Editor’s Note: Nancy Kislin, LCSW, is a marriage and family therapist, child and adolescent psychotherapist and author of “LOCKDOWN: Talking To Your Kids About School Violence.” She maintains a private psychotherapy practice in Chatham, New Jersey.
If you’re a parent (or a grandparent, aunt or uncle, or godparent) chances are that what scares you most about the coronavirus is the impact the epidemic could have on the kids you love. With news of the virus’ widespread effects constantly unfolding, it’s easy to conjure up endless scenarios, each ending with harmful, even tragic, consequences for the kids in your life.
As a mother, I get it. We all feel the need to do something, even when we’re fully aware that our actions, like snapping up face masks on eBay, might be all but useless. What parents often don’t realize is that the best steps we can take in protecting our kids—supporting them emotionally and psychologically — are those within closest reach.
As in any psychologically fraught situation, the most important thing any of us can do for our children is resist the urge to panic. That’s hard, especially when we’re facing an epidemic which has already shut down the world’s second largest economy. But no matter how old or young your kids may be, your panic will become their panic. And that’s not a place you want your kids — or, for that matter, yourself — to be.
Before you talk to your kids about the virus (and, yes, it’s essential that you do) check in with yourself. Through decades as a therapist on the front lines and, more recently, treating the severe stress and trauma caused by nationwide lockdown drills, I’ve witnessed how parents who take a moment to play that calming, reassuring role for themselves first are able to bring their whole self to interactions with their kids.
Ask yourself how you’re feeling, whether it’s afraid or anxious, frustrated or even angry. Trace those emotions to specific causes. Maybe you’re worried about economic effects of the virus trickling down to your job; maybe you’re (understandably) concerned for your own physical wellbeing. These are legitimate, and often healthy, responses.
But when it comes to having a conversation with your kids, you need to be fully present and that means you can’t be trying to battle emotions on your mental sidelines. Put the phone down (or, better yet, leave it in a different room) and turn off the news. Start the conversation by asking open questions concerning what your kids have heard about the virus, what they believe to be true and what they don’t understand. Listen to what they say, without trying to debate or contest it, acknowledge how they feel, and be honest about the limits of your own knowledge.
Once your kids have expressed themselves, you can help reframe the conversation by reminding them of the procedures that have been put in place to protect them, like limits on travel and public gatherings and public directives to sneeze into your elbow. You can put a positive focus on the discussion by thinking about proactive steps your kids can take, like strengthening their immune systems with eating healthy food, lots of sleep, and stress-minimizing mindfulness techniques.
Finally, reassure your kids that there are lots of highly trained experts working round the clock to contain the virus and that, eventually, it will be brought under control. Simply put: let them know they’re safe.
Will this approach quell every fear or feeling of anxiety? Unfortunately, it won’t. Negative emotions are part of our lives, whether the cause is a virus, the specter of violence, or everyday worries. What’s important is knowing there is a way to talk to your kids about all these things which will help make them more resilient and less prone to the ravages of stress and trauma.
Coronavirus might be here a while longer, but we can learn from our own responses, much in the way epidemiologists are learning from the way our bodies respond to the virus itself. Doing this in a calm, collected way, we strengthen the psychological and emotional “immune system” that plays a central role in all our lives.