Updated: Sep 24, 2022
Reassuring Young Children During the COVID-19 Outbreak
By Dr. Joanne Foster www.joannefoster.ca
Over the past several weeks, there has been a great deal of concern about the coronavirus. These are unprecedented times, and there is no way of knowing what lies ahead. Very young children may be aware that something is going on. They may recognize that there’s a health-related issue of some sort, and it is quite worrisome to their parents. Daily routines and schedules have changed, circumstances and social interactions have transitioned along with the new reality, and families have had to develop different and sometimes unfamiliar ways of functioning.
Little ones may not be “in the know” about the particulars of COVID-19 or be able to grasp the seriousness or widespread prevalence of the disease, but nevertheless young children may be feeling upset, confused, and vulnerable. These feelings may be exacerbated by adults’ hushed (or sometimes raised) voices, the intensified but mandatory changes in precautionary hygiene protocols, the physical distancing measures and resultant program and event closures, and the seemingly endless chatter about breaking news and the various occurrences that are taking place both near and far. Children may be apprehensive about what’s happening—dependent upon how much information has been conveyed to them, the nature of that information (and from whence it comes), and to what extent circumstances are perceived by them as being a personal or family threat. All of this can be very unsettling.
“Children count on grown-ups for help getting through the ups and downs of daily life. Don’t take this responsibility for granted. Be there. The adults in children’s lives are conduits for their learning. Safeguard their comings and goings. Provide direction and keep communication channels open.” ~ From ABCs of Raising Smarter Kids, p. 53.
Reassurance comes in many different forms. It can be ongoing or sporadic. In its simplest form, it may be a word, a nod, a pat on the back, a smile, or a thumbs-up. In its more vigorous form, it may involve lengthy discussions, long but carefully considered (health-sanctioned) hugs, or repeated positive messages. Reassurance is about providing encouragement, comfort, and support. It is especially important when children are feeling troubled or unsure.
Here are some suggestions for parents whose children may be experiencing difficulty during the COVID-19 epidemic, and who may require reassurance that the world is going to be okay and that they will be able to manage from day to day. What follows first are six foundational recommendations. These points are culled from a recent article I wrote for Education News, entitled Parenting During Times of Challenge and Vulnerability.
SIX FOUNDATIONAL RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PARENTS
1. Provide a safe, comforting and dependable environment.
2. Be attentive to children’s questions and concerns.
3. First things first…Take stock of your own feelings; get your anxieties and emotional responses in check.
4. Pay heed to children’s signs of undue stress. (For example, sleeplessness, lack of appetite, or severe mood swings.)
5. Encourage children to express ideas and feelings creatively.
6. Talk about resilience and courage.
And, here are ten additional ways parents can offer reassurance. (Followed by links to several helpful resources.)
10 WAYS TO REASSURE YOUNG CHILDREN
1. Family matters! The nucleus and warmth of a caring family dynamic are comforting. The presence of family members—along with their willingness to listen kindly and attentively—can be extremely reassuring. Family can provide guidance, and a strong home base represents a refuge and a cocoon of contentment when a child feels apprehensive.
2. Show, by concrete example, some workable ways forward. Parents should get their emotions under control. Once calm, they can better demonstrate the kinds of strategies they use to cope with difficulties. This may involve relaxation techniques, exercise, connecting with others from a distance, or asking questions to help alleviate uncertainties. When children attempt to follow suit, affirm and reinforce their efforts.
3. Share stories about characters who overcome adversity. Read a book together. Talk about how the characters feel, and ultimately resolve whatever problems they encounter. How can a child tap into similar strategies? Stories can be a source of inspiration, and springboard meaningful discussion. (See the article about cultivating a love of reading in the January 2020 issue of First Time Parent Magazine.) Reading is also a wonderful way to pass the time when days are long and people feel confined or want to focus on something apart from the here-and-now. Pictures and relatable quotes or song lyrics can also provide solace and strength.
4. Inform—honestly but within reason. Vagueness (which is akin to being left in the dark about things) can be debilitating. It can be helpful for children to have some information—enough to dispel the unknown and to enable them to feel they have a sense of what’s going on. Ensure that the information they acquire is not too sophisticated or cannot be easily misconstrued. It should be age-appropriate. Use words that are familiar. Do not dismiss or trivialize children’s concerns. Support their desire to learn, but don’t be too long-winded or detailed.
5. Help kids harness positivity. Research shows that a positive attitude can be impactful, having a beneficial effect on children’s courage, relationships, and other lived experiences. Negativity, on the other hand, can be disheartening. A hopeful outlook can help to lighten a load. One of my all-time favorite sayings is a Christopher Robin quote from Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne: “You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” That’s a positive attitude!
