.) Follow your child's lead. Answer questions they are asking, but don't give extra information they are not asking for. For young children, it may help to externalize the conversation by using puppets or toys or singing a little song about the situation, making it more play-based and less scary. They may be worrying, but haven’t said anything to you yet. They may not have any questions, aren’t even worrying about it, but it is just a matter of time until it occurs to them. To check on whether your kid is keeping things to themselves, a simple inquiry can work really well. “Do you have any questions about this virus everyone is talking about or why we are mostly hanging out as a family?” “Is there anything you have been thinking about that worries you?”
Be truthful and accurate. When you tell your kids something, it is important that you be truthful. (That doesn’t mean you tell them ALL of the truth. Some things are too difficult for them to grasp or will unnecessarily upset them.) If you tell your kids things that aren’t true and accurate to make them feel better you will pay the price later when they need to trust what you say. Your ability to reassure and comfort them in the future will be damaged if you told them things in the past just to make them feel better in the moment.
Be calm and positive. People are really scared and unsure about what is happening in the world right now. Your kid has already picked up on that. One job we have as parents is to provide our kids with perspective. What should they worry about? How bad is it? Kids need to see that things will turn out ok; that things will get better; that there is beauty in the world even when things are darkest. This doesn’t mean a “life is all lollipops and rainbows” kind of positive. It is an “of course things are going to be OK we just have to do some things now to take care of ourselves” kind of positive. The good news is our amazing and wonderful bodies are made with a beautiful thing called an immune system. Our body can spot a virus and attack it, keeping us healthy.
Emphasize the importance of character. Morals only really count when they cost you. Valuing generosity matters most when you feel like being stingy. Compassion requires you to set aside your own needs to be there for others who are suffering. The effects of this virus will provide one of those infamous “teaching moments,” at the deepest level. People may lose family members or friends. Many, many people will be hit hard economically. This will be a time to remind your kids (and yourself) about the teachings of your faith traditions on how to treat others and what really matters. Your kid will need help thinking of others, finding ways to give to those who are suffering and learning that even when you are struggling you have something to offer. The virus is not the only thing that is contagious. Pay it forward.
Cover the main points. So, how do you describe this virus to your kids? Here are the basics.
- It is a virus like the flu or a cold. (I know. I know. It’s WORSE than the flu. You are helping to reassure your child, not providing them with a sophisticated understanding of the structure of the virus.) Use something from their own experience for comparison like the last time they had a fever or felt sick and had to stay in bed. (And, by the way, a pandemic “just means that a lot of people are feeling sick at the same time.”)
“Remember when you were feeling sick last month with a temperature and you felt really tired and then got better? This virus is kind of like that. Sometimes, people can get sick at the same time like when there were a couple of kids who were absent from school all at the same time because they were sick. That’s what is happening now.”
- It can make you feel bad, but it may not seriously hurt you. While a small percentage of people who acquire the virus will die, it is not helpful to tell your kid this. They do need to know what happens if you get the virus however. And, they need to know that people get better. (And most people WILL get better.)
“Most people who get sick with this virus rest in bed while they are sick until they feel better. They will get well when their body gets rid of the germs. If you get sick, that’s what you will have to do.”
- You don’t have to worry. Children need to be reassured when they get scared. They will certainly be able to pick up on how anxious adults are about the virus (and the economic trouble that is coming!). Let them know things are okay and there are smart people making sure everyone stays safe and well.
“Besides, you don’t have to worry too much. Doctors and scientists know a lot about how to help people get well when they get sick. There are lots of different medicines that will make you better if you get sick.”
- There are things you can do to help kill lots of bad germs. Give your kids something they can do. Make them a “germ buster.” This includes washing their hands, coughing into their elbow, get good rest, eat healthy and get lots of exercise. Don’t forget to be playful. Don’t be all doom and gloom. Also, be careful about making it sound like ALL germs and viruses can be killed. Use terms like “most,” “a lot,” “as many as possible,” etc.
“Remember when we wash our hands while singing the ABC song? Well that helps keep most germs away. It is also important to trap those germs by coughing and sneezing into your elbow. And everyone needs to get a good night’s sleep, eat healthy foods and give their body a lot of exercise. That’s what we can do to do something about those germs and stay as healthy as possible. So let’s go fight those germs!”
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, 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, Tennessee. She lives on a small farm outside the city with her husband of twenty years, a pony named Mister Rogers, a few dozen chickens and a gaggle of ducks.