While news of the coronavirus continues to spread, we enlisted the help of two experts to help parents communicate with their kids during this stressful time. We’re pleased to share a conversation with two practicing psychotherapists in Houston, Texas–Gayle and Mike Klaybor. They are close friends with author Eric Kimmel, who wrote the children’s book, Why Worry, and use Kimmel’s book in their everyday practice to help with childhood worries.
“Why Worry? features two friends, Cricket and Grasshopper, who represent extremes. Cricket always worries; Grasshopper never does. Neither is a realistic approach to a challenge such as the one we’re facing now with the coronavirus.” Read on for a Q-and-A with real, actionable steps parents can take with their own kids to help ease the anxiety many are feeling.”
How can we help children understand the world around them without causing them too much worry?
The first thing to realize is that worrying in the face of an international health crisis is natural and understandable. Everyone around the globe is worried, and anxiety related feelings are real for many families.
Parents play a huge role in how children respond to the news and the anxiety that goes with it. As a parent, check your own fears and attitudes about the news reports and find a way to self-soothe. Be a role model of healthy coping and tell your children how you do it.
For example, “I was worried about everyone in the family getting sick, but I listened to the recommendations to stay safe and we are doing all of those things: staying at home, washing our hands, etc.”
Let your children know about the changes occurring in all of your lives and reassure them that change is a normal part of living. Your children will read and mirror your feelings and energy. They will respond in kind. Watch them and be attentive. Some children aren’t ready to talk about their feelings or just don’t want to. They may respond better by distracting themselves or just not thinking about the crisis. Respond to each child’s individual needs. Talk to them when they are ready.
How can parents know how much information is appropriate to share or not?
First of all, children are different. A teenager can handle information that a five-year-old could not understand. Try to give information in a way that is age and language appropriate.
Answer the questions that they ask. They may be letting you know what they want or are able to handle. Don’t lecture or overshare. Once you explain to them why they have to stay home from school, be sure to ask how they feel about what you have shared. Ask what their friends are saying to them to better understand the sources of anxiety and/or their other reactions.
As you monitor your own feelings, it is important to create a home environment in which your child feels safe, reassured and heard.
Especially important—and we can’t stress this enough—is creating an atmosphere at home where children feel comfortable asking questions and expressing their feelings. Knowing that they can trust their parents to support, protect, listen, and answer their questions goes a long way to alleviating children’s fears.
The news feels scary, but I don’t feel right lying to my kids. How do I balance being truthful without overwhelming them?
Much of the worry and anxiety that occurs about this virus is based on fear of the unknown. Help kids stay focused on the present because we don’t know what will happen in the future.
It helps to point out that we mostly worry about a future in which the worst-case scenario happens. That is probably not going to be the reality. Worrying about the future—like Cricket does—promotes anxiety and fear because the future can’t be controlled. If you allow yourself to feel out of control, then you are feeding the fear.
Break the chain. Don’t dwell on what may or may not happen in the future. Focus on the immediate needs and emotions of your entire family. What can we do or what do we need to do NOW.
Should we treat this pandemic with levity or gravity? How can parents decide which is better when it comes to talking to their kids, even if they are experiencing anxiety?
Tell the truth in simple terms. Be accurately informed and give children the facts. For example, as of this writing, doctors tell us that kids are less likely to get sick and that most people who get sick will get well. The ones in serious danger are elderly people and those with medical issues whose health is already compromised.
Let your children know they have strong immune systems. Taking precautions now will help them stay safe and healthy. Observing rules about staying home, washing hands, keeping a distance from others stops the virus from spreading and helps protect those for whom the virus might be a serious threat.
There’s no one way to do it. Sometimes joking helps alleviate stress. At other times it may be inappropriate, such as when a family member is ill. Again, keeping lines of communication open is what matters. It may help to have a family time when all members of the family can talk about the situation and how they’re coping with it.
It is also okay to have fun during this time. Families can appreciate time together and remembering what is important. Families can focus on what they are grateful for and that we have some good ways to minimize the spread. Even at home, there can be times to forget about what is happening outside and pay attention to what is positive.
What are a few strategies parents can use to keep kids calm if everyone needs to stay home?
Make a schedule and help kids stick to it: doing school assignments, daily reading, meditation, craft time, exercise time, family movie time or game night. Kids could use YouTube to learn a new skill or game. Kids can explore a topic or idea using the multitude of resources on the Internet. Parents could have, for example, an “Eric Kimmel Book Day.” He’s recorded several stories on his Vimeo page.
The family could plan and cook a special dinner together or plan the next family vacation. Kids could invent, act out plays or draw pictures of a superhero that stamp out Covid-19. Investigate sites like Pinterest to find activities.
Children don’t have to be entertained all the time. Necessary chores can be made fun and challenging. Parents can make award charts based on completing chores and other household tasks. Of course, even though you might to limit screen time, kids need some downtime too.
Being at home may be for weeks. The time can be valuable and productive if parents are flexible and creative.
These two words are the key. Be FLEXIBLE and CREATIVE.
We WILL get through this.
Gayle Klaybor Ph.D., LCSW-S
Mike Klaybor E.d.D.LPC-S
How are you and your family dealing with the challenges posed by the coronavirus? Comment on our social media platforms @westmarginpress so we can each learn from one another.
And don’t forget to poke around the rest of the blog! There you’ll find more inspiration on ways to create peace and calm during these uncertain times.