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Q&A: Parenting Concerns During COVID-19, Part 3
By Riikka Melartin, Psy.D.
How do I explain COVID-19 at a developmentally appropriate level? I have fears that I will permanently scar the children in some way.
It can be hard to know how to explain complex or negative issues to children. We want to shield them, not scare them, yet we know that keeping information from them can cause more anxiety as their imaginations run wild, or as they hear rumors and misinformation from peers or other sources. Generally, it is better to hear “bad news” from a trusted adult, usually a parent.
Regarding COVID-19, very young children (preschool age) can just be told that there is a sickness or illness that people can get, and that wearing masks, not being physically close, and washing hands can help people to not get sick. If they have heard about people dying from COVID-19, assure them that this is very rare and that most people who get sick recover. If a relative or friend in fact succumbs to COVID-19, it is best to be upfront about it rather than pretend the death was due to something else, because finding out later or hearing bits of contradictory information can lead to loss of trust and increased anxiety. However, you can reassure them about the rarity of this event, and, if there were predisposing conditions, explain that the person already was sick with something else, was very old, etc.
With older children, the message should be the same, but you can add some scientific information regarding what a virus is (e.g.colds are viruses) and how COVID-19 is spread mostly through breathing in close quarters. Understanding the reasons for masking and distancing will make your child more likely comply with the safety precautions.
With middle schoolers and teenagers, you can talk about what sources of information are valid and what are not. You can acknowledge that your children are likely to hear a lot of different things about pandemic, in part because of speculation, and in part because scientists are continuously learning more about the virus.
Talking about the virus and the pandemic will be an ongoing conversation, as it is an ongoing public health crisis. Younger children will likely ask the same questions over and over again, as hearing the same answer can feel reassuring to them. Older children may ask about new information, or bring up frustrations, thoughts or fears that hadn’t occurred to them before. It is alright to say, “I don’t know the answer, I will try to find out,” or even, “That’s a really good question, and no one knows the answer yet.”
Remember that however well you communicate with your child about the pandemic, they will likely be emotionally affected by it. Family life has changed, school and social life have changed, and children may overhear confusing and frightening conversation and media commentary about the virus. While many children may take this mostly in stride, some will experience an increase in health anxiety, general anxiety or separation anxiety. Some others may feel lonely and depressed because of the restrictions on their social interactions. If you notice behavioral changes in your child’s sleep, eating or activities, or your child expresses consistent or increased fears and worries, it can be helpful to consult with a child psychologist to offer more support. And also remember to get support yourself from friends and professionals, given that dealing with the pandemic long term can lead to chronic stress, and at times can tip over into depression.
Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist. Look for her monthly blog post about child & adolescent therapy on www.commpsych.com.
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