As fears about coronavirus weigh on our minds, our kids are anxious and full of questions. Even though so much is uncertain, it’s our job as parents to be a source of calm for our children. Reassuring them that they are safe and that medical professionals are working hard to take care of people who need it is a good place to start. It’s also important to remind them that we can do a lot to keep ourselves healthy—everything from washing our hands to not sharing food and drinks to covering a cough or sneeze with a tissue or the inside of our elbow.
If you haven’t already, check the Centers for Disease Control website for important information on how to protect yourself and your family. It has specific guidance on everything from the proper handwashing technique to the most effective way to disinfect household surfaces every day. It’s also crucial to reinforce everyday healthy habits, like making sure the kids get enough sleep and eat healthfully. Doing everything you can to keep the routine inside your house—things maintaining a regular dinner time and bedtime—as normal as possible is also really important.
You may not want to start a conversation about coronavirus because you don’t want to add to your kids’ worries, but it’s important to be proactive by asking them what they’ve heard. This is your opportunity to dispel any rumors. To help guide conversations with your kids, we asked Dr. Liz Matheis, a child psychologist in Livingston and a mom of three kids, ages 13, 11 and 7, for advice on how to manage your children’s stress in the age of coronavirus.
New Jersey Family: How can I calm my kids when I don’t have the answers to their questions?
Dr. Matheis: When it comes to answering questions of any type, my recommendation is to answer just the question that your child has asked. Don’t expand, don’t give background information. Just answer the question and stop. That might be just enough to quench your child’s curiosity.
If you don’t have an answer, you can say, “I’m not sure. I can look into it and get back to you” or “I don’t know.” It’s okay to share that you don’t have the exact answers.
For my teen, I often ask, “What have you heard?” I like to hear what he is processing and then let him know if there are certain facts that may be hyped up or just inaccurate. For my 11-year-old, she likes to have a plan, so here it is: Wash your hands often in school, wash your hands when you come home, take your vitamin C, get your rest. For my 7-year-old, he seems to know the name of the virus but is showing very little interest otherwise. He is most excited about the possibility of not having to go to school, but that’s about the extent of it for him.
Stick to your daily routine as best as you can. Turn a day off or a half day off from school into a relaxing or fun day, as much as you are able. Don’t make exceptions to rules or change routines during this time. Bedtime should be the same, rules around snacks and screen time should also stay the same.
NJF: What is the best advice I can give my kids?
Dr. Matheis: Share with your children that you, the parents, continue to be in charge and you will keep them safe, as you always do. Less is more. Wash your hands when you get home, take your shoes off at the door, change your clothes and continue on with your regular evening routine. If activities have been canceled for now, take advantage of the time and prepare and sit down for a meal together, watch a movie together or play a game together.
NJF: Should I limit news exposure?
Dr. Matheis: Absolutely. The adults in the house can watch the news on their phones or iPads, but my advice is to keep the television off, radio off and read or watch privately. Gain the information you are seeking and share with each other, as the adults in the house, but don’t discuss out loud, even if you think your children are in another room or on another floor.
If you’re stocking up on extra supplies and food, do so when the kids aren’t home or aren’t looking. Stock up your pantry but don’t make a big deal about it. Don’t comment that hand sanitizer is nowhere to be found right now, and don’t comment on how tense people are in the office or the stores. Keep it business as usual, just like any other day.
NJF: How can I be reassuring while also keeping them informed and safe about the news and how to protect themselves?
Dr. Matheis: Your children will follow your lead. If you’re panicked, they will panic. If you’re calm about this, they will be too. Reassure your children in terms of the basics— continue to wash your hands, eat healthy meals and snacks, drink water, get enough sleep and continue to exercise. These are the basics that keep us healthy during any flu season.
NJF: How much should I share?
Dr. Matheis: When it comes to sharing, sharing is not always caring in this case. Answer your child’s questions and only the questions that are being asked of you. Avoid volunteering information at the dinner table about the number of people who have not survived or the increasing number of people who have been diagnosed in a given state. Once again, business as usual is the best way to keep the panic level down.
Dr. Liz Matheis is a certified school psychologist and licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Livingston. She and her team of therapists specialize in children, adolescents and young adults with ADHD, anxiety, autism and learning disabilities. She is also a mom of three children, one with special needs. Visit her at psychedconsult.com.
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