Elizabeth Hill Arredondo, a licensed professional counselor-supervisor with 19 years of experience who also is the director of Houston Family Counseling, said she had been hearing from parents who were unsure what to tell their children about COVID-19, the upper respiratory disease caused by the new strain of coronavirus.
Arredondo also heard from kids who were getting misinformation from friends or who had misunderstandings about the virus.
“I thought that adults might be avoiding talking about it for fear of worrying their children,” she said. “I wanted to give them a framework to talk about it and to assuage their fears.”
Here is some of the information that Arredondo is sharing with clients and friends to strike a balance between frightening kids and over-insulating them from an emerging crisis. Since first appearing in China in December, the disease has infected more than 118,000 people worldwide, including more than 800 in the United States, according to John Hopkins University.
Acknowledge and normalize feelings: If your kids sound, act, or look worried, let them know that this is a normal feeling. Explain to them that many people are worried about things that are new or unknown. Pretending there’s nothing to worry about, when in fact there is, can be confusing for kids, and also can do damage to their developing abilities to “trust their guts.”
Ask and answer questions: Ask your children what they know about the novel coronavirus and what they’d like to know. Probing this way will help you avoid overloading a child with more information than they need, or missing out on opportunities to correct misconceptions.
Just the facts, please: Choose your media sources carefully. Monitor reliable sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization and other government agencies, and stay away from anything that sounds sensational. If you are watching things that fuel your own anxiety, it will be hard to model calm for your kids.
Assure safety: Let children know that kids and younger adults are at very low risk of serious complications from COVID-19. Also, remind them of all the helpers involved – the government agencies, healthcare workers and researchers, especially.
Adopt a stance of curiosity: This is actually a great time for some age-appropriate education. For the elementary crowd, you can learn together about viruses. You can talk about the history and importance of vaccines and how they are developed.
Combat xenophobia and racism: This is an excellent opportunity to instill in your child respect for and inquisitiveness about other people. Explain to your children that the virus is not specific to one country or group, and teach them about how to stand up for people who are different than they are – and stand against racism.
Practice or adopt healthy limits on technology: Children and teens need limits on tech time every day. This is especially important when they risk having important questions answered with misinformation or could have fears fueled. You can get the facts when your kids aren’t around and filter what’s relevant to them.
Keep kids connected: It’s important that children not feel alone, and teens keep in touch on their phones. Work to strike a balance that allows for important contact with friends and also keeps kids grounded in reality. You might encourage more playdates or hang out times with healthy friends and family.
Plan for child care: If schools do close, and you have to work, where will your children go? Talk with healthy, trusted neighbors and school friends about possible kid swaps. Chances are that they are worried, too, and that everyone would be happy to have options that feel safe and familiar to their children.
Encourage self-efficacy: Children will feel empowered if they know what they can do to prevent getting sick or spreading disease. Go over hand-washing techniques and etiquette for sneezing and coughing. You can also come up with some new and creative greeting alternatives to hugs, kisses or handshakes.
Let kids help you prepare: Are you stocking your pantry or freezer? Tell your children it is in case lots of people are sick, and it’s smarter not to go to the store, and then let them help you plan meals they will enjoy. If it’s looking like schools might close, have kids help you make a list of things they can do at home.
Keep to routines: As much as you can, keep both yourself and your kids in your normal routines. Even in the event that schools close and activities are cancelled, you can stick to bed times, eating habits and family rituals. The same goes for family rules. Now is not the time to bend them. Structure makes kids feel safe, so it can create a sense of normalcy to hear you say, “No shoes in the house,” or, “Food stays in the kitchen, please.”
For more tips, visit https://houstonfamilycounseling.org/.