How Do You Talk to Your Kids About the Pandemic?
How do parents help their kids with the stress of the pandemic? All kids at different ages seek security and certainty about their daily lives. Suddenly, this has changed for parents and their kids due to the pandemic. The big questions are how to listen and how to respond to your kids as an antidote to their stress and yours as their parents.
If you already have an open relationship with your kids in which they confide their thoughts, opinions, and worries, it will be easier than if you need to start that practice now. But in either case that’s the essential goal.
How Parents Can Prepare Themselves Before a Discussion About the Pandemic with Their Kids
In preparation for such discussions there are four main ideas for parents to keep in mind.
- Increase your observation of your kids’ behaviors and, at the same time, listen to them talking to each other or their friends remotely. This will give you the gist of each child or teen’s present state of mind which may change as the time at home lengthens.
What do I mean by present state of mind?
Compare what you’ve observed in the past and what you observe now in the present. Ask yourself some questions:
Is my child more jittery than usual?
Is my child sleeping and eating normally?
Is my child one who can find stuff to do on their own or needs to be directed and entertained?
Is my child moody now or has been before the virus?
Where does my child fit on a continuum of easy going to easily anxious or depressed?
Remember that every child is an individual. Each has their own mind that ranges from flexible and resilient to prone to being mildly or severely anxious. This was true before the virus set in.
So, again think about your individual children in terms of their pre-pandemic versus current temperament, general moods, sleeping and eating habits, needs to socialize or have time to themselves, and their relationship with you—particularly if they are used to confiding in you or keep their distance.
These questions will alert you to what to keep in the back of your mind about your unique child when you discuss the pandemic with him or her.
- Clarify for yourself the difference between fear and anxiety. Your children may be experiencing one or both.
Fear is the reaction to real or perceived danger whereas anxiety is a disproportionate vigilant reaction including over reactions with scary anticipations of the future that are not accurate but misleading or misconstrued such as exaggerated feelings of impending threats or dangers in the future.
- Listen to off handed comments that need to be heard and taken as seriously as direct comments. The off-handed comments often appear to slip by but often contain the most hidden anxiety.
- Consider how you are feeling about the pandemic yourself by first questioning the accuracy of your own knowledge (simply go online and look up Corona Virus on google to increase your knowledge) and consequently, your own fears or anxiety. Clearly stated information will reduce unwarranted fears, clarify accurate fears, and help to contain your own anxiety while talking to your children.
How to Talk and Listen to Your Kids
Once you have prepared for a discussion, you will feel knowledgeable and calm so you can be most attentive to what your kids have to say.
So, when and if your child is up to it, you might begin first by mentioning what you’ve heard them say in both off-handed and direct comments. Tell them you want to know more about what’s on their minds after what you’ve heard.
Then listen. Don’t interrupt with quick reassurances or your own point of view. Listen for their ideas, opinions and beliefs. Ask them first if they want to hear the facts you know that might help them. Then be brief and to the point.
Here are a few pointers:
Follow your child’s lead at any age. Clearly the younger kids may find it harder in general to be specific when they try to articulate their fears and the older teens may or may not be more knowledgeable. Keep the bar on your expectations realistic and proceed without any judgments or criticisms about how they come across such as openly or irritably, angrily or with fear. Your empathy must be in top shape!
Some kids hide their questions and keep them under the rug, so to speak. Others are more forthright. This is true at all ages. That’s why the little slips and off handed comments are very telling. You can just mention what you heard them say and ask them if they might tell you more about these thoughts. Your aim is to encourage them to trust that you are sincerely interested in what’s on their minds. You can do this by encouraging them to elaborate on their thoughts and feelings without interrupting them with quick reassurances. Just listen first for as long as they go on. This is most assuredly a time for patience.
Direct questions need to be answered promptly, directly and briefly offering the positive ways to take care of themselves without getting overly preoccupied with what needs to be done. That is, offer sensible and reasonable ideas about hand washing, sanitizer fluids, what social distancing means, what the definition of pandemic is, and when and where to go outside.
