For millions of adults across the US and the world, life has changed dramatically in the last few weeks. Most have been asked to practice social distancing, while some are sheltering in place. Some are sick or in quarantine, or tending to ill loved ones. And for many, something as simple as having dinner with a friend already feels like a distant memory.
But for children, life has changed perhaps even more drastically. Millions are home from school or daycare, with no clear idea of when they’ll be back. Many can’t go to playgrounds, see friends, or visit grandparents anymore. And unlike adults, who at least can read and understand the (often terrifying) news, many younger children may struggle to grasp what’s going on.
However, there are steps parents can take to help kids navigate this crisis, too. Before talking to kids, especially young ones, parents need to take steps to handle their own anxiety, whether that means taking a walk (if that’s possible and safe in your area), doing yoga or meditation, or talking to a friend, said Richard Weissbourd, co-director of Harvard’s human development and psychology master’s program. “To the extent that you can, taking care of yourself is really important,” he said.
With older kids, Weissbourd said, it can be okay to acknowledge that it’s normal to feel some anxiety right now, and that you’re feeling it, too. With younger ones, however, it might be better to project as much calm as possible. And whatever their age, a lot of kids have questions right now, whether it’s about why they need to wash their hands so much, when they’ll be able to see friends and grandparents again, or what happens if someone they love gets sick.
Vox spoke to experts about how parents can respond to kids’ questions in ways that help them feel supported and teach them to be part of a larger community — even during a time of social distancing.
Will I get sick? Will my parents get sick? What happens if we do?
These are probably the scariest questions on a lot of kids’ minds right now. And Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist and professor at Duke University School of Medicine, says it’s important not to minimize kids’ fears or tell them there’s no possibility they or their family will get sick, because unfortunately that’s not true. What you can say, Gurwitch advises, is that you are doing everything you know of to make sure everyone in the family stays as healthy as possible and that, “if we get sick, then we’re going to do everything we know how to do to make sure we get better again.” You can also point to people in the community who are helping keep others safe and healthy (an old Mister Rogers technique). For example, parents can tell kids, “our doctors and our nurses are working really, really hard to make sure that everybody, if they do get sick, can get better again.”
You can also emphasize the things your family is doing to stay as healthy as possible, like washing hands or avoiding social gatherings, Gurwitch said.
“Very few of us like being passive in the face of uncertainty and a lot of worry, and the extent we’re doing things that feel productive, we’re going to feel better,” Weissbourd said.
Why do I have to wash my hands so much?
One of the most important things people can do to protect themselves and others during this pandemic is washing hands frequently. But this can be hard to explain to little kids who might rather be playing or getting right to snacktime. For kids who are old enough to understand, “it’s okay to tell children that we wash our hands because sometimes germs get on our hands, and if germs get on our hands and we don’t get rid of them, they can make us sick,” Gurwitch told Vox. You can also say that it’s even more important than usual to wash our hands because coronavirus is spreading rapidly, and washing our hands is one of the best ways we know to help keep ourselves safe.
Toddlers and preschoolers, however, may be too young to understand much about coronavirus or how germs work. For them, you can simply frame hand-washing as part of a family routine, Weissbourd said. You can say things like, “in our family, we always wash our hands because it helps us be healthy.”
You can also make hand-washing fun, Gurwitch said, by having kids sing “Happy Birthday” twice or the ABC song, both of which take about 20 seconds, the time experts recommend you spend washing.
When can I go back to school?
While some kids might be initially excited to get out of going to school, taking away school attendance means taking away something that’s a constant in their lives, Gurwitch said, and that can be distressing.
For school-aged kids asking when they can return to class, Gurwitch advises assuring them that you are always staying up to date on when they may be able to start school again. But you can also explain that you as a parent as well as your child’s school want to make sure that when kids do go back, “everybody can stay healthy.” In the meantime, you can help your child access whatever remote learning your district has set up, if you have the resources to do so. If e-learning hasn’t been set up by your child’s school yet, you can get resources from homeschooling networks, or even just help your child stay in touch with classmates on FaceTime or Zoom.
