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Tips to Help Kids Adjust to ‘New Normal’ of COVID-19 Pandemic

(Photo Credit: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)
All Virginia schools will be closed for the remainder of the academic school year. (Photo Credit: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Parents are spending a lot more time at home with their kids these days than they normally do. And they also may be wondering how best to talk about COVID-19 with them. Megan Pauly spoke with licensed mental health professional Bob Nickles from Richmond non-profit Child Savers about that.

One thing you tell parents is to focus on what they can control when helping kids with this new normal. What are some examples of things that you think parents can talk about that are under their control?

 I think parents that I know are feeling really powerless right now. And one of the ways that I encourage parents is that there are a lot of things that are really important to their child that the parent might take for granted that the parent has total control over, things like: are we still going to do our bedtime routine? Are we still going to do our good morning routine? Caregivers can make sure those things are still happening. Now this isn’t true for every family. But for most families, there's still a mealtime routine for families. There may be some changes in mealtime routine, but RPS is doing a great job of getting meals out into the community. And their volunteers are doing a great job. So while there may be some changes, the parent can still say, you know, when the bus comes by, it's your job to pick up breakfast and then when we come back, here's what we do. We always do this when we eat. We're going to have one meal together. Maybe it's an evening meal for our family. Those things are really important to kids. So anything related to schedule, and food….parents can really lean in and provide security, comfort, stability, and consistency on those things.

You’ve mentioned that kids also like to know how they can contribute. What are some ways that you think might be appropriate to tell kids they can help contribute during this difficult time?

I think there are certainly a lot of ways that kids might want to contribute that might be appropriate. I think the best way for kids to feel like they're contributing with the most immediacy are things that happen around your house and in your family. If there are chores that need to be done that are appropriate for their age and stage of development, this can be some way that they're contributing. For young kids, you might give them a simpler job. If there's something a little too complex for a child, like, I need you to help make dinner tonight, maybe it's their job to clean the dishes. Those are tasks that most young kids can't handle on their own, but they can do them with you, and so then that's kind of a double win for quality time. Plus, they're contributing and helping, and it gives you something to praise them for.

Those kinds of partnership tests are really great for picking up your toys. Hey, before we have dinner today, I'm going to ask you to pick up as many toys as you can. Those are great ways for kids to feel affirmed, and also like they're doing something to help when everybody's under stress. There are also some ways that they can help that are specific to this pandemic. Maybe you want to write some notes to people that you can't visit. Boy, kids love to help with that kind of thing. If you want to write a note to somebody and they can decorate it, or if they're able to write their own notes they can do that. For older kids, they could send some emails to their grandparents, or they could call and check up on them, see if they’re doing ok and if they need anything. And that's a great way for a child to help out. They're helping grandma maybe feel more connected. They're helping you check on them. And they're also helping themselves feel like, ‘Oh, this is part of being a family. This part doesn't change just because there's a public health emergency.’

How much should parents be telling kids about the seriousness of the current situation?

 I think because our brains are designed and wired to survive, it's easy to think about what we can control. And as adults especially, we reach into things we can't control, and we try to figure out how we can control them, how we can problem-solve possible problems. What if the grocery stores run out of food? What a lot of people are worried about, what if the grocery stores run out of toilet paper? Those are things we just don't know. But when we're talking with kids, there are some things that we do know and it's hard to even bring those to our attention because the adults are so focused on what we do not know. But if you just really think, there are some things that we do know. You know how to wash your hands. Adults don't think about that. But that's something we can communicate to kids. We could communicate to kids that doctors are working on this problem and nurses are working on this problem. We can remind them that there are teams of people who are working every day to make sure that we can get vaccines on this to make sure that people who are sick are getting better. I wouldn't share with a child, as an adult, I would not share your anxieties about what keeps you up at night. But I would share something like, I sometimes feel sad about this, I sometimes feel worried and when I feel worried, here's what I do to handle that. Kids may not be as familiar with how to handle a really intense worry, an intense fear or intense anxiety. But if we know how to handle that, we're going to share that with them too. Something like, 'You know, anytime you feel like this, your body might feel like this. It's good. Take a breath. It's good to talk to somebody, it's good to move your body. It's good to relax.' These are things that we can share with kids, too, just so they know. So they know it's not unusual to feel this way. And there are things you can do to keep yourself grounded.

