Being sheltered-in-place is a unique experience for our children. Schools are out, they are restricted from being with friends and loved ones, they hear things on television or through social media or overhear their parents talking about the impact of the virus. They may have picked up on a bit of anxiety in mom or dad. It is likely your kids have sensed some level of concern, so creating a safe space for your kids to talk and process their feelings is vital to their emotional health. So how do you do that wisely and effectively? Here are a few tips to help you navigate those conversations.
- Calm Yourself
Before you check in with your child, you want to check in with yourself. How are you feeling? If you feel centered and calm, you’re more likely to communicate in a reassuring way. If you’re anxious or frightened, they will likely absorb those feelings.
Since kids rely on their parents to know what’s happening, if you’re openly stressing out, kids feel insecure and may imagine even more frightening scenarios.
- Invite them into conversation
If you initiate the conversation, your kids will know it’s okay to talk about their concerns, so don’t be afraid to bring up this difficult topic. You want to be the trusted source of your child’s information gathering. Don’t make it formal but rather a part of your normal daily routine while you’re sitting on the sofa or at the dinner table. One young mom told me that every morning after breakfast she has a devotion and talk time where she invites the kids to ask any questions they have or share any feelings (you might google “kids feeling chart” and download a picture chart to help them identify what they may be feeling.)
- Ask them what they know
Depending on their age, they will know more or less than their siblings. Start by asking them what they’ve heard or what they understand about this time where they need to be at home. Understanding your child’s perceptions or misperceptions will help you know what needs to be clarified, corrected or reassured.
- Give information that is age appropriate
Kids under the age of six can’t process the concept of “coronavirus” or the idea of a pandemic or global threat so avoid that language. Young ears can pick up a lot so be cautious about talking with your spouse or older kids when they are within earshot. Also protect them from troubling images on television or social medial. Instead, have a conversation about germs, that people get sick with the flu and what we can do to stay healthy, like hand washing and not touching our faces.
With kids older than 6, keep your messaging simple. Letting them know that there is an illness that is going around and it is especially important right now to wash our hands and avoid being around people who are sick, is enough.
From the age of 10 and up, be direct and honest. Stay with the facts that we know and acknowledge what we don’t know. It’s likely they’ve heard some rumors or unsubstantiated information, so try to dispel these. They pick up a lot on social media, so be sure to ask them what they’re hearing. It is likely you have been through a difficult time in your family life previously, so remind them of this and provide reassurance you will get through this together.
- Help relieve stress
If your child is showing signs of stress, you will want to provide some outlets for stress relief. Signs of stress include:
- Decreased appetite, or other changes in eating habits
- New or recurrent bedwetting
- Sleep disturbances
- Upset stomach or vague stomach pain
- Other physical symptoms with no physical illness
- Apathy, lack of energy
- Being excessively emotional
If you detect your child experiencing any of these, start by affirming their feelings. What a child perceives to be fact is fact to him, so don’t try to talk them out of their feelings. Instead, listen attentively and then invite them to focus on their body, where inside they feel the stress the most. Ask them if they would like to learn a way to relax that tense feeling inside. If so, ask them to close their eyes and imagine that tense or worried feeling in their body has a shape (round, pointed, etc.). Once they’ve identified a shape, have them notice its color (and texture (rough, smooth, bumpy, etc.) Then ask them to focus on the image and notice a warm ray of light coming in and swirling around the shape, pulsing against it. Continue describing this imagery until the child senses the shape has dissolved and they feel more relaxed and relieved (This is a technique that has been used successfully in trauma therapy, here adapted for kids.)
You can also encourage them to draw their feelings or do yoga (see blog post on “How to Maximize Your Family Time While You Shelter-in-Place” for resources.) You can also pray with them, thanking God for his presence and help and his promised peace.
- Keep the door open.
Be sure they know the door is always open to talk about any concerns they may have. Some children who have more difficulty with change may see the new required behaviors of hand washing, staying away from others, not being able to touch their face as cause for anxiety. Reassure them by talking about safety measures like seat belts and bicycle helmets that didn’t used to be in place, but now are, due to our increased knowledge.
As you help your children develop coping skills in this difficult time through listening, honesty and support, you will equip them for a lifetime of being able to manage their own emotional health.