What Parents Should Be Mindful Of When Talking To Kids About The Pandemic

Mar 20, 2020

Most Pennsylvania kids will be home for at least another week to help reduce the spread of coronavirus. New routines and new expectations could lead to a lot of questions and anxieties.

Experts say it’s best for parents and guardians to be as honest as possible with kids when talking about the coronavirus: why they’re not in school and why they can’t do all of the things they’re used to doing.

Mt. Lebanon Superintendent Tim Steinhauer is broadcasting daily updates to give families any new information about school closure. He’s also using the time to practice meditative breathing exercises to ease their anxieties.

“We need to model calm, courageous action so they know there are a lot of adults working real hard to make sure they’re safe,” he said.

Recently he told the roughly 1,000 viewers to make sure they’re taking care of themselves during times of uncertainty by eating healthy foods and spending time – safely – outside.

Young children

Experts say the best way to manage stress and anxiety in children is to create routine and some sense of normalcy.

“Kids feel safe or when there is a structure and it'll give them a sense of purpose,” said Daniel Shaw a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and director of Pitt’s Center for Parents and Children. “(Telling them) this is what we do in the morning now. It's different than when you went to preschool, but this is how well we'll do it at home.”

Pamela Parks, the principal of Lincoln Elementary in Pittsburgh, is also leading kids in breathing exercises. She posted a YouTube video of her reading a book Wednesday to create a sense of normalcy for her kids.

“They can see my face, I’d love to see if they comment on anything,” she said in the video.

The big message to get across is safety. Avoid promising that everything will be OK, but say adults are working to make sure they are safe. Explain the virus in simple terms: it’s like a bad cold but very easy to get. That’s why it’s important to follow new rules and why it’s important to stay home.

Shaw said rather than giving children a lecture, ask them if they are anxious or scared.

“I would try to tailor that conversation to their specific needs and worries before going on a rant or something about ‘let me tell you what's going to happen,'” he said.

Adolescents

It’s also OK to say when you don’t have answers. That’s especially true for older kids.

Adolescents and teenagers are missing out on a lot of social time they’re used to. Important events in their lives like proms, athletics, and musicals could be cancelled and ceremonies to celebrate their achievements could be postponed.  

“Acknowledge that this really sucks and just listen to their worries and ask ‘what’s the worst thing about this for you?’” Shaw said. “It's a loss. It's not death, but to high school kids, it might feel like that, depending how much investment they had in this.”

Teenagers are probably also consuming a lot of media right now. Dr. Tony Mannarino, the vice chair of psychiatry at Allegheny Health Network and director for the Center for Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents, said to consider limiting devices or turn them off at a certain time.

“All of that information coming in at such a rapid pace just really kind of puts our brain in high alert and that that things going on are going to spiral out of control and that's going to really exacerbate children's anxiety,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control also recommends avoiding language that “might blame others and lead to stigma.”

Parents

Most importantly and potentially most challenging, Mannarino said parents need to take care of themselves.

“Parents need to have some time, if possible, to engage in those sort of self-care activities that are good for them, whether it's exercise or reading or yoga or whatever the case might be,” he said.

That can be hard for everyone, especially single parents. But he said it is essential that parents and guardians take a few minutes to themselves.

“Children pick up on their parents’ anxieties,” he said.