Here are 4 things every caregiver should do when talking to kids about the “new normal.”
It seems like an eternity since America reported its first COVID-19 case in January. This year has been heartbreaking and stressful, especially for children who can’t fully comprehend what’s happening. With the right tools, parents and caregivers can navigate kids through the “new normal” we’re living in.
The case for kids
Kids have made up a relatively low percentage of COVID-19 cases—and in general, COVID-19 infections in kids have been less serious than in adults.
“Physically, children seem to be largely spared,” says Dr. Abigail Gewirtz, the director of the Institute for Translational Research in Children’s Mental Health and author of When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents and Worried Kids. “But research suggests the pandemic has had a significant impact on their mental health.”
Rates of anxiety and depression in children have been increasing for years, and she warns that against that backdrop, the stress of the pandemic is exacerbated.
Talking with little ones
Checking in with your kids about how they’re feeling helps you to better support each child’s unique experiences.
Unfortunately, many parents feel unequipped to talk about the pandemic. If that’s you, try these steps.
- Deal with yourself first
“For many children, the panic and fear has been magnified by the reaction of parents,” says Jo Frost, a best-selling parenting expert and the star of the hit TV show Supernanny.
Gewirtz agrees. “You need to put your own stuff aside if you want to truly help your kids,” she explains. For instance, she says many parents feel guilty that their kids are feeling lonely, so parents might toss out the bedtime routine or let their kids indulge in junk food. “Ironically, it’s exactly during these chaotic times that kids desire structure and routine,” she warns. “So even though our own guilt may make us say we should let go of the rules a bit and relax, that’s not what kids need.
“Figure out how COVID-19 is affecting you, and do some self-care,” she adds. “Deal with your own stuff separately so when you sit down with your kids to listen to their worries, you’re truly listening to their worries.”
- Plan ahead
“If your child is asking questions about COVID-19, think about what level of detail you’re willing to share with them,” advises Gewirtz.
Every child is different, varying in what they might be able to handle, yet every kid has a right to know what’s happening in their world. Stick to the facts, be honest if there are things you don’t know, and always use age- appropriate language.
A big thing to discuss is your child’s understanding of the changing rules as society reopens. “With [reopening] phases happening at different times, parents need to listen to the details and communicate clear directions about what those next steps are and why,” says Frost.
Frost suggests a mindset of “One day, but for now … ” is worth embracing. (For example, you might say, “One day we’ll go on a big family trip, but for now, we’re vacationing closer to home.”)
She says this gives your child hope, but it also helps them to follow whatever the current safety guidelines might be in your community.
- Provide reassurance
Children have a difficult time separating what they hear or see from what’s happening in their personal lives. So it’s important to understand what’s worrying them and then reassure them by giving them specific instructions on how to stay safe and be part of the solution.
“Let’s say your five-year-old heard that his friend’s grandma died in a nursing home,” says Gewirtz. Obviously, you wouldn’t talk about the dire circumstances in some nursing homes. “You might tell him, ‘There’s an illness that affects older people. For now, your own grandma is safe, and I’m going to keep it that way, which is why we aren’t going to visit her for now.’”
You want your kids to be informed and avoid infection, of course. But it can all be phrased in a way that’s factual and positive without offering false hope. Another good example is explaining to a toddler that people can get sick when someone coughs, so it’s important to practice coughing into her elbow.
“Have the discussion about what they’re worried about,” says Gewirtz. “But also invite them to brainstorm ideas to make it better.”
- Stay positive
These are difficult times, but your own positivity and proactive planning help children feel safe, supported, and hopeful.
“Because none of us have an ‘end date’ for this pandemic, it has made many feel out of control,” says Frost. “The less you resist, the easier you adapt.”
She adds, “Look at the glass half full. Be in gratitude for what we have today. Become more mindful.” For example, the “new normal” has given many families more opportunities to connect together over mealtimes or activities.
The most important thing to remember is that no matter what today looks like, if you’ve done your best to keep your family healthy and safe, you’ve done what you need to do.
“You’re teaching your children strength and resilience and what courage looks like, because in the face of fear, you keep moving forward,” says Frost. “I salute you on behalf of every child.”