In these unprecedented times, parents may understandably feel unsure about how much to tell their children. Key is tailoring conversations to the individual child’s developmental (emotional and cognitive) age, which is not necessarily their chronological (number) age.
For little ones:
For toddlers to young primary age, explain that there is a bug that is making people poorly, but most people get better soon. It is tiny and likes to travel on people and things. So, to stop it from making people poorly we all need to help to stop it travelling. This means we can’t go to school for a while, to places where there are lots of people, or to see other family/friends. Explain that their family will help look after them and that they can help by washing their hands. They may even enjoy a song to sing alongside handwashing to make it playful. You may notice little ones processing the situation creatively through their imaginative play, art and singing, this is completely normal and how they make sense of experiences. Their worries tend to focus around safety and health of family/friends, so try to give lots of reassurance and keep routines such as bedtime as normal as possible.
For children up to around 12 year olds:
One creative way of explaining to film/novel/comic fans is Steven Hayes’ idea (creator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). Ask them to imagine their life right now is a movie/novel. It is a story about an ‘ordinary hero’. In this story, the fate of the world depends on the moment by moment choices they make. ‘Ordinary heroes’ stay home, stay in touch with family/friends remotely and wash their hands to protect themselves and others. Heroes don’t try to get rid of fear as that only makes things worse. Instead heroes face challenges head on. Create a narrative your child can engage with depending on their interests.
Consider that they may well have already talked to friends and teachers, so rather than an explanation, they could have specific worries about health, schooling, routine and safety. Some might appear not to care and may be hiding their concerns, and others may use jokes to cope. Acknowledge worries and help answer questions they have factually. Explain what they need to do: wash their hands, keep things clean, and make schedules for their day. Encourage regular breaks from the media and taking facts from reliable sources. Some teenager’s anxiety levels may increase significantly; if they are struggling to cope, speak to a mental health professional for more specific support.
Top tips for parents
- Be mindful of your own anxiety about coronavirus and the impact this is having on you and your family. Try to have these discussions with other adults not your children.
- Be aware of having the news on too often; young ones soak up the environment around them. The same goes for social media.
- Expect a period of adjustment as everyone adapts to changes to routine and strong feelings about having to stop activities they usually enjoy.
- Distraction with a pleasurable (play) or productive (learning/achievement) is an excellent short-term strategy for all age groups.
- Remember to boost your ability to cope: prioritise sleep, exercise, get outside where possible and eat well. Try mindfulness to help calm you if you find it helpful.
Dr Laura Keyes is a clinical psychologist based in Bedfordshire, working with young people and adults with a range of mental health difficulties. www.drlaurakeyes.com