I was interviewed on a podcast recently and some of the topics we covered were things I thought may be of interest to you. We discussed how to talk to children about all of our recent heavy headline news. And, are these times fostering more PTSD?
Let’s take a look at Covid and our kids; how do we safely allow them to see friends and be kids? It’s been about six months now and this virus is still in the headlines—in Arizona and some other states we’re even seeing a greater number of both new cases daily and more hospitalizations than we did during the first of the outbreak when we were under stay at home orders. It was tough to manage when the spread was new, but now that it’s continuing for so long it feels nearly impossible to keep our children happy at home away from their friends. So, what do we do? How do we talk to them about these times? Start by ensuring you have trusted and up to date information– take a look at the websites of the CDC, your state public health department, and Johns Hopkins, as examples. Only after you have a clear picture of what the current Coronavirus status is, are you ready to talk to your children. At that point, open up the discussions!
The first consideration is realizing that the conversation varies greatly depending on their age. For children 4 and under, it’s enough to simply say people are still getting sick in our city and we have to change the way we play with friends to help keep everyone healthy. Begin by teaching children to keep their hands away from their faces. Pull their hair back so it doesn’t tickle their cheeks and noses, have tissues ready for runny noses and sneezes, and choose age appropriate, size appropriate toys to keep their hands busy. Rattles, teethers, and soft toys for babies belonging only to them and well sanitized between uses are good options. For older children, choose things that aren’t choke hazards that are good for fidgeting, Rubik’s cubes, fidget spinners and cubes, and similar—keeping in mind that a toilet paper tube is a good size to put something through to test whether it is small enough to choke on.
Another good safety lesson for your kids is to teach them their personal space area, which is really well illustrated by having your older toddler hold a hula hoop around their body. Let them hold it and walk next to someone to see what it feels like to keep that distance from someone else and play. And–what does play look like at this age? The safest course of action is to create alliances with certain friends, setting expectations that each of you will only open your bubble to one another. Along with that, you’re maintaining safety by not going out to stores without a mask, not dining in restaurants, and not seeing people, including family, from outside of your own home other than the other family or families that have created the alliance with. If you decide to see someone outside your bubble, then you wait 2 weeks until you again see your playmate friends. It takes a commitment to uphold this level of conscientiousness, a level of honesty with the other family or families in the bubble, and a good degree of trust.
The next safest way to play is to meet up at a playground. Keep in mind what we’ve learned about the virus, larger, more open-air spaces spread out the germ load making the viral transmission less than in an enclosed space with people closely in contact. Playdates in the park could include not only the playground equipment, but also scooters, bicycles, kites, jump ropes, and hula hoops. Things that promote independent side by side play rather than heads huddled close together sharing Legos as an example. And if you’re not comfortable with the playground equipment, go to a part of the park with only grassy play areas and try the other activities mentioned.
Grade school children conversations can include a bit more information. Remember you’re not trying to encourage worry with your child, so don’t use scare tactics. Rather, you are sharing with them the reasons their play lives don’t look the same as what they did. You can ask if they have questions about this sickness that is affecting people, ask them what they know about it. By knowing what they’re thinking it can guide you in what you need to share with them. With this age, you can explain in a bit more detail the reasons behind changes you’ve implemented in your family activities. It’s okay to tell your children there is an illness that is causing some people to get very sick and sometimes need to go to the hospital. You can tell them that using a mask can help not only keep them safe and healthy but also those around them, so it’s important to wear a mask in public. If you’re having trouble getting them to wear the mask, treat it like a dress up accessory. Find or make a children’s mouth and nose covering mask that is in a print or style of a super-hero, maybe add a cape and let them wear the whole ensemble to the store. Or, maybe a princess mask and gown. Remember, children are imaginative and the more you can incorporate the mask into their imaginative play, the more likely they are to embrace it! The information shared on playdates for the younger set applies here too.
Middle and high school children have a much higher level of understanding than the younger set, obviously, yet the premise of creating a dialog remains the same. Open up the talk by asking them what they think about Covid, what facts they know, and what questions they have. This is an age that you can be a relatively open book about how this virus has affected our world. Remember that you are not attempting to create panic or anxiety so frame your words in a way that isn’t an attempt to scare them into submission, rather a factual account of the vast numbers of people that have been affected. From how long the illness is taking to get over, to the extent of hospitalizations and deaths, there is not an area than need be kept from this age bracket. However, know your child. If he or she is a child who will remain up at night worrying about the lives of all those who are sick, limit your details about of the illness when discussing the symptoms of the very sick. High school teens are able to get a lot of info on their own, and likely are through friends and social media. We all know that some of this information is not correct, so it’s especially important to begin with what they know, what worries them about Covid, and what their thoughts are about this disease.
