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How To Talk To Your Kids About Coronavirus


April 22, 2020
Categories: Health

As news of growing coronavirus cases and death tolls dominate headlines, it can be hard enough to manage your own feelings, let alone those of your children. As a parent in a particularly unpredictable time, it’s natural to be concerned for the health and well being of others.

Having conversations about coronavirus with your children is not only important, it’s also recommended. But amid unprecedented circumstances where parents are also trying to balance “work from home” and remote learning, among other things – it’s okay to not be perfect.

“Don’t hold yourself to perfection,” said Dr. Claudia Zegans, a general pediatrician with nearly 30 years of experience and medical director at Elite Medical Group.

Be Alert To Anxiety

Children will express anxiety in a variety of ways depending on a number of factors like, age, developmental stage and their relationship with you.

“Smaller children might show a change in behavior. They might become irritable, they might be clingy, they might be quieter than usual or they might act out,” Zegans said.

For Zegans, it can be hard to predict. Small children might not have the words to express how they are feeling, but even some older children who may have the words still have trouble expressing themselves and may simply run to their room and slam the door.

Teenagers may be easier to read, as you might physically see signs of anxiety in their face or hear it in the way they are talking and their tone of voice.

“It's okay if your child is showing a change in behavior and you don't know quite what's going on. It's also okay for you to initiate the conversation with your child,” Zegans said. “Bringing something up does not make it worse. Bringing something up allows it to air.”

Even in the midst of a pandemic, there are ways to seek face to face help. Consider a telehealth visit, which Zegans points out as the perfect opportunity to avoid coming into the office when you don't want yourself or your children to be exposed to coronavirus or other infectious diseases.

“You have the opportunity to both see the parent and the child in their home environment or whatever environment the parent wants to bring you into and it gives you the opportunity to talk to both the parent and the child, real-time, in the same way that you would in the office,” Zegans said.

Control What’s Controllable

As parents, it’s perfectly natural to feel a little out of control in the midst of an unpredictable situation. Instead of focusing on feeling out of control, Zegans notes it’s important to focus on the areas where you do have control.

“I think hygiene and infection control are things that are really useful for both parents and kids,” Zegans said.

Zegans points to the popular “be a germ buster” campaign often used to teach young children about the importance of hand washing.

“Teaching them these practices and other good hygiene is giving them a piece where they can have some control and some power in helping the situation,” Zegans said.

Zegans also notes that social distancing is a form of hygiene. You might want to explore ways to make the term a little more tangible for young children. Consider playing a gentle game of tag with a pool noodle or a soft object that’s approximately six feet long to help your child learn.

Games are a great way to practice modeling, which Zegans notes is more effective than really any kind of education that you are giving to them.

“If they see you practicing good hygiene, social distancing, staying at home, wearing a mask, following the guidelines from our leaders, scientists and physicians, they will be more likely to not only go along with it but feel comfortable doing it,” Zegans said. “Feeling like they are actually doing something to help can calm them during this time of unpredictability.”

Emphasize Limits

In today’s climate, access to information is widely available, not only online and on television but also through communication with friends and family. If your children are out of school and at home, it’s important to filter information.

To do this, Zegans suggests thinking about it in terms of developmental stages, while also keeping in mind that you know your child best.

“In general, you're going to want to try to avoid children seeing frightening images or hearing discussions where people are frightened, such as graphic or dramatic explanations or descriptions of illness or death,” Zegans said.

For school aged children and younger children, it's even more important now to be aware of what they are seeing on the screen and what access they have to things online.

As kids move into high school and teenage years, they’ll naturally have more access to being online. If you can’t filter the information they’re seeing, you’ll want to make sure you’re aware of what they are seeing. Make an effort to be present when they are online and limit the amount of time they spend unattended with their devices.

“Although as a parent, I will tell you that this is a rule that is virtually impossible to follow. It's very tough for them not to take their phone into their room,” Zegans said.

In addition to setting limits with your children, also take into account your own habits that might expose your children to information. You might not even notice some of these habits, like listening to the radio while working from home or cooking with the television on.

Embrace Communication

The good part about a lot of families being home, is that you’re all home. While it can also cause stress, it can also create more opportunities for casual interactions and organic conversations.

“Families will address these issues in a variety of ways. Every family is different and every kid is different,” Zegans said. “Some families like to have a set time where they come together and talk about what each person is experiencing.”

Family dinners and short car rides are also good times for organic conversation, especially with college-age kids, who will be receptive to more direct questions and can often take the lead.

“College students and above are going to be able to have a mature conversation. You don't have to wait for them to receive information, you can be proactive,” Zegans said.

Let Yourself Off The Hook

As a parent, approach conversations with your kids by first giving yourself permission to not be perfect and then a little compassion.

For Zegans, it’s easy to begin these conversations by making sure you’re calm and in a comfortable place to talk, with ample time for discussion. The truth is, that’s not always possible.

“As much as possible for yourself, try to be sure you're honest in your presentation with your children, that you can be calm, that you feel like you can think things through and not be reactionary,” Zegans said. “Those are all things that are hard to do but they are good to think about.”

Once you’ve calmed your own mind, Zegans has similar advice for the type of tone to take with your children – and even more importantly, tips for what to do if you don’t nail it on the first try. You can’t always control how you react when you’re in the middle of a conversation, but there are things you can fall back on.

“When I feel myself starting to get reactionary, I fall back on ‘get curious’ and rather than coming out with any kind of emphatic statement, I will say, ‘well that's interesting, tell me more about that.’”

The simple question flips the conversation and gets your child talking, while allowing you to regain your footing and collect your thoughts.

“It's easy for people to say you want to keep a calm tone, you want to be sincere, you want to be supportive in your tone, try not to be emotional – and all of those things are true, but what that doesn't address is that we are all human,” Zegans said. “Your child might say something that's going to make you cry. That's not a bad thing.”

Instead of striving for perfection in your tone, strive for honesty.

The bottom line is that talking to your kids about coronavirus really isn’t that much different than talking about any of the myriad of things that come up in life that might create uncomfortable, difficult or emotional feelings. You know your family best and you know yourself best, so have confidence that however the conversation goes, you are steering it in the way that is best for all of you in that moment.


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