Since you’ve already prepared yourself with the answers by taking the time to gather your own knowledge, it will be easier to answer direct questions calmly.
Even though your teens will be more articulate, probably though not necessarily, than younger kids they may have lots of misinformation. Again, without in any way sounding critical, offer what you know that may be the same or different from what they think or imagine. This will most likely lead to further thoughts and questions, and that is just what you want: an open discussion.
My approach to having an open dialogue with kids of all ages is called the Parental Intelligence Way which has five clear steps outlined in my book, “Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior” that if followed provides an organized always handy way to reach your destination: communication with your kids.
Here is a brief example of a mother and her daughter talking about the pandemic.
Illustration of Talking and Listening
The Parental Intelligence Way
Your usual lively eight-year-old is sitting at the kitchen table for half an hour staring at seemingly nothing. Let’s call her Lidia. She’s been home with school closed about two weeks. It’s morning. She hasn’t gotten dressed or eaten anything, though she’s generally a well-organized kid. It’s 9 AM, long past her usually morning routine when she was going to school. Distance learning has not yet begun by your school district.
Step One: Stepping Back
Pause, wait, don’t react impulsively, collect information. This is all the preparation you’ve been doing mentioned above.
Step Two: Self-Reflecting
Ask yourself where you’re coming from – Do your child’s worries remind you of those you had as a child? Help separate your past experiences from your kids’ present experiences.
Take counsel with yourself. You’re in your thirties and worried about your parents, although they are healthy, they are considered in the vulnerable population because they’re in their sixties. You don’t want your worry to affect helping Lidia with her worries, so you set that aside.
Step Three: Understanding Your Child’s Mind
Listen carefully to what your child presents as a problem by observing her behavior and listening to what she’s said beforehand, keeping in mind there may be much more underlying these specific behaviors or comments. That is, you want to be able to find meaning in your child’s behaviors that may not be clear at first. You and your child become MEANING MAKERS. Let’s return to Lidia and her mother.
Mother thinks it’s too much time with her saying nothing in response to observing Lidia who is quiet, so it’s time for her to initiate a talk
Mommy: “Lidia the way you’ve been sitting so long still in pjs I feel something’s on your mind. Can you tell me about it?”
Lidia: “It’s nothing.”
Mommy: “Nothing? Usually you’re dressed and have eaten breakfast by now. Tell me more. please, if you can.”
Lidia: “What’s the point? There’s no school, no friends, I think it’s called being quarantined but I don’t have a clue what that means.”
Mommy: “Okay. Got it. What do you know about the Corona Virus?”
Lidia: “It’s a pandemic.”
Mommy: “What does that mean?”
Lidia: “That everyone is going to get a bad virus like the flu and eventually die. I feel fine. You feel fine. Daddy feels fine. Online my friends and their parents feel fine. So, what’s the problem?”
Mommy: “Such good questions. Do you want me to explain what the virus is actually like and what pandemic means?”
Lidia: “Ok. What are the symptoms of the virus? How do I know if you or daddy or I have it? I’m an only child so talking to my friends on the phone is what I’ve tried. But they just sound confused.”
Mommy: “It’s basically like a flu. You cough, might feel uncomfortable in your chest, and sneeze like any virus. You can run a fever. There are tests to see if it’s the Corona Virus. Healthy people like us get over it just like the flu but it takes time.”
Lidia: ‘So, what’s the big deal? Why do we have to stay at home if we feel fine?”
Mommy: “A really good question. The problem with this particular virus is that it spreads rapidly from person to person, so by staying away from sick people you don’t get sick. That’s what’s been discovered in other parts of the world.”
Lidia: “The WORLD? Now you’ve got me scared.”
Mommy: “Fair enough. People in different countries got this virus before people in the United States. So, we’re lucky enough to learn from them. They’ve taught us that if we are quarantined, meaning stay at home or go outside and stay six feet apart it’s unlikely the virus will spread.”
Lidia: “Does pandemic, that awful word, mean it’s been around the world?”
Mommy: “You got it. So, we’re nice and safe at home maybe for a few months. That’s why the schools are closed.”
