Like many in education, I’ve been deluged by queries from parents wondering how to help their kids deal with these scary, surreal days. Many questions are about helping kids stay on track academically or finding good online resources. But more of them are asking for advice on how to talk to kids about all of this.
After all, while talking to children about death, disease, and tragedy is always brutal, parents and teachers inevitably have some experience doing it. But no one has experience with a pandemic, much less with a societal shutdown that’s shuttered schools and businesses, emptied stores and streets, and turned “social distancing” into a familiar phrase.
Kids are dealing with all of this, too. They’re missing birthday parties, little league, dance recitals, and the NBA. The routines that organize the day-to-day world have been swept away in a matter of days, and without warning. These are the things that lend order and predictability to a kid’s life. Having them shut down doesn’t just mean boredom and mischief, it’s eerie, upsetting, and frightening.
Now, I’m no expert in child counseling. All I have is the rough-and-ready experience of a parent, educator, and student of teaching and learning. That said, let me offer three thoughts that others seem to have found helpful.
Keep in mind that children lack context and experience. They’ve generally seen less than the adults around them. This means they have fewer points of comparison and that things loom larger for them. When they overhear scary newscasts or see frightening videos, they won’t have reference points like the Great Recession or 9/11. They need you to provide context and help this make sense. Relate some of what’s going on to other, smaller things that are familiar—whether that’s snow days, natural disasters, power outages, family illnesses, or other disruptions. The idea is to help all of this feel less strange. (Now, it goes without saying that these things vary by age and that some children have already endured a remarkable amount in their lives.)
Be ready to answer uncomfortable questions. Children are curious. Because more is new to them, they’re constantly trying to make sense of things. We’ve all seen how this can lead them to ask questions that can come across as insensitive or ill-advised. If they’re asking questions, though, it means they’re wondering about what’s going on. So, when you talk to them, be honest but reassuring. Answering questions doesn’t imply that you should tell them everything you know. In any conversation, we’re always deciding what to share and in how much detail. There’s never value in sharing rumors, graphic details, or worse-case scenarios. Tell them what’s going on, why we’re closing schools and not seeing our friends, and how they can help. At the same time, it’s probably worth reminding them—if and when they’re asking about the risks—that COVID-19 doesn’t pose much of a threat to children.
Empathize with—and don’t dismiss—their disappointments. Little kids, in particular, can seem oblivious and selfish if we forget to make allowances. A lost birthday party, little league season, or dance recital can seem like small beans to parent focused on bigger, more pressing concerns like making rent. But, for kids, the loss can seem scary and unfair, partly because it’s the concrete way they’re processing all the weirdness around them. Acknowledge their disappointment, but also let them know tha they should take pride in these sacrifices—that this is them doing their part to make a difference, alongside everyone else. Remind them that lots of people are chipping in, in all sorts of ways, and that many birthdays and little league seasons are getting upended One reason that misery loves company is that company can make misery seem less lonely, less unfair, and a little less capricious. All of this is obvious and pretty instinctive. But, I suppose, at times like this, it can be reassuring to know that our instincts are sensible ones. And sometimes it’s just nice to know that we’re all struggling with the same things. In the end, the best thing we can do for our kids is remind them that they’re safe; we’re all in this together; and, if everyone just does their part, that we’ll get through this, together.
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