I have become intimately acquainted with the feelings of fear and anxiety throughout the course of my life. I can distinctly recall the first asthma attack that I had on the soccer field as a small child… the jolt of panic, the surge of adrenaline, the fight-or-flight response propelling me to seek out my mother for help. This occurrence on the soccer field set in motion my life-long battle with anxiety, particularly about my breathing. Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between what “feels” like I can’t breathe versus when I really am not breathing well. As I’ve lived my life and encountered many painful learning opportunities, including doing my own work in therapy, I have gotten better at facing these fears and managing my anxiety. But there’s no getting around it: the process takes grit. The road is not easy. And there are no quick fixes. But there is hope. And if you’re like most people, you are finding yourself weary from the events that have unfolded over the past several weeks in our country and across the world. Tragedy and devastation run the headlines. Mounting death dolls. When will this end? Will our economy survive? Will my job? My family? If these thoughts sound familiar to you, you are not alone. I wish someone had the answers to these important questions. I wish I could offer that to you today.
What I can offer you are some nuggets of truth that I’ve received in managing my own anxiety as well as through my training and experiences as a therapist. I hopes that it is to you a means of grace to weather this current storm that is the COVID-19 pandemic.
*Important Note: as I do work mostly with children and adolescents, much of this post will be tailored to helping your child to cope with their anxiety regarding COVID-19. However, I think you will find that most items are just as applicable to adults!
How to talk to your child about COVID-19
If you have a young child (6 or younger), there is really no need to bring it up. For instance, with my 3 year old, I simply told him that he wasn’t going to school and that mommy and daddy were going to be working from home for right now. When he began asking questions about why he couldn’t go see his grandparents or go to his friends’ houses, that’s when I told him the truth in developmentally appropriate language without giving too many details. Short and simple is the key. Something like, “I know you want to see them. I do too. Remember when you got sick with the stomach bug or got a really bad cold, well there’s a virus going around kind of like that. And we want to make sure everyone stays well. The best way to do that is to just stay at home for right now.”
Another strategy would be to ask your child what they have heard about COVID-19 (depending on their age, they may already be exposed to detailed media reports or misinformation from friends, etc). Clarify any misconceptions that they may have, and ask them if they have any questions about it. Again, try to be brief and don’t go overboard with scary details.
On the flip side, some older teens will need a more swift, kick-in-the pants approach to the low-down on COVID-19. I’ve heard from many parents who have expressed that their teens don’t want to stay home, don’t understand why they can’t see their friends, etc. Teens by nature tend to be ego-centric, and it is inherently more difficult for them to see beyond their particular viewpoint. So they will probably need you to remind them that it’s not just about them—their grandparents and other vulnerable loved ones depend on our ability to flatten the curve. This is not forever, but we must do our part for right now.
And no matter the age of your child, remember to validate! Validation is simply communicating that you understand another person’s perspective. How they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, or why they’re behaving a certain way. Try to search for a word that describes what you believe that they’re feeling, and make a smart guess about that to your child. Check to see if you got it right, and normalize that response. “It makes sense that you’re feeling afraid, frustrated, sad, lonely, etc. right now. You are in good company—I think most people are feeling that way right now.” Try not to minimize or be dismissive of your child’s struggle by saying things like, “you shouldn’t feel that way”, or “just don’t worry about it!” These sorts of responses can feel punishing to your child and lead them to doubt their own emotional experience.