Rachel Mitchell is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at The Centre for Youth Bipolar Disorder at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.
Gili Adler Nevo is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, head of the Child Anxiety Clinic at Michael Garron Hospital and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.
These are trying times. We are not accustomed to threats that can cross borders, race and class. Threats that can bring day-to-day life to a standstill, transform regular stressors to mundane and force us to face our mortality. Celebrities, NBA players, world leaders – no one is immune. And the threat is invisible.
These characteristics – novelty, uncertainty and psychological contagion – are natural substrates for anxiety and a lot to grapple with. So it comes as no surprise that we are tentative about broaching the topic of COVID-19 with our children.
But any hardship is also an opportunity, and the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to build resilience and get closer to the people we love.
How? By talking openly with our children about it. Anxiety is adaptive. It can invoke vigilance and protection from danger and mobilize us to effect change. Most importantly, it can enable emotional connections between those with common vulnerabilities and lead to personal growth. Of course, when excessive, it can also be maladaptive and paralyzing.
So, how do we strike that balance when talking to our children about COVID-19?
Manage your own anxiety
Airline pre-flight safety briefings recommend that parents first place the oxygen mask on themselves, take a breath and then place a mask on their child. This is not different – you cannot be helpful to your child when stressed. Children do as we do, not as we say. If you model calm, children are more likely to be calm. That is not to say you cannot show fear. In fact, demonstrating to a child that you can cope with worry is just as helpful as staying calm in the first place because it can help build resilience and let them know it’s okay to be worried.
Meet your child right where they’re at
Start by listening and asking – let your child lead the way and reveal what they need to know; it will be different for every child and every developmental stage, and kids may even find the pandemic fun and exciting. It isn’t necessary to provide answers beyond what your child is looking for. Know your facts, be age-appropriate, use familiar language and administer only at a “dose” they can manage.
Always be truthful
The instinct to protect children from the truths of COVID-19 is inherent to being a parent, but children are astute, and they will know when you are holding back. A runaway imagination, one that children need to cope with on their own, is usually much worse than the truth. Helping them work through the information, including uncertainties, is a far more productive use of emotional energy than keeping it from them (again, this does not mean giving all information – picking and choosing is a parent’s prerogative). Avoiding the truth perpetuates anxiety, whereas facing the truth and coping decreases it.
Provide a sense of control
We all like to feel in control. Children are no exception. It is useful to emphasize what children can do to mitigate risk. For example, even simple actions, like washing hands regularly, can give children a sense of agency. Emphasize that if everyone makes small changes – like coughing/sneezing into tissues or their elbow, and not touching their face – it can have a large impact, collectively.
When to seek professional help
Although anxiety is normal, when excessive distress or deterioration in functioning occurs in your children (e.g., not leaving their room, not eating, not sleeping, not communicating, not comforted by parents or constantly seeking reassurance), it’s time to seek professional help. The best place to start is reaching out to your family doctor or pediatrician.
Make the best of the new normal
Life is going to be different for a while. It’s important to stick to some aspects of routine, but it’s also an opportunity to make new ones. Take this time to create memories. We spend the vast majority of our lives either planning or “trying to get through." This is an opportunity to spend time with your children doing what they like to do, and yes – have fun!
Parents aren’t expected to have all the answers or to know exactly what to do, but that doesn’t mean our actions aren’t important. We can be a comforting, stable, sensible and responsible support for our children, and count on them to help show us how to do the rest.
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