Parenting is a difficult enterprise, more so when current events throw curveballs in our efforts to foster a benevolent sense of life and the view that the universe is rational and predictable. Here are ten tips to help children cope with their emotional reactions when the world around them is in turmoil.
1. Be open. Children can sense when we are upset, and certainly it would be difficult to conceal our own reactions to televised violence and accounts of the health crisis. Like it or not, your children watch how you handle your feelings and look to you for direction on how to handle their feelings. If you choose to deal with your distress by ignoring it, they are apt to think that you want them to suppress their feelings. If they sense that you do not want to hear anything negative, their bad feelings will not go away. They will merely go underground, where they do more damage and are less accessible to parents' reassurances. It is far better to let children know that you recognize your feelings and their feelings and that you regard them as normal and understandable.
We want children to know that when bad things happen, it is normal and healthy to react with strong negative feelings and to freely express these feelings. The best way to teach a healthy approach to difficult feelings is to demonstrate it through our own behavior.
2. Be composed. Parents often wonder how much of their own uncertainty and anxiety they should reveal to children. It is best to strike a balance between two extremes. As noted, parents who take a business-as-usual approach and act as though nothing is out of the ordinary encourage children to distrust their own perceptions. But the principle of openness is not a license to burden children with your own sense of hopelessness and despair. Parents who become overwhelmed when discussing coronavirus or unchecked violence in the streets compound their children’s insecurity at a time when they need reassurance. The goal is to show your children how to express strong feelings openly. If you frighten them by appearing out of control, the lesson they retain will not be that it is healthy to express emotions but that it is frightening.
So, when talking to children about stressful events, be aware of how your own reactions color your responses. By maintaining composure while acknowledging the reality of the frightening events, you reassure your children that the events have not shattered the security of their home and family. You show them that they do not have to deny horrible realities, but that even when life is not business as usual, they can rely on their parents to retain their roles as sources of comfort and security. This approach simultaneously demonstrates for them a very important virtue: courage in the face of adversity. It is a lesson that will reap benefits for a lifetime.
3. Deal with unearned shame. School-age children who fear the coronavirus may feel ashamed of what they perceive as babyish behavior. Explain that it is not a sign of weakness to feel fear but a natural and protective response to danger.
4. Reassure. Children also worry that their newfound fears will never go away. They need to hear that their fears will not last forever. One of the most effective ways to get this point across is to talk about a temporary fear that you suffered and surmounted when you were a child.
5. Hold off if necessary. If relatives and friends have contracted COVID-19, or worse, have succumbed to it, parents who are overwhelmed with their own distress should postpone talking with their children about those events until they are able to do so without breaking down. Even here, though, it is essential to acknowledge and validate your children's feelings while providing reassurance. Let them know that you understand it is difficult and worrisome when you are preoccupied with your own distress, but you will recover and will soon be able to give them the attention they need. In fact, helping children cope with hard times will help us recover as well.
6. Answer repeated questions. Children sometimes ask the same questions repeatedly. Naturally, this gets tedious for parents, but you should understand that the questions are not intended to "bug" you. Rather, such questions show that the children have still not fully understood or accepted the answers. Asking the same questions over and over is one way children try to come to grips with difficult concepts and emotionally intense experiences. Try to be patient.
Children’s questions are precious gifts. They bestow upon you the awesome responsibility of shaping, or at least framing, your children’s attitudes for years to come. Repeated questions deserve repeated answers. When your children no longer need to ask questions, they will stop on their own. If you tell them to stop asking questions, they will not stop thinking about the issues; they will merely exclude you from their inner thoughts.
7. Remember context. Very young children who do not know anyone who has suffered severe illness or been harmed by violence in the streets can be shielded from these issues as much as possible. But if they have loved ones who have been harmed, they will need reassurance and help to cope.
8. Don't prejudge TV. Although younger children should not be watching too much coverage of the pandemic and civil unrest, most of them are more interested in PAW Patrol and SpongeBob SquarePants anyway. Television news may draw the attention of older children, however, as much as it does their parents. Unless the images become unduly gory, find out how the coverage is affecting your children before banning them from watching the news or reducing their screen time exposure to COVID-19.
9. Maintain routines. With schools closed, create a schedule for learning and recreational activities. Adhering to schedules makes your children’s world more predictable and thus more manageable and less distressing.
10. Focus on the positive. Despite the tragedy of coronavirus losses, and the hardships of lockdowns, social distancing, and other deprivations, we can use these difficult times as an opportunity to teach children about the importance of courage, valor, and loyalty to values—traits that we should all aspire to and help our children develop. And we should not overlook chances to draw children’s attention to positive achievements and to accomplishments that instill proper pride in their country. Step outside at night, point to the moon, and talk with your children about the time we sent people to the moon and back. Help your children dream big.
Part 1 of this article focused on effective tips for adults coping in times of conflict, chaos, and coronavirus.
Portions of this article were adapted and updated from an article originally published in the June 2003 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.