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Dealing with the Facts and Fears during Times of Uncertainty: How to speak with your children to help calm their worries and fears during the COVID-19 crisis

March 31, 2020

When circumstances are uncertain and unknown, they naturally create anxiety and stress. When situations are changing significantly and dramatically with schools and businesses closing and social distancing becoming the new norm, fear and anxiety may set in. When our life goes off course as new rules and regulations are being put into effect, robbing us of what we used to feel was secure and familiar footing, how do we manage these new realities in the interest of our children’s mental health and well-being and also our own? 

As a clinical psychologist, educator and parent who has worked with thousands of parents and their children over the past 30 years, I have found these 4 principles can help us feel more in control and empowered when our own and our children’s safety and security seem to be at risk, particularly during a time of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. 

1.     Be Aware… This means being aware not only of your children’s emotions but also of your own emotions. Why?  Children develop in the context of a relationship – they learn from their interactions, through their experiences and observations, and how you as the most important adult in their life guide and respond to them.  When you are worried, anxious, afraid, sad or mad, children pick up and cue into what you are feeling like detectives, and because emotion is a child’s first language, they are experts at picking up your emotions, and at times much better than you. 

2.     Listen, Nurture, Support.  Listen to what your child is saying and not saying. Most often children express their feelings in action – when worried, anxious or afraid they may cling to you, withdraw, resort to tears or end up with a tummy ache or at times unable to fall or stay asleep. Help your child re-channel what gets so naturally expressed in action with words by saying ‘I can see that you’re worried or afraid when you cling to me or break down into tears. You can tell me you’re worried or scared by using your words and then I can help you to solve the problem when I know what you’re feeling.’ Or when angry they may scream, stomp their feet, throw, hit or bite. Help your child identify and label their emotion by responding with ‘I can see and hear that you’re angry when you scream or stomp your feet. You can tell me you’re angry or mad with your words and then I can help you.’ Helping your child express their emotions in constructive ways helps them to connect the dots with emotion and behavior providing them with information and knowledge. The more knowledgeable we all become the more in control we feel and act.

3.     Understand, Encourage Conversation and Reassure. What may be causing your child to react with worry or fear? Did they overhear a conversation you are having with a friend or information from an older sibling? Were they privy to news reporting on TV?  All of these can provoke anxiety and fear. Seeing people walking around with masks or their schools and stores close can be destabilizing too. Parents working from home and remote conversations on the phone or a laptop instead of in-person visits with family members also can be difficult to digest and process. But asking children what is making them feel afraid or worried provides you an opportunity to connect the cause of their worries to their behavior while also giving you the opportunity to reassuringly respond.  ‘I understand that having all these changes and new rules with your school closed and not being able to be with all your friends or seeing people walking around with masks can be confusing and scary and you’re not liking any of it! But the reason for this right now is to help people stay safe and well. Like mommy and daddy do with you to keep you safe and well by some of the rules we have - like no running out in the street or jumping on the couch, and needing to eat healthy foods to help keep you strong and feeling well!’ Talking about the heroic people who are helping to make these new rules to keep us safe and well during these uncertain times will provide them with a sense of comfort by explaining ‘All these new and different rules being made right now are by the courageous leaders who help all of us like the Dr’s, Nurses, Policeman, Fireman, Soldiers, Mayor and Governor whose job is to make sure we all stay safe and healthy – like mommy or daddy’s job is to do with you!’  We need to lead by example in following the rules to make sure our children are doing what they need to do to stay safe and stay healthy. Children learn through our direction, modeling, guidance and how we respond to them. They feel safe when the adults can listen, understand their feelings and reassure them of their safety – all being responded to in age-appropriate ways.

4.     Establish Routine, Regulation and Responsibility.  Routines offer consistency and provide a sense of security and predictability.  When so much around us is now different and changing, it can create a feeling of not being in control. Keeping children’s regular bedtime, mealtime, snack time, playing and learning schedules consistent is important to help promote the feeling of being safe and in control. Helping children feel and be more in control requires the adult to support children’s development of self-regulation –their ability to regulate their emotions, behavior and thinking. Ways to help them regulate involve helping them to manage and deal constructively and effectively with their own intense emotions and those of others. Being able to say ‘I know this might feel scary or leave you worried but you can tell me about your feelings both big and small and I can help you with them. You can first take some deep breaths and then we can think of ideas together to solve the problem and feel better.’ When children are given the opportunity to become part of the solution it provides them with a sense of pride, responsibility and empowerment – all important during times of fear and uncertainty and for promoting a secure and strong sense of self.

Helpful Tips to Know and Remember:

Both your child and you are feeling these emotions and the need to adjust to the changes and uncertainties of daily life. Making room for your own needs is as important as being there for your child – engaging in together time and separate and alone time; being aware of your own emotions and engaging in activities that reduce stress such as exercise, mindfulness, reading, prayer and getting enough rest will help you to deal more effectively with focus and calmness and therefore provide your child with the modeling they need to better deal with their own worries and fears. Children learn from not only what we say, but also by watching what we do. It’s important to keep our words and our actions consistent.

Also know that social distance does not mean social isolation. Social distance is more about physical distance. Children need quality time with the primary adults in their world. Emotional connectedness is as important for children as it is for adult’s mental health. Creative ways of staying socially connected can be through digital means like online video chats, writing letters or drawing pictures, phone calls and or facetime visits.

Remember, when we all follow the necessary rules and regulations that are being required of us in dealing responsibly with the uncertainty and realities of what we’re facing, then together and only together will we fight one of the hardest battles of all time and win, eventually returning to living our lives with a new kind of appreciation and respect for life and one another. 

And lastly, whenever possible remember to smile – it can be wonderful medicine not only for your child but for you too!  

Dr. Donna Housman is a clinical psychologist and CEO of Housman Institute, a training, research and advocacy early childhood organization. Founder of Beginnings School and Child Development Center.

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