In just weeks, our lives have changed substantially.
Children and teens who were midway through the school year suddenly find themselves planted indefinitely at home — along with their family.
Compared to adults, kids have fewer coping skills and experiences to draw upon to help them adapt to these unexpected changes. They need adult guidance and support to understand what is happening, and they need reassurance that things are not spinning out of control.
There are some simple guidelines to follow when communicating with children in times of crisis.
1. Don’t avoid questions or discussion.
Arrange quiet time to discuss the situation. Without clear information, children may draw wrong conclusions or imagine outcomes that are far worse than reality.
Encourage children to talk about their emotions if they are able. Children who cannot directly express feelings may be able to share how they imagine a stuffed animal or doll feels when confined or when it — or loved ones — get sick.
Be alert for signs from your child that might indicate they are concerned. Some children may express these questions or worries directly; others may demonstrate their anxiety by withdrawal or by moodiness or anger.
2. Listen without judgment.
Children are very sensitive to the way adults respond to them. Treat their concerns seriously, even if to an adult they seem minor or if they are expressed at an inconvenient moment.
Be patient and give them time to think through and verbalize their thoughts — this is a skill they are learning to master. Validate their emotions as normal and understandable and praise them for having the courage to speak up. Encouraging them to talk and validating their feelings will both comfort them and will make it more likely that they will seek your support again when needed.
3. Consider their developmental level.
Answer questions truthfully but in a way that your child is emotionally and mentally prepared to handle. Kids of different ages will likely have different concerns.
Younger children don’t need and will likely only be frightened by details of infectious disease and suffering. Most school-aged children will have had illnesses before and will have some awareness that people can “catch” colds and sickness from others. Those past experiences can be used to help children understand the present situation.
Teens may have tougher questions as they will likely have seen information online or on television about the pandemic. They may have more anxiety about COVID-19 illness and the risk to loved ones.
Teenagers may have more difficulty with the social separation from friends and/or romantic interests. Some may be worried by being out of school and many will be upset or angry about missing significant life events such as prom and graduation ceremonies. They may struggle more with the restrictions imposed on going out to meet others.
While older teens may appear more adult, they often lack long-term thinking and planning skills. Consequently, they may minimize the danger or risk to themselves and may not consider that violating pandemic restrictions could endanger loved ones.
4. Stay positive.
When discussing COVID-19 with kids, remain calm and present the information in as positive a fashion as possible. Focusing on rising rates of infection or death counts will not be helpful and will only raise everyone’s anxiety.
Be clear with them that this situation is not permanent and that it will improve and resolve. Reassure them that everyone is working hard to keep them — and their loved ones — safe.
For teens, discuss why social distancing matters and that their sacrifices now will help keep those they love and those in the community from getting ill. Acknowledge that unexpected changes in plans can be frustrating or disappointing and talk about ways to cope.
Be certain to praise children and teens for the efforts they make — even for things they are always expected to do. We all like to be noticed and appreciated.
If you or your child are struggling emotionally during this time, help is available. Willowbrooke at Tanner professionals can be reached by calling 770-812-3266. For additional resources, visit tanner.org/hotlinesandresources.