As we settle into Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s stay-at-home order, parents around the state are coping with a new way of life. While trying to figure out how to balance work (or job loss) with taking care of their kids, parents are navigating not only their worries, but also those of their children. This is inherently stressful and even more so when you don’t know how to respond. Truly, the way to respond about coronavirus fears is how we can respond to any worry our child has.
As parents, we want to prepare our children to tolerate uncertainty (versus avoiding the things that make us uncomfortable) and learn how to ride out our feelings. We want to teach, model and practice staying in the “what-is” versus the “what-if.”
For our current situation, that means not going into every possible catastrophic situation that could happen, but sticking with what is true today, in this moment. Reminding everyone that life has always been uncertain but now it’s in our faces, undeniable — a universal exposure to building our tolerance for being uncomfortable and uncertain. While we may feel scared, unsettled, nervous and anxious, it’s important to remember that while there is a possibility that something could happen, the probability is lowered if we stay home, practice social distancing and follow CDC guidelines around handwashing. Spending time and energy “trying to be 100% sure” about something is largely futile (and it’s going to make their anxiety and worry worse).
Let’s look at some examples specific to fears about coronavirus (remembering that these can be used for any illness):
“You’re young, you have nothing to worry about. Only older people are at risk.”
“You’re being dramatic.”
“If you wash your hands, you’ll be fine.”
“If it makes you feel better, we can wash all of our clothes when we come in, shower and Lysol everything that was outside.”
“If you get a fever, we will get you tested.” (Even though you don’t meet current testing criteria.)
“It’s selfish to worry when there are people out there really suffering…at least you’re OK.”
My own child recently was sick with a high fever, so I practiced this a lot: “I hear that you’re scared; I’m scared, and this is a scary time. We’re not going to do anything differently in this moment if it is or isn’t coronavirus, so let’s take it one step at a time. What can I do to keep you comfortable?”
If they ask you “when this will end,” be honest. Let them know that no one knows for sure, but doctors are thinking this is how life will have to be for the next several months. Acknowledge how much this stinks for everyone, and that it’s not forever (though it may feel like it).
Teach your child that if they focus on the fear, the fearful thoughts and feelings grow. This is good for parents to remember, too.
Remind them of a mosquito bite they may have had (or hives or some other kind of itch) where, if they resisted the itch, it went away, but if they started to scratch it, it itched even more. Worrying about if or when they may get sick won’t increase or decrease their chances of getting sick, but it will increase their fear. A better strategy is to acknowledge the thought (“I’m scared of getting sick”), and then do something else to get out of your head — go outside, go for a walk, clean out your closet/drawers, have a FaceTime chat with friends or family, do art, make cookies for your neighbors — something that engages your senses.
What we want to be modeling and teaching our kids is that being uncertain is not dangerous, only uncomfortable. There’s so much about which we’re uncertain, and in most of those cases, it’s about building our tolerance for not knowing — not knowing how long our lives will be upended; not knowing if we will get sick; if we get sick, if it’s coronavirus or the flu; if our loved ones will be OK; how online school will work; what our summer will hold — the list goes on and on.
It’s very easy to get swept down a rabbit hole of “what if?” or “did I?” during this time. Practice staying in the moment and sticking with data that you know to be true. This is so important right now.
With coronavirus, it’s OK to give your child the data that kids seem to fare really well if they get infected. If they ask more than once if “they’ll be OK” (or any variation of this), that’s when it’s important to gently remind them that you already answered their question. What you don’t want to do is promise them that they’ll be OK, and you don’t want to keep reassuring them. Ideally, one and done.
Remember that your child looks to you for verbal and nonverbal signs, so your nonverbals need to be consistent with your verbal messaging. You don’t want to be telling your child that kids typically fare well and then be behaving in ways that counter that (seeking your own unproductive reassurance, treating them as if they have the plague, etc).
While reassurance temporarily feels satisfying, it actually strengthens worry and anxiety, and it teaches children to rely on their parents (or friends or future partners) to feel better. What we want is for them to learn that life is inherently uncertain and that it’s OK to be “sure enough” about something. When we’re anxious, being “sure enough,” feels distressing and unacceptable, but that doesn’t mean it is. It just means we need to increase our tolerance and willingness to feel uncomfortable. And we currently have plenty of opportunities to practice stepping into this mindset. (I’ve previously talked about why giving blind reassurance is often unproductive and works only in the short term.)
Whether your child is worried about an everyday life occurrence, a tragedy that’s happened in their sphere of influence, or a current event, the same 5 steps can help parents lead them through it. The more kids learn how to approach their worry and anxiety, the stronger their ability to work through it becomes.
And remember, this is a hard time for everyone. If you’re feeling stuck or like you need more support, reach out. Parent coaching is highly effective and can be done via video in the comfort of your home.