Is there a certain way you would recommend bringing that up or having that conversation with kids about anxiety and feelings in connection to this?

 Sometimes parents feel like, I don't know if I want to bring this up, because I'm not sure what I'll say. But if you bring it up first that tells the child that you're okay having this conversation when they're ready. Something like, 'A lot of people are having feelings about the coronavirus. Are you having some feelings about that? Or do you want to talk about it?' And they might say yes, they might say, I'm not sure. They might say no, you could just say, 'Well, when you're ready, I'm always here for you. If you ever have questions or other feelings about it, you just let me know.' For really young kids, you might say, 'We can go to our talking corner,' you might have a physical space for some of those kids. Like a beanbag or a couch. Or we might like to have a stuffed animal when we talk about scary things. For young kids, you might say, we'll pull out the alligator. And we'll go sit on the couch, and we'll talk about you. There might be some physical things for them. But in general, you can always preempt that and say, 'you know, one of my jobs as a parent, as your mom or dad or grandma is to have these conversations with you. When you're ready, just let me know. And if there's anything I can do to help you feel better, I'll do it.'

Another tip you've talked about is that it's okay to talk about what you don't know. How do you suggest parents address uncertainty?

As a parent when you're not sure how to answer a question, or when kids are asking about things that maybe nobody knows, it's ok to be honest about the facts. You don't want to act like you know, and you don't want to guess about something that isn't true. You can say, 'I don't know when this will be over. How do you feel about that?' Or I don't know about this, what do you think about that? When do you think it might be over? And you can kind of turn it into an opportunity to get their perspective. And they may say something wildly inaccurate like, 'I think we'll have a coronavirus forever, or I think that we'll never go back to school again.' But the important thing is that they're feeling in that moment that you are interested in them. You want to get their perspective. And if they're saying something like that and you have the urge to dispute and say, no, that's not true…just hang with it for a minute say, 'Oh, wow, what would that be like, if your prediction came true? Oh, okay.' You're not saying they're right or wrong. You're just really enjoying the moment of connection where they're sharing their perspective. I think that can be hard. If they're saying they're really scared, as a parent or caregiver, you may want to fix that feeling. Just saying,' Yeah, that's really scary sometimes. I sure am glad you told me.' That goes a long way with our kids.

Are there any subjects or topics that you would encourage parents to just completely avoid at this point?

Kids are pretty different kid to kid, and age to age. So if you're a caregiver, or a parent who has multiple kids, you're going to be thinking about this a lot, right? Because you might have somebody in middle school and a child in elementary school and a child who hasn't started school yet at all. And you're going to think differently about them. And you might have an older child telling younger children things that are just getting them upset. I think you have to kind of go case-by-case with that for sure. I would think about what kind of movies and TV shows do you let your children watch? You're letting a six-year-old have screen time with a certain level of programming that's different than your 16 year-old-and so you can kind of think, am I going to share something that might be in a TV show or movie that I would not let this child watch, then I'm not going to share it. I'm going to keep it pretty toned down. So, if you're sharing it on Mr. Rogers level with one child, and when you're having real, late-night news level conversations with another older child. That's fine, that older child may want to know. You can say, 'I'm glad you're asking me about these details. I don't know about it. And we're not going to talk about this in the same level of detail with your younger sibling.'

If there is a positive aspect to this COVID-19 public health moment that we're having there are a lot like diseases that we already know about. Most people are familiar with the common cold or the flu. And so there aren't a ton of graphic details in terms of the disease itself or what people may need to know where I think you may want to steer away from the extreme accounts of someone who had a really difficult time in quarantine or had a really difficult time with the disease, accounts of people losing someone close to them, those kinds of things can be told in a traumatic way. And they're incredibly painful stories. But I think with kids in general, you want to keep it focused on our neighborhood, our school, our family. Let's think about how this is going to affect us and how are you feeling right now? What are you thinking about right now? That's much more helpful for kids than the story of someone far away and the difficulty that they experienced.

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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