Talking to your kids about COVID-19: Mental health professionals weigh in
Black Hills State University
As American families approach another week of closed schools and social distancing recommendations, Black Hills State University psychology professor Emilia Flint, Ph.D., LP, and her colleague at Black Hills Psychology, Tara Ginter, LPC-MH, provide age-specific guidance for talking with your kids about COVID-19.
Preschool Children: Recognize that preschool children may be a bit more fussy right now. They are responding to you and their immediate environment. If you are anxious, they will perceive it. Take time to sing songs/dance/let them know you love them. Play with them — there is no better time than now to transform your living room into a jungle gym. It is okay to help them understand you might be feeling “sad” right now, but everything is going to be okay.
Early Elementary Children: Explain the virus to them in terms of feeling sick and being well (for example, we want everyone who may be sick to feel better, so we are staying at home right now to be sure we stay healthy and to let the doctors and nurses help those who are sick). If they are worried, validate their concerns (you look sad/worried…it is okay to feel that way), but reassure them that they will be okay. Early elementary children may be sad because they miss their friends/teacher. Help them with the adjustment process (“things are going to look different now…”). If allowed, reach out to their teacher/friend for some ‘face’ time. Get them adjusted to school at home but also be prepared to transition them back should that be the case later on. Additionally, role-playing is fun for this age. Have them dress up as a superhero avenging the world of all diseases…or a doctor who is helping those who are ill.
Late Elementary Children: Problem solving is great! “What can we do as a family to stay healthy?” “What about this is making you nervous,” “What do you see on TV? How do you feel? Describe that feeling to me.” Also, describe to them how you feel sad/angry/happy/cautious/gleeful (modelling is good). Help them to identify their feelings (“I’m sad because I don’t get to see the teacher I love every day”) and to be okay with the emotion they feel. If they are a chronic worrier, get them involved in educational play activities (there are several videos out there for free right now — for example, there is one on how to finger knit, another on how to build a geodesic dome out of cardboard, decorate it with lights, and use it as a reading ‘cave’).
Middle School Students: Educate them on the facts of COVID-19, rather than hearsay from their peers, and stay informed. Death can be scary. If a child focuses on death, help them to ‘flip’ the statistics on COVID-19 such as looking into how many people have the virus but are well. Search ‘boredom busters’ online and find creative ideas. Play chess to build critical thinking skills, complete a puzzle, or complete a crossword puzzle without using online resources.
High School Students: Encourage that critical thinker! Help them to research the aspects of the virus that “appeal” to them. Guide their research and discuss the implications of real versus fake news. A few ideas for the researcher:
- Chemistry enthusiast: What is different about the protein structure of COVID-19 that makes it different from other viruses? How (exactly) do antibiotics or anti-viral vaccinations work?
- Future politician: What impact would a shift to universal health care have on the fight against a pandemic? Should social programs be politicized? How long should someone be allowed to stay on federal assistance? Does your response change during a pandemic? Can politicians change their minds?
- Aspiring economist: Develop an economic stimulus plan to help the local Spearfish economy. Develop a savings plan for our family just in case we have to figure out a way to ‘cut back’ on expenses. As restaurants/bars/entertainment shut down, how much money does a business lose in a day? How might one bounce back from this loss?
Make yourself available to talk about COVID-19, but do not ‘push’. It is likely this child is using friends as an outlet to discuss the virus — this is okay (but be sure they know to talk about the correct information).
All Ages: Model break times as appropriate. Recognize and validate feelings. Talking about it does ease the fears one may have, but try not to obsess over it either.
Parents/Caregivers, and all those in social isolation: Using technology to combat isolation is a good line of defense against depression. Use videotelephony and chat technology more than ever before. It is common when feeling in low mood because of social isolation to convince yourself you are bothering or burdensome to someone by calling them. Chances are, they want to hear from you. It is also okay to keep the call going even if nothing is being said. For example, call Grandma and let her ‘watch’ you make cookies with the grandchildren. Physical activity is another good line of defense against depression/low mood due to social isolation.
Parents/Caregivers, and all those continuing to work inside and outside the home: For healthcare workers, educators, those stocking shelves at the grocery store, etc., practice self-care and boundaries. If you tend to lean towards caring for others naturally (that is what drew you to your discipline in the first place), you may be ‘hard wired’ to want to help others, even after getting off a work shift. However, a burnt out helper is of no use. Recharge your ‘batteries’ by getting appropriate rest before venturing out to serve at a local food pantry, for example. Practice assertive communication to achieve better boundaries. Know that it’s okay to say ‘no’ to some service so you can devote your time/effort/energy to your role while being your best possible self.
About the Psychology Program at Black Hills State University
The Psychology major at Black Hills State University has a strong tradition of preparing students who excel in graduate programs and in their careers. Students study human behavior and the psychological, social, and biological processes that relate to that behavior. With a degree in Psychology from Black Hills State University, students are pursuing careers as psychologists, social workers, career counselors, personnel and labor relations specialists, market researchers, and data analysts. At Black Hills State University, students will work with who are experienced as instructors in a variety of theoretical perspectives. Students are involved in cutting-edge research with faculty and participate in internships allowing them to work in the field with practicing psychologists. Read about recent Black Hills State University psychology alum’s first jobs in their field.