As the COVID-19 virus continues to spread throughout the United States, children are likely to see or hear news about the pandemic and the loss of life. They might not understand all the details, but they are aware that a big, scary thing is happening. If you are a parent or are caring for a child, there are steps you can take to guide them through this crisis.
That guidance starts with acknowledging your child’s feelings about this rapidly changing world, in which children are experiencing their own fair share of loss. Their school communities are no longer available, which can cause a lot of sadness, anger and frustration. Their routines have been disrupted, which can lead to anxiety and uncertainty. As parents work from home, children may see their parents’ job-related stress and experience loneliness. High schoolers are missing important rites of passage such as prom, graduation, plays and sporting events.
These aren’t pleasant feelings, but it’s important for children to be able to feel all of them. As Mr. Rogers said, “Feelings are mentionable and manageable.” Many children will have a difficult time expressing their emotions appropriately, but letting kids know that, “it’s OK to be sad, mad or worried,” gives them space to express what needs to be expressed. At the same time, we can put limits on a child’s behavior when feelings are expressed in inappropriate ways. For example, “It’s OK to be mad about missing your friends, but it is not OK to yell at your family.”
Part of helping children manage these feelings is modeling good stress management by tending to your own mental health. This doesn’t mean you have to pretend that everything is OK. It’s helpful for children to see behind the curtain right now. Children should know that this is hard for you, too, but that you are working to stay healthy and happy despite it all. Tell them about what is helping you, such as meditation, breathing techniques, walks or movies, and encourage them to share what makes them feel better when things feel hard for them.
Teaching and modeling good stress management is always important in times like these, but it is perhaps most important when talking about death. As the death count rises in the U.S., try to avoid euphemisms when discussing a death with a child. Saying that a deceased family member “went to sleep” may provoke fears of sleeping at bedtime or nap time. Saying that “we lost” a family member may prompt fears of getting lost in public or wanting to search for the deceased person. A more accurate way to explain death of a loved one would be to say, “They are no longer alive. Their body will not work anymore, and they will not come back.” Acknowledging the feelings that the death of a loved one can bring up is always better than avoiding them. Give your child empathy, but avoid unclear language.
Still, not everything has to be doom and gloom. There is much to be worried and unhappy about right now, but we can help our children a great deal by maintaining positivity. One way to show the positive is to point out how much helping is happening. As Mr. Rogers said, “Look for the helpers.” We are all helpers right now by staying home and washing our hands. Doctors, nurses and scientists are working hard right now to help us stay safe. Organizations around the country are banding together to get food and shelter to those in need. Children need to feel hope and happiness to keep their brain developing in productive ways, and laughter, compliments, games and dance parties are vital right now to keep children’s spirits up.
We have a responsibility to help our children get through this crisis mentally as well as physically. In a world where everything can be a source of stress — including children themselves — it is more important than ever to ensure not only that our children are happy and healthy, but that we as parents and guardians are dealing properly with our own stresses. As you do your best to see your family through this difficult time, remember that when it comes to your child’s mental well-being, you can have a bigger impact than you might think.
Colleen Colaner is an associate professor in the Department of Communication in the College of Arts and Science at MU.