Many parents are confused regarding how to parent through COVID-19. This entry addresses three qualifications, three guidelines and two common questions.
1. Most children who were free of psychiatric problems prior to being exposed to a trauma do not develop a psychiatric condition after the exposure. Children can be surprisingly resilient.
2. Advice from mental health professionals is most effective when it supports and informs, but does not supplant, your intuition. You are one of the world’s leading experts on your child. Suggestions from experts should be filtered through that lens.
3. Some of the suggestions below would not apply for children who have become symptomatic; for such children it would be best to consult with a mental health professional in order to develop a tailored plan.
1. Intermittently let your children know that you are available to talk but do not try to force a conversation. Children are like adults; sometimes we cope by trying to put something out of our mind. Assuming the topic has upset her, your child might not be in the mood to talk about such at the same time as you. Following your child’s lead can communicate that you are sensitive and respectful.
2. Try to create a venue and manner that makes it easier for your child to communicate with you. For instance, some teens might find it easier to discuss difficult feelings and thoughts while not making eye contact (e.g., while driving) while younger children may communicate through their play. Regardless of the age range, though, it is important to not jump in too quickly with reassurances. Once we parents start self- disclosing, even if for the purpose of being reassuring, it can have a dampening effect on our child’s self-disclosure.
Once your child has finished with his or her initial statements reflect back what you’ve heard and provide empathy (e.g., “I understand why you could be feeling more scared these days”). This will feel very difficult to do as your entire being wants to be reassuring, but suppress that urge initially. This may cause your child to tell you even more. When it seems that your child is finished that would be the time to offer your thoughts and feelings.
3. Let your awareness of your child’s developmental level and/or vulnerabilities guide your self-disclosure. No matter your child’s age, it is important to not say things that you do not really believe. Doing so is often ineffective and may damage your credibility. Selective truth telling would seem to be advisable; selective based upon your child’s developmental level and vulnerabilities.
For younger or vulnerable children you may want to only share those thoughts and feelings that are positive. For older children, who are also doing well, you may choose to share some thoughts and feelings that are unpleasant. Sometimes life is painful; honestly acknowledging that, with an older child who can handle it, can be educative and facilitate a closer relationship.
Two common questions:
1. What do I say to my children about our safety?
Much of this will be determined by how you rationally answer this question for yourself. What do you believe are the odds that your family will experience significant physical or financial consequences from COVID-19? Once you have answered these questions for yourself, selective truth telling–based on the principles listed above–may be advisable.
2. Is there anything I can do to protect my children from all the fallout?
Any of the following may help:
• Aggressively pursue your own adjustment. If I am afflicted I will have a more difficult time helping my child. If I believe we are significant medical or financial risk, then it ‘s important to develop an action plan for coping with and responding to this. Consultation with a good psychologist or mental health professional can be very helpful in this regard. Many psychologists now offer video conferencing services.
• Try to maintain as many functional rituals and routines as you can. Few things give a child a clearer message that life is safe than adaptive routines and rituals (e.g., maintaining the same routines at meal time, bed time, birthdays).
• Keep your child’s developmental level and wellness in mind when deciding how much he or she should have access to ongoing developments in the news. A good guideline for anyone stressed by COVID-19 new stories is to limit the exposure to once a day or less.
• Try to turn a sense of passivity into an active plan for healing and helping. Your family may decide to pray for the suffering, make donations, write letters, create art, and join online efforts to heal and to help.
• Think of any self-quarantines as a welcomed staycation instead of an apocalyptic retreat. How many of we parents have had the thought, “when we get some extra time together we’ll…” There are so many possible ideas: have a family campout in the family room, play balloon baseball, have a bracketed gaming tournament (including making up new and fun games like who can balance a grape on their face the longest), view old family videos, have a cupcake baking contest or any one of a hundred other ideas you can get by doing an internet search for “staycation ideas.” Doing this well will cause your child or teen, 10-15 years from now, to reminisce with a warming smile, and say, “remember in 2020 when we…”
• Once every day or so do an internet search for “good news COVID-19.” In doing this I’ve learned that new cases in China have dropped dramatically, that some of the first identified cases in the U.S. are now well and the early science out of China indicates that warmer weather slows the transmission of COVID-19 For teens, reviewing a graph like this may be helpful.
• Maintain a healthy lifestyle for the entire family. This would include things like maintaining good diets and schedules for physical activity and sleep. Social distancing does not require becoming shut-ins. Activities like walking in nature, biking and stargazing may be safe, practical and energizing.
• Manifest for your family the psychological truth: crisis = pain + opportunity. COVID-19, like all pain, is often akin to a dragon guarding treasure when it does not kill us. Yes, we need to experience the pain and give each other empathy for it. After all, denial can take a heavy toll when it’s the driver. But, then we can wonder where the treasure is. If your children can reach age 18 knowing this deep truth about suffering they will have a Captain America Shield against life’s slings and arrows.
• If you child seems to be having a hard time adjusting, or otherwise has changed for the worse, seek out a professional consultation. Doing so may improve your child’s adjustment. To find a psychologist click here.