In less than a fortnight, worldwide coronavirus has moved from a distant concern for many, to an upfront reality which threatens to drastically alter our day-to-day experiences. Parents who last week shared humorous memes about toilet paper are now navigating the possibility of extended social isolation. As well as dealing with our own uncertainties right now, we find ourselves needing to help our children to manage theirs. What can we do to help them in this unprecedented time?
1. Limit media exposure and stick with reliable sources
While it can be tempting to constantly check for news updates, checking several times a day can keep us in an escalated state of anxiety. We then run the risk of transmitting that type of exaggerated anxiety to our children.
Exposing yourself and your children to a constant stream of negative information takes a huge psychological toll. Avoid reading social media posts that warn of an apocalypse and don’t get drawn into doomsday discussions.
Sticking to the facts and relying on scientific sources for your information is the best way to maintain perspective and manage your feelings positively.
Visual imagery is quite powerful and we can’t un-see something once we have seen it. It may help your children if you limit their exposure to television news and, as always, monitor what they are seeing on social media.
Some examples of reliable sources are:
- The Australian Government Department of Health
- The Public Health Information Line on 1800 004 599
2. Allow children to express feelings and ask questions
- Don’t be afraid to discuss the coronavirus. Most children will have already heard about the virus or seen people wearing face masks, so parents shouldn’t avoid talking about it. Not talking about something can actually make kids worry more. Look at the conversation as an opportunity to convey the facts and set the emotional tone. “You take on the news and you’re the person who filters the news to your kid,” explains Janine Domingues, PhD, a child psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. Your goal is to help your children feel informed and get fact-based information that is likely more reassuring than whatever they’re hearing from their friends or on the news.
- Be developmentally appropriate. Don’t volunteer too much information, as this may be overwhelming. Instead, try to answer your child’s questions. Do your best to answer honestly and clearly. It’s okay if you can’t answer everything; being available to your child is what matters.
- Take your cues from your child. Invite your child to tell you anything they may have heard about the coronavirus, and how they feel. Give them ample opportunity to ask questions. You want to be prepared to answer (but not prompt) questions. Your goal is to be your child’s calm voice.
3. Keep routines where possible
Routines make children feel safe. Routines can provide predictability in a situation that feels out of control. Where possible keep routines such as bedtimes, meal-times, Friday night family movie time, the same as before coronavirus.
Remain calm and practical and continue with your usual regime, as much as you can. Observe good hygiene habits, like washing your hands. Also turn thing like hand washing into a game for younger children. A favourite song that goes for 20 seconds can turn a mundane task into a fun routine.
4. Model appropriate behaviour and responses
Deal with your own anxiety. “When you’re feeling most anxious or panicked, that isn’t the time to talk to your kids about what’s happening with the coronavirus,” warns Dr Domingues. If you notice that you are feeling anxious, take some time to calm down before trying to have a conversation or answer your child’s questions. When threats are uncertain, such as the current coronavirus situation, our anxious minds can easily overestimate the actual threat and underestimate our ability to cope with it. While some anxiety helps us cope, extreme anxiety can become coronavirus panic. When we are in a panic state, we suffer, we stress out our children, we are more likely to make mistakes and engage in irrational decisions and behaviour.
5. Practise good self care and have fun
Modelling good self care to your child will help them learn the importance of topping up your tank when there is more stress involved.
During this uncertain time, it’s important to keep up your self-care routine, or even add something to it, to reduce your somatic anxiety, the anxiety we store up in our bodies. Consider what helps you most, such as taking a walk in nature, relaxation, exercising, or talking to a friend.
Self care is also the every day things. Get plenty of nutrients by eating fruits and vegetables, exercise and get enough sleep. We know that sleep has a direct impact on the immune system – so you can take all the vitamin C you want, but if you’re sleep deprived, your immune system is compromised.
Make time to step back from screens, and make sure to connect with people about things other than just this issue. Focussing on something to be grateful for every day will also shift an anxious thinking style.
And laugh. Laughter really is the best medicine so find ways to be silly with your child, and make those deeper connections with them. It’s time to dust the cobwebs off those board games, find the craft box and build forts in the lounge room.