Q: Can children really understand what is going on right now?

  • Before you start, consider finding out what your child already knows. The value of this is twofold - you can learn how much your child has or has not been told by others/picked up on and you can also find out if they have misinformation that needs to be corrected.
  • For older children, you can normalize the worry, fear, and potential anger or frustration they may be experiencing and you can acknowledge the worry you may be having as well.
  • The important thing is to try and stay calm and provide them with the reassurance that you are there and will be there to help keep them safe and get through things because that’s what parents do. 
  • Remember, children react, in part, to what they see from the adults around them so go ahead and model that self-care! 
  • Talk about the virus in relation to experiences and events they can relate to and draw from relationships between similar things like the flu. You can reference the flu if they ever had it - it might make them feel crummy for a while but they will be treated and managed so that they can feel better.
  • Give your child specific things they can do to feel in control. Teach kids that getting lots of sleep and washing their hands well and often can help them stay strong and well. Explain that regular hand washing also helps stop viruses from spreading to others.
  • Be a good role model and let your kids see you washing your hands often! They might need/benefit from a behavioral reward program for hand washing (like my child does) in order to get motivated to do it and do it often.
  • Now is a good time to help children foster an understanding of the experience others may be having and what they can do to be a part of the greater good - the idea of collective responsibility. Use this time as a teaching moment for compassion.

Q: My child seems to be a little more emotional. Is that normal?

Remember, it is not likely that we are the best versions of ourselves at this time. It is OK to acknowledge that we are not all right, that we are in a weird state of a new norm where it is pretty much impossible to be meeting all the marks or rocking it right now.
However, parents can be more reassuring to others around them, especially children, if they feel prepared/informed. If you are worried about your child seeming emotional and are worried about what is/isn't normal in regard to a reaction during a very non-normal time, consider the following:

Not all children and teens respond to stress in the same way. Some common changes to watch for include:

  • Excessive crying or irritation in younger children
  • Returning to behaviors they have outgrown (for example, toileting accidents or bedwetting)
  • Excessive worry or sadness
  • Increased attachment and fears related to being separated from caregivers
  • Unhealthy eating or sleeping habits
  • Poor academic performance or avoiding schoolwork
  • Difficulty with attention and concentration
  • Avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past
  • Unexplained headaches or body pain

For teens: Irritability and “acting out” behaviors and/or use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs. Teens can feel overwhelmed by their intense emotions and feel unable to talk about them. Their emotions may lead to increased arguing and even fighting with siblings, parents/caregivers or other adults. Teens can move from invincible to scared quickly/easily.

For children with special needs: Children with assistive devices or other physical limitations might have more intense distress, worry or anger than children without these special needs because they have less control over day-to-day well-being than other people.

The same is true for children who are already dealing with challenges in the area of physical, emotional, or cognitive functioning limitations. Children with special needs may need extra words of reassurance, more explanations about the event - more comfort and other positive physical contacts such as hugs from loved ones.

There is value in focusing on and providing structure, routine, schedules, and predictability (especially during times of chaos, change, and even ambiguity). Consider creating traditions even if you don't already have them/need them (e.g., Taco Tuesday) as they can serve as anchors during this storm.