6. Play is an important outlet. When life gets really serious, or matters become too weighty, then perhaps it’s even more crucial to carve out time to relax and unwind. Children need opportunities to release their energy, frustration, worry, or any other emotions—and play can be cathartic. Although children may sense hardship or challenges, they need not feel guilty about enjoying themselves or playing; nor should they have to forfeit the chance to have fun. Crafts, games, music, physical activity, puzzles—there are loads of resources online. Stay-at-home directives and an abundance of caution are the new norm, but there are still many ways for children to play, and to connect safely via technology.
7. Beware of exposure to negative messages. Children glean information from television, radio, adults’ discussions, and other sources. Monitor what they are seeing and hearing; be vigilant and attentive when it comes to potentially distressing images or messages relating to suffering. There are troubles in the world, but it is not constructive for young children to focus or dwell on these. Adults cannot shelter children from all adversity, but adults can honor and nurture children’s sensitivity by knowing how much they can manage, and by overseeing social media and other forms of input accordingly. And, if a child is exceedingly anxious, or overwrought and inconsolable, consider seeking professional guidance.
8. Discuss with children what they can do when times are tough. It might be a way to mitigate risks (lots of thorough hand-washing) or doing something helpful (such as sending a cheery picture to someone). Reassure young ones that there are constructive things that even they can do (“A person’s a person, no matter how small.” ~ Dr. Seuss), and also how they can share ideas with others when facing a challenge or tough situation. Too much self-focus can be detrimental, so help children look outward at how things can and are being dealt with. Emphasize the joy, altruism, miraculous discoveries, huge advances, and goodness that exist in the world. Citing A.A. Milne again, Eeyore says, “A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference.”
9. Be respectful of children’s feelings and the variability of their levels of understanding—and respond in kind. Cognitive development is complicated, and children comprehend things at different times and rates. Children may be motivated to learn more about what troubles them, although some may not feel comfortable talking about that or asking questions. Be available to help them express themselves, and to chat when they are ready or when they exhibit the desire for curiosity-driven learning. Consider the time, place, and mood.
10. Don’t align with or feed panic. Panic clouds perspective, compromises mitigation and containment efforts, and does not serve much purpose other than to cause more panic. Remain calm. Help kids stay connected with other people who are also composed (not those who seem to be caught up in fear or who will potentially frighten or overwhelm them). Maintaining an even keel will encourage children to stay calm, too, thereby bolstering their confidence and inner strength even if circumstances become more challenging.
LAST WORDS “Kids learn from what we do, not only from what we say. A gentle, thoughtful, respectful, and compassionate approach can help to soothe anger, worries, doubt, disappointment, and other feelings that kids inevitably experience.” ~ From ABCs of Raising Smarter Kids, p. 55.
It can be difficult to weather a storm. Some are squalls, and others are full-blown gales—and occasionally, people encounter onslaughts like COVID-19 that are much more impactful or devastating than others. Young children are still learning how to navigate the good days, so they may need extra reassurance as they make their way during times that are exceedingly blustery, not only for them but for family and friends as well. Be thoughtfully attuned to children’s needs and concerns, show patience, communicate, and reassure them that this storm, too, shall pass.
READING AND RESOURCES
The articles listed below focus on helping children get through COVID-19-related challenges. Each author noted is knowledgeable, and offers strategies for parents. Some pieces pertain directly to young children, whereas others apply to older children—but they all convey practical suggestions to fortify families during these turbulent times.
Easing the Emotional Toll of the Coronavirus Pandemic by Dr. Mona Delhooke.
How to Help Kids Talk about Feelings by Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore.
How to Reduce Stress During School Closures by Katie Hurley.
Parenting with Resilience in Unsettling Times by Dr. Dan Peters.
How to Talk to Your Kids about the Coronavirus by Sara Dimerman.
This Is the New Normal by Dr. Dona Matthews
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joanne Foster’s most recent book is ABCs of Raising Smarter Kids: Hundreds of Ways to Inspire Your Child. Readers can find further information about optimal child development by checking out Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids (by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster). Dr. Foster also wrote Bust Your BUTS: Tips for Teens Who Procrastinate (recipient of the Independent Book Publishers’ Association’s 2018 Silver Benjamin Franklin Award), and its predecessor Not Now, Maybe Later: Helping Children Overcome Procrastination. To learn more about these books, and for access to a wide range of articles and links, please go to www.joannefoster.ca.