As a mother, I thank my lucky stars every day that young children are the least at risk when it comes to the coronavirus. However, our physical health is not the only form of health that is in jeopardy right now. The emotional health of our families is also at risk, and it can help to take proactive steps now to mitigate psychological damage to your children and prevent a silent aftermath of this outbreak.
All children will react differently to the news of the pandemic. Some parents will find their children are coping with the changes and collective anxiety quite well, while others will struggle.
If you are parenting a child previously exposed to trauma, adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s), or with a highly sensitive personality, it will be helpful to think through how you are going to support them emotionally during this time. Children who fall within these categories might have difficulty regulating their emotions and lack the skills to cope with anxiety associated with Covid.
Another vulnerable population is children who have lost parents to illness or disease. This pandemic has likely triggered their fears about losing more loved ones and could be resurfacing their traumatic memories of loss.
Grieving children might not express their concerns, or even realise why they are upset, so it is essential to check in with them and ask if this crisis is bringing up thoughts and feelings related to their grief and loss.
The necessary inconvenience of school closures will undoubtedly leave parents, grandparents, and foster parents handling emotional outbursts they would not be involved with if the children were in school. We are on day two in our home of school closure, and my child is already pushing my buttons more than usual. I am also observing anxiety-related behaviour in correlation to her hearing adult conversations about the virus, cancellations, financial worries, and the future of this situation.
As a therapist who worked within the child welfare system, I also think of children who might be abused during this time because parents lack the skills to cope with their own emotions and behaviour under the pressure this pandemic is creating.
Steps to protecting children’s mental health
- Be honest and confident with children about the coronavirus. When you lie or distort the truth, they know, or they find out later, and then trust is broken down between you. Trust is the foundation of all relationships, and trust needs to be a consistent element within your communication process, even with very young children (5 and under). My daughter is four, and I sat down and had the conversation below with her. She cried in my arms afterwards for two minutes and then seemed much more relaxed throughout the day. Example of what to say: ‘Have you noticed everyone is nervous right now? We are all feeling nervous, even Mummy and Daddy, because there is a virus going around. A virus is what makes people sick, and nobody likes to feel sick. So for the next few weeks, we are going to take a break from our normal life and spend more time together as a family. Your regular events like school and play dates are cancelled so that we can stop the virus from spreading and making more people sick. We also need to wash our hands more often to keep us healthy.’
- Disappointment, confusion, anger, or sadness may follow this conversation. Acknowledge the child’s distress. Let them be upset without trying to distract or fix their pain. Just sit with it while they cry or express themselves. If you feel disappointed, share that too. Disclosing your emotions can feel vulnerable if this is new to you, but being vulnerable with a child is the best opportunity for a genuine and lasting connection to flourish. One caveat, do not use your child as a sounding board for your worries. Speak calmly about what you are feeling to help validate what they are experiencing. Keep the focus on the child, not your own emotions.
- Encourage your children to come to you with questions or concerns. Answer their questions calmly and confidently. If you don’t have an answer, say you don’t know, but you will try to find out. Remind them of the good that can come from adversity and how they can help others during this time.When we teach children they can trust adults, to tell the truth, it helps them cope with the uncertainty of any situation. A child who knows the truth can count on the adult in their life to be the support they need. They can let their minds rest from the questions that anxiety produces, knowing their parents tell them the truth.
- Minimise negative conversations. I know it’s not possible to avoid talking about the virus at all in front of children, and I’m not suggesting you try to. However, there is a benefit to limiting constant conversation about the pandemic. Listening to tense discussions can overtax their emotions in an already stressful situation. Children are tiny barometers of adult feelings. They are always picking up on and noticing the changes in our mood and reflecting them to us. They are feeling the impact of our adult stress over this situation already, so try to keep adult conversations to a minimum.
- Rely on phone calls and video calls to keep in contact with loved ones. This is a healthy alternative to visiting with people right now, and it is also good for your mental health. However, children can hear these calls. Take a moment to go to another room when venting to friends and family. Text your family members ahead of time and let them know you don’t want to discuss the pandemic in front of the children. Hearing negative chatter all day can have your child acting out their anxiety with challenging behavior, and that can be an additional source of frustration when you are together all day, every day for two weeks or more.
- Switch off the news. I am guilty of leaving the news on in the background at times, but right now, the stories are overwhelming. Watch shows that inspire positivity and laughter during this unfortunate time, or better yet, spend time making cards or crafts for neighbours and family members who may be alone during the pandemic.
The biggest takeaway here is to remember that children are more aware than we give them credit for. If you notice behavioural challenges, consider whether it could be from the anxiety the pandemic is creating or something else.
Protect your children’s brains while also being honest, and you will get through this together with the least amount of negative impact. I wish everyone good health and a peaceful mind during this unusual time.
Beth Tyson is a psychotherapist, trauma-responsive coach, author, speaker and advocate for families coping with trauma and loss. Her children’s book, A Grandfamily for Sullivan, is a tender-hearted story about an orphaned koala.