Lots of people are pretty fearful right now about the Coronavirus (COVID-19). We are constantly being inundated with information about the virus; whether that be on the news or social media. It’s dominating conversations, or we see the empty shelves at our local supermarket and worry. Many parents are looking for reassurance and strategies to support their children at this time. Although I’m writing in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, these strategies can be applied to any “big” event happening in your community that might impact on you and your child; like natural disasters and other health issues etc.

Don’t avoid discussing it. 

Although you might not be having direct conversations with your child about the virus, they will still hear whispers, pick up on your worries, feel or see increased tensions within the community etc. However; it’s important to understand that our children use their imagination to fill in the missing pieces. Also, even if you are avoiding talking about it to protect your child, not talking about an issue can make it feel like it’s something for them to worry about!

Consider their developmental level

Based on their developmental level, take their cues before you share. When you do share, be mindful of their developmental level and how much is appropriate to share. Try not to overshare, just enough information so they understand what is going on, but not so much that they become overwhelmed. 

Find out what they already know? 

It’s important to see what assumptions or guesses they might have made so you can correct any misunderstandings. You might also get some cues about how they are feeling (nervous, sad, scared etc), which will help you support them and reassure them

Invite them to ask questions 

This way you get quickly to the crux of what might be bothering them, or what they are focussing on. Just be mindful that if you let them ask questions, be prepared to give them some answers! 

Take their lead 

If your child doesn’t have questions, don’t force it. Let them know that if they do have any questions that they can come to you. And just periodically check in with them or check their behaviour and emotions for any changes…in case they are internalising their worries and not sharing them with you.

They asked a question…how do I answer it? 

Try and give a brief yet honest answer. Just don’t offer too much detail if they haven’t asked about it. If you aren’t sure then it’s ok to tell them that you don’t know, but it’s a great opportunity to get your detective hats on and do a bit of research together and find out. Just ensure that you use reliable sources like government or international health websites. 

Kids are egocentric

Essentially this means our kids are focussed on themselves (by the way this is normal in children). So they might need some reassurance because they are worried about the potential impact on themselves and potentially their immediate family. Try not to get bogged down in statistics like transmission rates, or total infections, instead reassure them that children tend to experience less serious symptoms, and that actually the virus isn’t as common as other things like the flu.

What can they control? 

Big events like this can make kids feel pretty out of control because they have no direct impact on the situation or outcome. It’s essential to find things that your child can control, so they feel less afraid. This might be virus specific like teaching and encouraging proper handwashing. It could also be non-specific to the virus and just a general sense of control. Get them to choose a recipe for dinner, allow them to pick a movie for the family to watch together, give them a say in what clothes they wear for the day. Opportunities for choice and control will be age and developmentally specific, so if your child is old enough you could have this conversation and actually ask them what they control and get them to focus on this.

Manage your own worries

Our kids are like little antennas. They are finely attuned to what we are doing and how we are feeling. I’m not saying don’t be worried, because of course the feeling is normal, but certainly try to avoid panicking or avoid your child’s exposure to panicked/stressful environments (where possible). Look after yourself, self-care, do your own research, makes decisions that help you feel in control (it’s not just our kids who need to feel in control of things), talk to a trusted friend or health care provider if you find you are really affected by stress or worries.

Keep to a routine (where possible)

This will help you and your child feel calmer and will also help you feel like you are still in charge of certain things. When we have a routine, we feel safe because we know what to expect. So if your daily or usual activities need to change, turn your attention to creating a new routine that mimics the old routine as much as possible. If Monday used to be library day, find some digital books (some libraries do digital loans) or sit somewhere different in your house and read some books together. Did Tuesdays used to be mums and bubs yoga? Get on YouTube and watch a class online. Or, did your child belong to a sporting group? Watch some of their old matches together, or look at videos, do some drills in your backyard, watch YouTube for tutorials on technique etc.

Digital detox! 

Of course you want to keep apprised of the latest updates, but it might be feeding into anxiety. Try to avoid giving your child access to social media or news sites without you being present, or if they are older do a bit of a check in after time spent online to debrief about what they saw/heard and if they have any questions. A digital detox could also be a great opportunity to connect as a family and spend some quality time together!

It’s normal. 

Reassure your child that any feelings they are having a normal and they are ok. It’s also very natural to want to “fix” things when our kids are distressed, but this isn’t something we adult can individually “fix”. so just spend some time acknowledging how you and your child are feeling. It’s surprising just how impactful it can be for our children (and us) to have someone really hear our emotions, validate them and let them know you are there to support them “I can hear just how worried you are. Its normal, and everybody gets scared sometimes. I’m here if you want to talk or ask me something”

While we can’t take this fear away from our kids, we can most definitely reduce their overwhelm and promote their wellbeing. So give these tips a try, every strategy is only a prompt of course, so please ensure that you think about the needs, abilities and preferences of your children and adjust as necessary.

By Rachel Tomlinson. Rachel is a registered psychologist who has worked with adults, families, and children (birth through eighteen years old) in a variety of settings. She is also a mum with a 3 year old daughter! Follow her
blog and podcast, Toward Wellbeing at www.towardwellbeing.com 

For more information and updates about COVID-19 visit https://www.vic.gov.au/victorias-response-coronavirus