How to talk to your children during a pandemic

By Lisa Durette

The kids are home, and many of us are too. Some of us are tightening family budgets to fit unemployed life, while others are working electronically from home for the first time with our kids as new coworkers. (If anyone has found the secrets to making this a peaceful transition, please share them with us all.) One thing’s for sure: our children are at home. All. The. Time. And they have questions whether they are asking them or not.

And we are answering some of those questions whether we realize it or not. Children learn by watching us, and now, more than ever, is a critical time to remind ourselves that our actions set an example for them. Kids pick up on not only the words we say but how we say it. They notice when we talk in hushed voices, and they take note of how we’re adapting to social distancing and this strange new word. It’s hard to know what message they receive, so it is on us, as the adults, to be aware of the messages we’re sending and how we set the family tone.

How we communicate with kids is extremely important in times of stress. The COVID-19 crisis is now part of the fabric of their lives that they’ll talk about to their kids a generation from now. Included in that narrative will be their description of how their parents ‘told me about it.’ So what should we say to our kids about this unprecedented time, and how should we say it?

As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, friends and family have been asking me these questions repeatedly over the past weeks. I tell them there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. The recommendations I give are gleaned from lessons within past research on traumatic events and applied to today’s situation. To put it simply, the research says this situation is already hard enough, and it’s impossible for it not to affect our children at all. We shouldn’t aim to be perfect parents or pretend like they aren’t noticing and being affected by this trauma. The research does say we can influence how children experience and adapt to trauma, and we can reduce the chances it results in a long-term psychiatric issue on the back end.

Here’s how.

This is a time to create the space for your children to be able to come to you and ask questions at their pace. When your kids ask questions, calmness and honesty set a solid foundation for trust to grow in your relationship. Being the bearer of bad news is never fun, but pretending everything is normal by shielding them from the truth could break down the trust needed for them to continue to confide in you in the future. It is clear today’s world is not our normal, and if they don’t believe they’re getting honest answers from you, they’ll get them somewhere else, including their imagination. When you don’t know the answer, you can foster honest communication by saying the three most important words—I DON’T KNOW. Follow that up by seeking the answers with them together from vetted, reputable sources like the World Health Organization (who.int) and the Centers for Disease Control (cdc.gov).

You know your children best, so put that knowledge to use. A good place to start is to keep in mind your child’s level of maturity. Younger children in pre-school and early elementary school can only absorb simple explanations and are usually only worried about how things directly affect their day-to-day lives. Teenagers are more focused on their relationships and freedom. Think about where your child is along those lines, and share information with them in a way that builds trust and a sense of safety. Listen to their fears and explain your plan for overcoming those obstacles. If you don’t have a plan, connect with people you trust and reputable sources to help you develop one. Kids may repeat the same questions as a way of telling you they need your support and reassurance. Repeat that to yourself when they ask you when school starts for the 29th time.  

Our job as parents is to protect our kids and help them cope the best we can in this unusual environment. Creating predictable routines will help you and your family cope. You can build trust, confidence, and a sense of safety by proactively sharing your safety plan in a family meeting. Struggling with food and shelter? Contact the Nevada 2-1-1 program for resources at https://www.nevada211.org/. Concerned about your safety or sanity? The Disaster Distress Helpline is a 24/7, 365-day-a-year, national hotline dedicated to providing immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster. People with deafness or hearing loss can use their preferred relay service to call 1-800-985-5990. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) Disaster Distress Hotline: 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746. Crisis Support is also available at Nevada 1-800-273-8255, or text CARE to 839863.

Making sure you take care of yourself and that your family’s plan covers these bases will help you be the best you can be when being there for your children. Children are resilient and may simply want to play, read, talk to friends, and just do what kids do. If you notice signs your child needs additional help—difficulty sleeping, worries that won’t go away, fears of illness or death, excessive clinginess or sudden changes in mood or behaviors—reach out to the resources above, and seek professional help. Many insurance plans are covering therapy or psychiatry by phone or videoconferencing (called telehealth), and some licensed agencies are beginning to offer these services. Telehealth is the best way to get help while still Staying Home For Nevada.

Although we’re socially distancing, that is not the same as socially isolating. Stay in contact with friends and acquaintances and even make new ones via online chats, phone calls, texting, and other platforms. One thing we all have in common with our children is the need for open, honest communication to help us weather this storm. When making your schedule, carve out time to read, play, learn, and socialize, and you’ll be well on your way toward setting a great example for your children. If the article made you feel like you’re coming up short, give yourself some grace. I certainly don’t have all the answers, and no one is perfect. We just need to find the courage and inspiration to take the first step, and what better inspiration than our kids.

Stay healthy.

Dr Lisa Durette is board certified in both general psychiatry and child & adolescent psychiatry.  She is the program director of the child & adolescent psychiatry fellowship at UNLV School of Medicine, and serves as president of the Nevada Council of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.  Most importantly, Lisa is the mom to an 11 year old.