Why can’t I visit my friends or my grandparents?
Kids of all ages are understandably sad that they can’t see a lot of friends or family members in person right now. The hard reality, according to many experts, is that we could be looking at social distancing recommendations for months to a year or more, as Vox’s Brian Resnick reports. To help kids cope with that, it’s certainly important to show how they can keep in contact with grandparents and others through FaceTime or even letters, if they don’t have access or don’t use mobile devices. If grandparents or other older relatives live nearby, kids may be able to “visit” them by dropping off groceries or other necessities and waving hello through a window. (One 90-year-old man recently made headlines by standing outside his wife’s nursing home, which does not allow visitors during the pandemic, and holding up a sign wishing her a happy anniversary.)
Meanwhile, you can also tell kids that “the safer that we are, the more careful we are, the sooner we’re going to get to see people,” Weissbourd said. That doesn’t mean that practicing good social distancing today will mean you’ll get to see your friends tomorrow, but it does mean you can help more people — including those you love the most — stay safe while scientists work on treatments and vaccines.
If my parents are home, why do they have to work instead of playing with me?
Many workers in this country don’t have the option to work from home right now, and a staggering number have been laid off or had their hours cut. But for those who are able to work remotely right now, many are being asked to do so. And if you have young kids, that often means trying to get something done while your child asks increasingly plaintively why you’re on the phone or computer instead of playing blocks.
In that situation, Gurwitch says, you can explain, “I’m home with you to make sure that our family stays healthy and well,” but that you still have to work. Then, you can let your child know when you might be available to take a break and play with them, perhaps even setting a timer so they can see how long they have until they can get your full attention. In the meantime, Gurwitch suggests, give your child an activity, whether it’s a puzzle or Paw Patrol, so they know they have something to do while they wait.
I’m not sick, so why do I have to take precautions?
This one may apply especially to teenagers and older kids, who may feel a certain adolescent invincibility even in the face of a virus that has many people scared. That could be compounded by reports that the illness is less severe in children and young people, though there is now research showing some children become severely ill.
For teenagers who don’t understand why they have to take precautions, Gurwitch suggests explaining that even if a kid doesn’t get sick, they can pass the virus along to other people — including loved ones — who could become very ill. When it comes to social distancing, hand-washing, and other safety measures during this time, Gurwitch said, “we all have to think about who are we doing this for” — and that can include grandparents, people in the community with underlying conditions that put them at higher risk, health care workers saving lives, and everyone in the country and the world who benefits from efforts to “flatten the curve.”
Meanwhile, even if they act invincible, teens may be having a lot of conflicting feelings right now, Weissbourd said. Adolescents “vacillate a lot between feeling very powerful and feeling very powerless,” he explained. “There are a lot of teens who are going to complain about being home with their parents, and that’s real, but they’re also scared.” Parents can help them talk through their fears and recognize that “being home is an important anchor” for them sometimes, while also supporting ways that teenagers can still connect with each other, whether it’s playing online games or mobilizing around a social cause.
How can I help?
For kids who are old enough to understand, this is a time to talk about collective responsibility for our families and all of society, Weissbourd said. “This is an opportunity for a family to develop a civic identity,” he explained, and parents can teach kids that part of that identity is “taking care of people who are vulnerable.”
That can take a lot of forms, whether it’s delivering groceries to a grandparent, donating to support service workers who may be out of work at this time (if a family has the financial means to do so), or calling out the racism and xenophobia that unfortunately continues to run rampant during this pandemic.
“We’ve got a president who’s calling this the ‘China virus,’” Weissbourd pointed out, and said it’s important to teach kids that “this is a time for compassion,” and certainly not for stigmatizing a particular group of people.
Overall, he said, this is a time when parents can teach kids that “each one of us is responsible for all of us,” both within a family and around the world.