When we think of childhood, most of us want to think about playing games, spontaneous laughter, scribbling with sidewalk chalk, or playing on the swing set.
But in today’s world, things aren’t always sunshine and joy. Sometimes life is challenging even for a child. Maybe it’s something small like fighting with a sibling or losing a favorite toy. But sometimes it’s something bigger, like a worldwide health concern.
As parents, we want to protect our children from the ugliness in this world, and while it’s tempting to do just that, it wouldn’t be wise. Truth is that kids will experience sadness. They will feel frustrated and stressed. They will get angry. Why? Because it’s part of living. Life is not going to be perfect year-round—and that’s simply fact.
During these troubling times, children will hear unsettling conversations tied to the coronavirus regardless of our efforts to prevent it from occurring. Kids may feel worried about the impact on themselves, their friends, and their families should someone close develop the disease. There are steps we as parents and adults can take to help children make sense of it all in a way that is honest, precise, and yet still minimizes anxiety or fear.
So where do we begin?
Start by talking about feelings. Stay calm and reassuring because a child will react both to what you say and how you say it. Ask open ended questions like, “How did you feel when schools were closed, and you had to stay home?” Remember to make yourself available to listen and talk as it may take some time before a young individual will find their voice and ask questions.
Too much time watching television is never good, but now more than ever, limit a child’s exposure to television, radio, and online surfing to prevent overwhelming them with what might be frightening information. Instead, talk with your children about coronavirus truthfully and in age-appropriate language they can understand.
Make it a priority to teach children everyday tasks aimed at reducing the spread of germs. Remind them to stay away from anyone who is sick and to cough or sneeze into a tissue or their elbow and dispose of used tissues in appropriate trash containers. Motivate young people to wash their hands frequently. The best way to clean your hands is to wash with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds, especially after blowing their nose, coughing, or sneezing, going to the restroom, and most definitely prior to meal preparation. If they are in a situation where soap and water are not readily available, teach them of the importance of using hand sanitizer. Supervise young children when using hand sanitizer to prevent swallowing alcohol as most contain at least 60% alcohol for sterilization purposes.
This is a trying time for all of us as we navigate this health crisis together. As adults and parents, we can empower our youth by modeling healthy coping skills. With love and support, our children can develop the coping skills needed to handle the tough times that life hands out.
Debbie A. Heaton is a licensed, master’s level therapist.