Mom, when do I get to play with my friends again? Dad, why aren’t you going to work today?
The coronavirus has left parents fielding countless questions from their children. While parents may not know the answers, school psychologist Dr. Ruth Bewley said what’s most important is their attitude.
“The parent’s role is extremely important,” Bewley said. “I call social distancing ‘social referencing’ because that’s how children respond, mirrored with how their parents are responding. So, if the parents are staying calm and logically reacting to the situation … there’s a much better chance that the child is going to stay calm, too. You can engineer an environment that keeps them away from sensational news stories.”
It’s been almost two months since schools and many workplaces closed due to the coronavirus.
“I know for younger kids, we’re into what (seems like) week one million of staying home,” added Bewley, a Southeast Christian Church member. “Now that it’s gone on awhile, it’s so important for parents to model continued perseverance in their positivity. ‘We’re going to stick this out one day at a time no matter how long this lasts.’”
Talking to children
Bewley said to keep it simple when trying to explain the coronavirus to children.
“I would say something like, ‘We’ve all felt sick at times and gone to the doctor for help,’” she said. “‘So, if you’re hot and have a fever, you feel more tired and get achy. This is like that. People mostly get well from that by going to the doctor to get better. The reason we’re staying inside right now is because we don’t know everything about this illness yet, so in order for people to stay well we can control that by not coughing or sneezing on someone else. In the short-term, until the doctors figure out the answers, we can’t really touch or hug like we used to except among our family because we might have something that can make them sick or they might have something that can make us sick.’”
Bewley encourages parents not to talk about death or flattening the curve, but relay the basic information.
“Parents shouldn’t avoid the topic, even preschoolers aren’t oblivious to the fact that things are quite different than they normally would be,” Bewley said. “You talk to them; don’t let the news talk to them. You don’t want to ignore their questions and act like nothing is happening because that causes more anxiety in children. They aren’t dumb. They can pick up on it.”
Talking to teens
The conversation obviously changes for teenagers.
Many high school juniors and seniors are missing their biggest moments—graduation, prom, sports.
“Parents need to remind them that this too shall pass,” Bewley said. “They need to be reminded they’re not the only ones in this situation. It is going to work out and be fine.”
Bewley said parents should encourage their teens to seek God while quarantined.
“A way for them to feel that God is using this time for them in a positive way is by opening their minds to how He is doing that,” Bewley added. “If they prayerfully ask, ‘God, how can I use this time positively? I miss my boyfriend so much. I miss my friends. I didn’t get to play spring baseball.’ I truly believe He will give them an answer.”
Bewley said adding any sense of normalcy helps kids.
“It’s so important to maintain some kind of daily routine,” Bewley said. “This reduces their anxiety because you have a sense of purpose, control and predictability. You don’t want to be up until the movie is over one night and expect them to get up early the next day. You don’t want to do homework after dinner one night and expect them to get online for their classes the next morning.”
She encourages parents to set healthy rhythms by making time for classwork, arts and crafts, chores and physical activity. Healthyschoolscampaign.org offers a host of COVID-19 resources for parents and children.
All the extra family time is great, Bewley said, but only if families are leveraging it well.
“This comes into my office all the time,” Bewley added. “The parents complaining that kids come home from school, they go into their rooms and don’t come out from being on their screens until dinner. Screen time has to be limited, and they’ve got to be a part of the family. Positive activities that can be done as a family, even an old-fashioned board game, get everyone involved. It’s so important not to isolate within your own home.”