Talking to your older child about COVID-19

  • Bill Hartwell is a guidance counselor at Sun Valley High School

    Often parents want to avoid causing anxiety or panic for their children, so they try to shield them from distressing news (like divorce or example). When it is about a situation that impacts them now and possibly in the future, the result is often the opposite. With any difficult conversation/topic, it’s always best for the information to come from the parent. Young children may have a general idea about COVID-19 and since they have been impacted by school closures. 

    Middle and high school students, however,  may be hearing a lot of information through news or social media.  How do you address their concerns?  Start the conversation by asking questions and learning what they already know. Sharing the big picture perspective is important.  Re-enforce that this too will pass, that it may be a short time period, and that we can work together to stay safe.   While there are many challenges from COVID-19 and the fear it causes, we can also view it as an incredible teachable moment.

    Reiterate your child is safe

    Children are learning how to be resilient, flexible, patient, and resourceful. Continue to share the message that they are safe and that this is a time when we are all making sacrifices and social distancing for the sake for the whole community. The goal is simply to limit the exposure for those who are most vulnerable to the virus.  Having the difficult conversation, as a parent, triggers several psychological and neurological processes tied to safety. While we sometimes think that talking about something scary will increase the fear, it can actually significantly reduce a child’s overall sense of fear and anxiety.

    It is also helpful to have the conversation so you can express your thoughts and feelings. Remember that our children feed off our emotions. If they see us calm it helps to keep them feel calm.  Collect your thoughts and feelings BEFORE having a discussion with your child. You may want to practice in a way where you can think about the questions your child could have and prepare responses so you are not caught off guard.

    The more you can plan and think through the conversation in advance, the more prepared you will be in the moment.  Remember that it is ok to have feeling and emotions: breathe through them and teach your child to do the same.  We never want to suppress and pretend our emotions are not there.  Our emotions and fears will change daily;  keeping lines of communication open is key. 

    The great unknown

    While there are a lot of "Don’t Knows," there will always be a way to prepare for the next challenge.  This one is hard for you and your child; there is so much more we truly don't and won’t know!  Remind your child that is why you are having this conversation: so they know what best to do to keep everyone safe.”  Your primary goal as a parent is to deescalate fear and live in the world where this will be ok. Go with the assumption that things will be ok, and together come up with plans to keep the house safe.  Remember this is a time to do fun things: celebrate birthdays, spend time enjoying what you love, and plan fun without talking about it COVID all the time.

    Sometimes, the answer to “What can I do right now?” is nothing! And that’s okay.  It’s okay to set boundaries on people/interactions that are focused solely on the problem.
    These situations provide us with an opportunity to develop an awareness of the big picture. “Knowledge is power” is key to take our experiences and to anticipate future situations in a proactive manner. This does not mean we become doomsayers. Rather, we develop a better understanding of how these types of situations impact our daily lives and make more informed life decisions.
    This is probably the time to lighten up at home about screen time rules.  It is ok if your child is playing video games or online more often during this time. However, it may be best to reduce media exposure. Focus on hydration, self-care, and sleep. Right now, we should all be thinking about how will we be comfortable moving forward.  Make the personal decisions that you feel comfortable with. Be as safe as you can, while monitoring your choices. Remember this is temporary!