How to Talk to Children about COVID-19
Anxiety about COVID-19 and how it will change the world are spreading as fast as the virus itself. As parents, we feel this anxiety and so do our children. Children are naturally perceptive and will look to their parents for guidance on how to react as their world changes. You want to help your children through this of course, but how do you talk to a young child about a global pandemic? I have a few tips here to help you navigate these conversations with your children:
Be open and honest. Children know when we are keeping the truth from them. I would advise against telling your child that nothing is happening, or that everyone will be fine. Below are some examples for how to be open and honest with your children about coronavirus for different age groups
For a younger child. I would advise a short but honest approach. “There is a sickness going around and we are trying to keep everyone safe by not getting it ourselves, and not giving it to others. We do this by staying home from school and only going out when we have to. We’re also washing our hands more often. If we do this for a little while everyone will get a chance to get healthy and we will get to go back to playing with your friends.”
For an older child. I would advise a more in-depth strategy while keeping the facts intact. “Many people are getting sick and we are staying home to keep from spreading the virus. This virus is dangerous to some people, usually people over the age of 70. If you get sick it’s likely that it will not be a bad sickness for you. If this happens we will take it seriously and make sure you are okay.”
For teenagers and young adults. I would advise that you speak to them similarly to how you would speak to a peer. Be open an honest about your worries, the realities of the situation, and how you are moving on with your day despite the anxiety. For older children to see their parents have real emotions and overcome them is usually more meaningful than advice itself.
Do not linger! If your children have questions answer those questions honestly and move on with the conversation. If we are able to answer questions and then move on into other conversation topics, then we are sending them the message that generally things are okay. If we spend too much time talking about coronavirus, then we are sending the message that the threat is large. The way you convey the message to your children may mean just as much, if not more, than the message itself.
Use this as a teaching moment in dealing with anxiety and change. Our children will grow up and they will experience stressors, anxieties, natural disasters, and more. Use this as an opportunity to teach them how to feel anxiety, make a reasonable plan to handle uncertainty, and move forward with their lives. If you can make a plan and continue moving forward with your day despite the pandemic you will show them how to react by example. Again, Actions speak louder than words, the more you can show them that you are able to move on and accomplish your daily tasks the more likely they will be to follow suit now and in the future.
How to help your child if they are anxious about COVID-19
If your child is feeling anxious about the coronavirus and the uncertainty it brings there are a few things you can do to help them.
Allow them to have their feelings. It is natural instinct for most parents to keep their children from feeling unwanted feelings. This is well-intentioned, but can come across as invalidating and can send your child the message that it is not okay to feel anxious, scared, or uncomfortable. Instead of giving children reasons why they cannot or should not feel anxious about the coronavirus, sympathize with them. “I’m sorry you’re feeling worried about this, what can I do to help you right now?” is much more helpful than “don’t worry about that” or “I promise you will be fine”. It is okay to have questions and be worried about the pandemic, and also okay to continue on with life as normally as possible!
Give them a sense of control. When adults feel anxious taking some action can help reduce that anxiety. If your child is anxious about getting or spreading coronavirus develop a “family plan” with them to give them some reassurance. The plan may include reducing activities outside of the house, guidelines for de-contaminating things that enter the house, like packages or groceries, and a plan for hand-washing and social contact. I recommend the CDC as a guidance point for this plan. Once the family plan is in place it may help your child move on from their anxiety. If their anxiety returns, you can tell them that the family has a plan, is sticking to the plan, and encourage them to move on with their day and try something else fun.
Fun distraction. One of the things that anxiety hates the most is fun. It is easy for anxiety to grab hold if a child is not stimulated in some way, it is harder for anxiety if the child is engaged with a meaningful activity. In Houston, the children’s museum and zoo have offered daily educational videos, for instance. There are many websites that offer free and cheap educational resources to keep them stimulated. Once a child has had feelings of anxiety and moved on from them to try something fun, having a short talk about being proud of them for being anxious and having fun anyway may help them do so on their own in the future.
What is the right amount of COVID-19 precaution to take to keep your family safe without worrying your children?
During this time it is important to keep your family safe from COVID-19, but it is also important to keep your life moving forward as much as possible. Part of keeping your family moving forward is taking steps to protect their mental health. How can you make these things work together?
