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Tips for supporting young children during the coronavirus

Young children may not know how to talk about what’s going on and how it makes them feel.

By Dr. Ashok Shimoji-Krishnan, Kaiser Permanente

Dear … Grownup,

I’ve really liked that you have been home more. I’ve had a lot of fun playing at home with you. When can I see my friends? It’s weird that school is out for the rest of the year. Does that mean I have to start school earlier next year? Why do we have all this toilet paper?

I’m not sure what’s really going on, but you seem worried. I heard you say people were getting sick. I heard you say people were dying. Are you going to get sick? Am I? How come you’re at home and not at work? Why can’t we go outside now? It’s sunny out and I want to play with my friends. 

Sometimes I get a little scared because everyone seems worried. Sometimes I am sad or angry because I can’t go outside and see my friends at school or at the playground. Sometimes I don’t know what I feel, but it feels like a lot …

 

We as parents are constantly fielding questions and trying to support our kids as they grow and develop. That’s even more important now,  in an unprecedented time with the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is uncharted territory and we’re trying our best to just keep ourselves calm. Many of us have been home for extended periods of time, not knowing when we can (or even if we can) go back to work. We worry about getting sick, family members getting sick, our jobs, the bills, rent or mortgage, being able to get groceries, and a million other things every day.

Our kids see our worry and they recognize that something is amiss, even if we try not to verbalize it to them. Our children are a lot more astute than we realize and while they may seem happy-go-lucky at times, underneath, there’s a lot of worry, fear, and confusion.

Young children may not know how to talk about what’s going on, whether it be due to a lack of understanding or a lack of language skills needed to explain. Most young kids won’t even talk about it, but rather show us their distress through behavior and play. A calm kid may suddenly become more attached to a parent, there may be behavior regression (wetting the bed where previously they’d been dry, re-emergence of a fear of the dark, etc.)

There will likely be more temper tantrums and emotional outbursts, the nature of which they may not be able to articulate. All of these are potential signs that our children are struggling and need our help.

How do we help support our little ones when we, ourselves, are just holding it together? 

  1. Try to set up regular routines at home to help develop a sense of normalcy for your child’s day. This may include regular wake up times, a schedule of activities including time set aside to go outside (weather permitting). 

  2. Take time for unstructured play with your child. Pay attention to themes in their play which may include pretending someone is sick, someone is dying, or they are being cooped up inside. Children often mimic or simulate real life events in play to try to build an understanding. In the play, you may want to describe what you see them doing to see if this opens them up to ask questions.

  3. Answer questions they may have but use age-appropriate language. Children are going to ask some really challenging questions and it’s best if you answer honestly and not sugarcoat things. 

  4. If a child asks about getting sick, be realistic about the illness. Note that children who have gotten coronavirus have typically come down with very mild symptoms like the common cold. 

  5. If you do go to work, try to call home more often to check in with your child. Set up video lunch dates so they can see you during the day to reassure them that you’re doing OK.

  6. Give your child some aspects of control through his/her day. Teach them about good hygiene and make them responsible for washing their hands and helping the family stay healthy and safe. This gives children an active role and allows them to have control and feel proud they are helping. It helps if you show proper handwashing and safety techniques for your child to mimic. 

While we are not certain how the coronavirus epidemic will go in the long run, we can do our best to support our young children. Take the time to listen to your kids and try to answer questions as best you can. Feel free to reach out to others if you’re not sure how to answer questions to show your kids that you hear their questions and take them seriously.

Lastly, it’s important to make sure that we, as parents, take care of ourselves so we are more equipped to take care of our young children.

See also: Tips for supporting teens during the coronavirus crisis || Resources for SEL (social and emotional learning) while at home

Dr. Ashok Shimoji-Krishnan is chief of child/adolescent psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente of Washington.

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