Talking about COVID-19 with your kids

Megan Walchuk

Talking with kids about stressful situations can be difficult. But it’s more important to keep the lines open, than to know what to say.

With the surge of COVID-19 into our everyday lives, it’s difficult to shelter even the youngest child from its effects, according to Laurel Pirrie, Child and Youth councillor for Firefly.

“They probably know things aren’t normal,” she said. “They aren’t in daycare or school. People are acting serious.”

It’s important before entering a dialogue with a child, that your own anxiety is in check. “If a parent is anxious, that’s not the time to have a conversation,” she said. “Do something to calm down. Turn off the news for a few hours.”

For the younger set, Pirrie recommended opening the dialogue with a question.

“You might say, ‘hey, you’ve probably noticed things are a little weird. Do you have any questions?'” she said. From there, let them take the lead. Let them ask questions, and answer them at an age appropriate level. And if you don’t know the answer, it’s okay to say so, she said.

Young children are egocentric by nature – it’s developmentally appropriate for them to feel the world revolves around them. They might be afraid of getting COVID-19 themselves, or that a loved one will get it. They may find it scary to imagine being sick.

Parents can allay those fears by acknowledging and validating the child’s fear, and by showing the child everything put in place to protect the family.

“You can say ‘it is scary. This is why we’re washing our hands. That’s how we’re helping,'” she said.

Older children and teens have a higher awareness of what’s going on than young siblings, and that can bring a range of emotions and reactions. But just like their younger counterparts, they need less conversation and more connection, to deal with stress. COVID-19 in particular has brought a lot of unanswered questions.

“There’s a level of ambiguity. There’s not a lot of answers, and we can’t really DO anything,” she said. “That’s not a comfortable feeling to sit with.”

Older kids are feeling the same stress and pressure we are. And they need a safe place to vent those frustrations.

“You don’t need to have all the solutions,” said Pirrie. “Let them vent. Just listen.”

Helping teens and tweens find ways to socialize with friends safely can help relieve their stress.

Although at the moment that can involve some heavy screen use, which is traditionally discouraged, parents need to balance off-screen time with the need for social connection and a sense or routine that devices can bring.

Netflix Party is one hang-out spot, where a group can watch a movie simultaneously, with a chat sidebar for conversation.

“They can find ways to hang out as best they can,” said Pirrie.

Older kids appreciate knowing you’re there, but having space, said Pirrie.

“As a parent, we can check in, without crowding them,” she said. “Kids want connections more than questions.”

For some kids, no amount of careful parenting will prevent anxiety from settling in. Once it does, parents have a few tools in their toolbelt to help everyone cope.

Some kids can get trapped in the “what ifs…” said Pirrie, playing out tragic outcomes in their heads.

“You don’t want to get stuck in that cycle,” said Pirrie. A calming or engaging activity can be helpful in managing that anxiety, she said. If it persists, comparing the truth to the “what if…” can come in useful – ask the child to look around at what’s really happening. “Is that ‘what if’ the truth, or is it something else?”

Parents should trust their instincts when gauging if their child has become overly anxious.

“A parent knows their child better than I do,” said Pirrie. But if a child’s quality of life seems to be suffering, that could be a red flag. “If the child’s not eating, not talking, if they can’t calm down,” she noted. Some kids may become more aggressive or emotional, or have trouble sleeping. Others might have physical pains, like chest pain or stomach aches.

Keeping the lines of communication open and offering support can help. The child can also be shown outside sources of help, such as the Kids Help Phone, or Firefly.

“Sometimes, it can help to talk to someone from outside the family,” she said.

Most of all, parents should be patient, not just with the kids – with ourselves as well.

“We’re all doing the best we can with what we have.”