Set family guidelines and stick to them. Having fluctuating family rules for reducing risk or COVID-19 exposure will almost assuredly increase everyone’s anxiety at home. The best thing to protect your family’s physical and mental health simultaneously is to decide on protective measures and be consistent with them. I recommend that families follow the CDC guidelines for coronavirus protection during this time. Reviewing this with your family and remaining consistent will help reduce uncertainty and anxiety
If your children worry despite clear expectations at home. Children may continue to worry despite a clear understanding of rules and resources dedicated to reduce infection at home. I will often take time to explain to children that their brain is worried because it is trying to keep them safe. We should thank our brain for trying to keep us safe, remind ourselves that we are safe because we have family rules in place, and then show our brains that we are safe by letting go of worries and doing something fun instead.
What do I do with my children while they are not in school?
Keep a consistent schedule. Scheduling is a fantastic way to reduce anxiety and depression, especially during a pandemic. This is especially true for children. Having a set yet flexible schedule helps children to maintain a sense of control, and helps them look forward to meaningful activities instead of getting stuck in unhealthy thought patterns. Make sure that the schedule includes some time for meaningful activities like schoolwork, some time for relaxing activities like playing in the backyard, some time for social activities like video chatting with friends, and some time for them to choose an activity. The schedule does not have to be perfect, but it does have to be consistent!
Try some new things! Now may be the time to institute the family game night that you have been thinking about. There may be a new exercise or sport that your child may want to try in the backyard. You may try cooking or baking together. Keep the days fun and interesting by interspersing some new activities a few times a week. Even if they are “duds” that the child does not enjoy, it still adds some creativity and excitement to an otherwise uneventful week.
Spend meaningful individual time with your child. Children crave individual attention from parents, and there is a great deal of research indicating that this time helps them grow socially and emotionally. With reduced time commuting, and perhaps working overall, now could be an opportunity to have more quality time with each of your children.
OCD and COVID-19
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) can be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Personally, I have seen some clients struggle with the ramifications or risk of the virus itself, but many struggle just as much if not more with the isolation of quarantine or shelter-in-place orders. If you or a loved one have OCD and are struggling, here are some tips that may be helpful.
Use this as an opportunity for exposure therapy. There is a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety caused by COVID-19, and OCD feeds off of these emotions. Good Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) Therapy focuses on finding these feelings and leaning into them, or accomplishing meaningful tasks despite their presence without doing something to reduce your anxiety. No matter the way your OCD manifests, there are undoubtedly a number of ways to use this pandemic to show yourself and your OCD that you are in control of your life and your anxiety does not control you.
Set yourself a daily routine. A routine helps reduce anxiety for persons with and without OCD. During a quarantine it is easy to lose sight of a daily routine and instead get stuck performing tasks that feed OCD , like watching the news constantly or checking yourself for COVID-19 symptoms. Creating a daily schedule including a consistent wake and sleep time, meal times, and meaningful activities may or may not help reduce the urge to check for symptoms. However, it will help you to keep moving forward and this will send the OCD a message that you control your days, your anxiety does not!
Stay flexible! Perfectionism is a common symptom of OCD. Your OCD may be asking you right now to make a ‘perfect’ schedule and adhere to it rigidly. It may cause you significant distress if you break from that schedule. This is a common OCD trap, and another opportunity to find an exposure during the pandemic. If your OCD wants you to be perfect, it may be worthwhile to make an “imperfect” schedule. Examples include scheduling activities at odd times, using different colored pens for the schedule, or purposefully deviating from the schedule at during you day.
Practice self-compassion. During this pandemic your OCD symptoms may flare up. You may engage in rituals again. You may feel like you’re not doing what you should be doing. That is normal and okay! Take the time to forgive yourself, make a plan, and follow through on some exposure goals. Reward yourself for the successes and learn from the difficult times without self-defeating talk.
Connect with a therapist. If you have the financial resources to continue with treatment or start treatment now is a perfect time! Finding an experienced OCD therapist to help you make a plan for your OCD and follow through during this time will help you reduce the onset of symptoms and learn lessons that you can take forward with you over time.