Dr. Joseph E. Colford, Psychologist & ChildWIN Board member
If social distancing has become the operative term in the light of this virus, and if social isolation is the “new normal” for families for the foreseeable future, how can they answer their children’s questions and help them cope with this new reality? Here are some suggestions.
- When children encounter unexpected and confusing happenings like those that the virus has forced communities to enact (school closings, etc.), they look to the reactions of their caregivers for guidance. That is, is this an upsetting thing? A major catastrophe? Or just an inconvenience that one day will pass? The manner in which caregivers answer these questions themselves will send a message to their children regarding the level of stress they should be experiencing also. So stay calm. Tips to help children stay calm: https://childwellnessinstituteofnj.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Tips-to-Stay-Calm.pdf
- Know your child. How have they dealt with unexpected or upsetting experiences in the past? Do they bounce back in due time with only minimal assistance, or are they devastated when such things happen? It’s a matter of resilience, and those children with lots of it weather these storms more readily that those with little of it. Once you know your child, you can be better prepared to offer whatever level of assistance they need.
- Remember that children like routine. With their expected routines now thrown for a loop (no more school, no more visits to their favorite fast food restaurant, etc.), it is important to create newer routines with them. The more information they have about what comes next in this new routine, this new schedule of events, the more reassuring it will be for them.
- Give them information about what’s happening with the virus and answer their questions in developmentally appropriate ways. Make sure that you distinguish for them the difference between the seriousness of this virus and other more common forms of sickness that they might have experienced themselves, like a typical head cold, sore throat, etc. Remind them of the times when they or other family members were sick but got better over time.
- Be honest when answering questions. Yes, the virus is serious. No, we can’t promise that we will never get it, but there are things we can do so that we don’t get it.
- Emphasize the positive things that the entire family can do to keep everyone healthy: hand washing, covering mouths when coughing/sneezing, and staying indoors to avoid others who might be ill. Simple things such as these provide children with some level of control, and control also is reassuring to them.
- Keep an eye on what your children are watching on television and on social media. Since coverage of the virus is the lead story at every turn, it is important to limit your children’s exposure to it as much as possible. And caregivers should keep their own discussions with friends about their virus-related concerns out of the earshot of their children.
These suggestions will help to mitigate against the anxiety that this “new normal” might create in your children. Remember that not all children, and not all caregivers, will react to the same event the same way all the time. Remaining calm will help your children cope.
Joseph E. Colford, Ph.D., NJ Licensed Psychologist
Professor Emeritus, Georgian Court University