If you don’t recall the specifics of past pandemics, now may be a time to look at how the influenza pandemic swept through in 1918, or any of the epidemics that have gone on in our country or world’s history. Your children have learned about these times in history more recently than you have and using the examples of the past may help them realize that with time, this will be something we are able to move forward from. Enjoying time with friends for the middle-high school age group looks a bit different than it did for the younger set. This is a time in life that maybe it’s okay to ease up a bit on the restrictions of their gaming devices, recognizing this is an area many kids play games with their friends—and in this case it’s a physically safe way to have some social time. Beyond that, this is where you model the behavior you want to see in your kids. They’re watching you, and if it’s okay for you to gather with friends, go out to dinner or drinks, or go to parties, they’re going to expect to be able to do the same. If you are distancing and your pre-teens or teens want to have a social life resembling what they had prior to the outbreak, you will have to set some guidelines—and remain consistent. If your child has a close friend and you know the family of that friend is also distancing and using the cautions you are at home, maybe you’ll decide it’s okay to let the kids spend time together. If the other friends’ families aren’t distancing, or you don’t know their family expectations, maybe you’d be okay allowing the kids to get together at an outside venue—a pool, or a lake—but not let them ride together in a car to get there. This is where well thought out judgement is necessary. It is a stressful time and will likely require you have conversations with your spouse or significant other to be sure the two of you are aligned in thinking so you can’t be played against one another. Make concessions so each of you feel heard if you’re not in total agreement, and as is always the case with good parenting, consistency is key. Upholding standards so your kids know what to expect each and every time can eliminate a lot of fights.
Talking with your children about race relations, protests, and the police all follow the same guidelines. Use your child’s age to determine how deeply you delve into the topic. If your children are young, picture books can be great, dolls with different skin tones can illustrate and model play among people of all colors—remember not to buy only dolls that look like your child. If your kids are older, it’s a wonderful time to ask questions to see how they think, ask what they’d like to see change, and help them navigate how to handle racist conversations with others, including the possibility that racism is coming from somewhere in your own family. If you are a person or a family who protests, go forth in the safest way you can—and pay attention to some of the really excellent graphics circulating on social media about how to protest safely including always wearing a mask and carrying water with you. Recognize that this may be confusing to children who are told they cannot attend a birthday party, yet they then see you or all of your family surrounded by hundreds in a protest. Be prepared to explain your reasoning and your safety precautions.
Some of your older children may be taking in the messaging on de-funding the police. They may have opinions about why it is a good measure, or why they’re afraid of it. Again, be informed yourself by reading up on the topic. Understand what de-funding means, and where the funds are proposed to be allocated instead. Ask your kids questions. Get a good understanding of their level of interest in the topic, their concerns or gaps in knowledge, and if you don’t know all of the answers with this topic or any—it’s okay to tell them that. Research it with them, or on your own and come back to the conversation after you’ve done some more reading. Try not to put it off for too long, lest they think their questions aren’t important to you. Remember that a lot of learning how to critically analyze a situation comes with maturity. Help them learn how to be critical thinkers by posing questions to them that go deeper than the superficial, and really listen when they speak to you.
My theme here has been talking and creating open communication. It is a healthy start to help a person move through these news headlines that are so heavily weighted. Matters of health, social injustice, overhauling our police forces are among the most stressful and highly charged topics in life. So, is all of this exposure to so much right now fostering more PTSD? I don’t believe so in most cases. But the news can potentially trigger PTSD if watched too frequently. By proactively limiting exposure to these events and viewing of the news, social media, and talking through these matters with your children or teens who may also see the coverage, the potential can be minimized. And, as has been highlighted in nearly every writing I’ve done on stress, take note of what media you’re consuming, both in your sources and in the amount. If you find it difficult to digest, have a hard time sleeping, have ruminating thoughts, and/or find yourself anxious, it’s time to unplug for a while. Rest. Meditate. Be in nature. Check in with friends. Talk to someone you feel really hears you. If this is not enough, always seek professional help. People are resilient but do much better at handling difficult times using healthy tools. There was more discussion centered on PTSD, trauma, self-care, and stress in the podcase, and we’ll be issuing a part 2 to this blog within the next week or two, so stay tuned! You can also listen to the podcast, click here.
Finally, as the numbers are increasing so very quickly of COVID in our county and state, please take care of yourself and let us know if you need any assistance. Grief is sure to be an issue we’ll be dealing with in coming blogs, but in the meantime if you need to hear more about this topic, you can do so here or on stress and COVID here. As always, I wish you good health–both mentally and physically, and encourage you to take care of yourself daily, moment by moment.