Lidia: “But I love school and all my activities, and you said everything is closed like gymnastics and art classes.”
Mommy: “Yes. So. no one who catches the virus coughs on you, and you get it. And then even though we’ll take good care of you, if you go to gymnastics, you could give it to another girl, and she could give it to her parents.”
Lidia: “I’m still afraid. Are you going to die and leave me all alone? They say online that older people are what they call vulnerable.”
Mommy: “Now I see why you’re so worried. Daddy and I are really not older people.”
Lidia: “What about grandma and grandpa?”
Mommy: “They are older, you’re right. But they are healthy, so really not in the risk category. But we can’t see them, so we don’t pass on any germs to them or them to us.”
Lidia: “So. they won’t die?”
Mommy: “No. I talk to them every day and they are fine and staying at home actually enjoying each other’s company. In fact, we can even video chat with them online.”
Lidia: “Okay. I feel less scared. You’re saying we just have to wait at home but don’t know how long.”
Mommy: “That’s exactly right. Famous doctors and scientist all over the world get together to figure out the best way to prevent people from getting it and taking care of those that do get it. So, in our family we’re just doing our part for us and the community. It’s how we care about each other safely.”
Lidia: “But I’m bored. But well, thanks. I’m not scared anymore.”
Step Four: Understanding Your Child’s Development
Know the difference for each child between their chronological age and their developmental age. Monitor your expectations that should be tailored to your specific child. Same age kids have wide ranging abilities. Find your kids pace.
Lidia’s mother knows developmentally Lidia is on track. She’s verbal, social, and doesn’t usually seem bored or anxious. With this is mind, she goes on.
Step Five: Problem Solving
Collaborate with your child in an open discussion once the actual problems and underlying problems are identified. Define mutually agreed upon solutions that can be flexible as they are tried.
Mommy: “We’ve solved other problems before.”
Lidia: “I know all about it. The Parental Intelligence Way. Like when we solved the way kids were bullying me—those awful gossipy girls.”
Mommy: “Exactly. So, we need a plan for your routine each day just like you had one when you were going to school. What ideas do you have?”
Lidia: “I guess I should wash and get dressed. Then find stuff to do. That’s where I’m stuck now.”
Mommy: “I’ll give you some ideas, but I care a lot about what you think of them. I think you should talk to friends everyday online or on the phone or video chats or you’ll miss them, and they’ll miss you.
I think we should also make a list of your interests and figure out how to do them at home.”
Lidia: “Okay. I like talking to friends. Good one. Can we download a video about gymnastics and do it?”
Mommy: “Definitely good idea. Can I try and do it with you? You have so much to teach me about exercise.”
Lidia: “Really? You want to? I know you come and watch me at gymnastics, but this would be so much fun.”
Mommy: “Okay. After you get dressed, shower, and eat we’ll find one to download.”
Lidia: “I’m kind of sick of talking now. I’m going up to take a shower.”
Mommy: “Great talking to you. Remember any more questions, just ask away.”
Lidia: “I’m going upstairs. Would you make me breakfast?”
It is evident from this dialogue that Lidia has appreciably calmed down because she even gets “sick” of talking, a good sign she feels comfortable with what she’s learned.
Together mother and daughter have talked and listened to each other with respect, consideration for feelings that arise, and most importantly, of course, with love.
Their relationship has grown as a result of this conversation that will undoubtedly be needed again and again as Lidia has new thoughts and doubts that arise again.
Consider carefully the degree to which kids of all ages watch the news that has conflicting and frightening information. It is the parent’s role to give accurate information.
Furthermore, many schools have already begun distance learning, so kids are given a daily routine of schoolwork and assignments during the day. Some parents question if the kids are being given too much or too little work. The key to this issue is to take this opportunity to help kids see learning is for its own sake, not grades and tests. If you have or haven’t done this before—now is a great time to discuss what your kids are learning and learn about that content yourself, so you can enjoy learning together. Again, this is where listening without judgment or criticism comes in. Learning is pleasurable. If it’s not, figure out with your child why it isn’t. That’s a great problem to solve The Parental Intelligence Way!