In the face of the spreading Corona Virus, our children’s lives have abruptly changed: no school, no daycare, no play dates, no birthday parties, with the 24- hour news cycle offering scary sounding information in the background. How do we explain what is happening while making them feel safe? As a clinician who has worked with children for the past thirty years, I find that certain basic tenets can be applied to these unusual circumstances.
The most important thing children need from us right now is to feel that their fears are being addressed and that they are reassured. To do that, we have to be alert for signs of anxiety and listen openly to what they are asking. We then have to make sure that we are calm ourselves (despite our own inner fears about this virus), and that we answer questions honestly, while only providing succinct information that relates to their questions and is appropriate for their developmental stage.
Young children should be told that the Corona Virus is kind of like a bad cold or flu. They can be reassured that children hardly ever get very sick, and most all of grownups also get better. We should explain that there are all kinds of amazing helpers, including doctors, nurses, and scientists that take care of people when they are sick and are working hard to invent new medicines that fight this illness.
For older children, our role is to help clarify information that they may be getting from social media. We need to stay open to their questions, and not be afraid to say “I don’t know”. Then, together we can seek out answers from reputable sources, and stay open to follow-up questions and concerns.
All children need to feel empowered when facing something frightening. For young kids, emphasizing that by frequently washing their hands (while singing the happy birthday song twice), and making sure to sneeze/cough into their elbow or a tissue (and throwing the tissue away and then washing hands), they are doing an important “germ buster” job that helps keep everyone healthy. Likewise, by not seeing friends right now, everyone is joining together in keeping the germs from getting spread.
We also know that children process their feelings through play. By encouraging them to pretend to be germ-fighting super heroes, or to cast a spell over those germs, you are helping them master their fears instead of feeling helpless.
Giving that sense of empowerment to older children requires a different approach. They are going to feel sadness, even grief over missing sports events, proms, performances, etc. and will thus need our complete understanding, as well as encouragement to keep in touch with their friends virtually. But they should also be reminded that the more we do now as members of our community to shorten this pandemic, the sooner they’ll be able resume their activities.
Finally, we know that creating a sense of structure at home is reassuring to children of all ages. By maintaining a routine with meals, schoolwork, staying in touch with family and friends, and bedtimes, you are helping your children feel safer, even in the face of these chaotic events.
Terry L. Becker, L.M.S.W. is the Director of Children Services at the Ossining Children’s Center