Listening to kids and communicating calmly will help them feel safe during crisis
Schools are reopening for the final weeks of spring and there’s excitement about reuniting with friends and teachers. And for parents, there’s a sense of relief. But while we’re all easing into another phase of the pandemic, there’s still uncertainty about what the future holds. How do you talk to kids about change? The answer: It depends on their age, stage, and temperament.
“Children who are prone to anxiety may require different answers than those who are insatiably curious,” says Wendy Thomas Russell, award-winning journalist and co-author of ParentShift: Ten Universal Truths That Will Change the Way You Raise Your Kids. But the key in all conversations about the pandemic is to keep a tone that is neutral and calm. “Your tone matters more than your words,” she says. And that’s because kids, especially little ones, can mirror our anxiety.
While tweens and teens will turn to their friends for support or perhaps write in their journals for comfort, elementary school kids need a little hands-on support. In that case, look to be a role model. If they see you having fun, they’ll feel comfortable letting loose too. “It’s important to remember that all kids have certain emotional needs—including attention, connection and some power over their own lives. When you attend to those needs on a regular basis, they are likely to surprise you with their resilience,” adds Russell.
Here are more tips to consider as you approach conversations about the uncertainty ahead: Follow your child's lead. For any age, let your kids lead the conversation. “That way we don’t get into lectures, which generally lead children to zone out, and we don’t reveal more than they want to know, which may confuse or overwhelm them,” says Russell. Answer their questions matter-of-factly and if you don’t know the answer to something, that's ok. Take the opportunity to look it up together. A perfectly acceptable answer to the question “When can I hang out with my friends again?” is “I wish we knew when the restrictions would let up and you can hang out with them again—but unfortunately nobody knows that right now.”
Give them permission to be sad—and happy. It’s healthy and normal for everyone to have a mix of emotions right now. If your child is feeling sad, angry or stressed, reassure them that they are going to be fine and acknowledge that their feelings are real and valid. “Trust me, this kind of talk goes a long way,” says Russell. “You don’t have to fix their problem; in fact, there’s not much about this situation we can ‘fix’ right now. Just be there.“ That goes for granting them permission to feel happy too. “Let your kids know that times are weird and hard right now, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be fun too.” Find ways to stay connected as a family with movie nights, board games, Zooming with extended family and cooking together.
Stick to the science. It’s important at times like these to teach kids, especially those exposed to the news and social media, the difference between fact, fiction and opinion. “It’s the basis of critical thinking,” says Russell. Up-to-date and credible news sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website will keep them informed without confusing or scaring them with rumors. “This might be a great time to talk to kids about media literacy, such as ‘right now you are going to be hearing and reading a lot of stuff that is not true. If you ever have a question about something you hear, please feel free to run it by me,’” advises Russell.
Put everything in perspective. “Because there is so much uncertainty right now, it’s hard to alleviate anxiety. There is so much we don’t know,” says Russell. But we can reassure kids, and frankly ourselves, with what we do know. Russell suggests offering these words of comfort: “We have survived pandemics in the past, and we will survive this one. It’s a weird time, but we are safe and we are together. And that’s what matters most right now.”
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