Dr. Joshua Eudowe is a Westport psychologist Westport specializing in child, adolescent and adult trauma and high-risk patients. He is a threat assessment and crisis consultant to schools and businesses. Dr. Eudowe also serves as the Clinical Director of the Connecticut Critical Incident Management Team. He shares with “06880” some thoughts on talking with children about the current coronavirus crisis. This is Part 1.
Many parents struggle with how to their children about what’s happening today. We naturally work to shield them from issues we believe will unnecessarily intensify their anxiety or cause a misperceived level of vulnerability. However, withholding information can often deepen the very concerns you’re trying to prevent.
I am writing not only as a clinical expert in the field of psychological trauma and crisis, but as a father and local resident unequivocally dedicated to the welfare of children.
Children listen to and witness everything – more than we realize. They watch our eyes, body language, moods, and certainly eavesdrop on conversations we have with friends and family, especially during times like this.
Why? For information. The more “in the know” we are, the more in control we feel. This translates into less anxiety stemming from the “unknown.”
Like adults, children need information and reassurance to manage their anxiety. In their absence, imaginations can take over, and the scariest thoughts can become immobilizing.
Depending on age, children don’t yet possess the intellectual development to differentiate between rational and irrational fear. So when something frightening occurs, it’s more difficult for children to engage in healthy self-talk in order to find an accurate perspective in order to lower their level of anxiety.
Adults can say to ourselves, “The noises I hear in the house are likely the heat or water running through pipes.” But a child may say, “Our house is not safe.” The inability to transition irrational fear into rational thought can quickly develop into generalized anxiety that will worsen over time.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a textbook traumatic experience that can cause years of anxiety, and skew perspectives that change the way children analyze and perceive future situations. Left untreated, experiences that result in high levels of anxiety can evolve into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Despite the many unknowns, adults generally understand that following safety protocols can reduce their chance for illness. Children may begin with the highly irrational fear that death is imminent. Not long after, these thoughts can turn into panic and translate into behavioral problems.
How do we speak to our children? What do we say?
Age plays a major factor in both the language we use in the facts we share. For example, younger children should know the safety measures being taken, and why. You can say, “We’re not going out today because we don’t want to catch the cold that’s going around.”
If the questions continue, it’s okay to say, “Right now, people are getting sick and we’ve been told to stay home, but we’re safe and our home is safe.”
With older children who are exposed to infinite sources on social media, questions can be more direct and difficult to answer. As parents, our knee-jerk reaction may be to say “everything is fine” or “stop believing what your read.”
However, giving children the information needed to prevent irrational thoughts from emerging and falling victim to the “unknown” is why it’s imperative to share facts. For example, “An illness is spreading. Westport is making sure people stay home so it doesn’t become worse. We’re safe, but there are a lot of things we don’t know yet.”
However, don’t make statements similar to “everyone will be fine” or “don’t worry.” It’s simply not true. When a child hears that someone has died, it will immediately intensify their fear. They won’t know who or what to believe. Their imagination will go into overdrive, resulting in “worst-case scenario” thinking.
Be honest. Never underestimate their ability to fact check. Friends are talking, and social media is a click away. If they don’t hear the truth from you, they’ll hear misinformation from their friends.
Remain an honest and trustworthy source of information at all times. Remind them that what they hear and read online may be incorrect. Tell them to ask you directly if they have questions before they believe what they’ve heard elsewhere.
While we can’t prevent all anxiety from developing, even as adults, we can do our best to minimize the irrational fear by sharing the facts.
How much information should I share? What is too much?
While this certainly is an age-dependent question, you want to share enough information to provides facts and prevent irrational fears from evolving.
You can recognize irrational thinking by listening to responses, such as “I know I’m going to die” or, “I bet we’re already sick.”
These types of comments are a sign that irrational fears and thoughts are developing, and it’s time to challenge the irrationality.
You could offer facts such as how many people are sick vs. how many people are in the area/world. You could reassure them that staying at home and not being around others will significantly reduce their risk.
Parents want to help shift children’s thinking towards a more accurate perspective. Disclose facts such as how many doctors are working hard to stop this. Share insight into the steps being taken to ensure safety. Talk about the police patrolling the streets, or explain the size of the agencies fighting this.
Your goal is to ground them in a safe reality and not allow the emergence of irrational thinking. Of course, don’t overshare. Facts are facts, but assumptions are unknown and lead to heightened anxiety.
Do I maintain the same rules house rules and expectations as before?
This is difficult to answer, as parents differ greatly on house rules. However, keep in mind that children have limited ways to “check out.”
Adults have options for self-care: exercise, cooking, taking a drive, starting a project, speaking with a friend, etc. Children are limited in their ability to “check out.”
While a controversial topic, screen time can serve as a distraction from the real world and be beneficial during times like these, as opposed to saying, “Find something else to do.”
While you’re busy, your child may be sitting in their room replaying their concerns over and over while irrational thoughts take over. Children struggle to let go of big fears.
Screen time can be a useful tool to break the cycle of overt irrationality. It’s an alternative perspective to consider.
As for other chores and expectations: Remain consistent and allow life at home to proceed as normal. The more structure you provide and the more you normalize their environment, the more in control children feel, reducing irrational fears and anxiety from developing.