2 Apr 2020

How to talk to children about Covid-19

From Are We There Yet?, 12:00 pm on 2 April 2020

A week in, how are New Zealanders coping with the Covid-19 lockdown? Who better to ask than frazzled parents who are juggling kids, school work and their own jobs ? Katy Gosset looks at family life under lockdown.

A photo of an emotional tired mother putting toys in basket while naughty kids fighting with pillows

Photo: 123rf

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Alice has just caught her young son sneaking out the gate

It’s been less than a week since the lockdown began and her children still don’t really understand why they can’t visit their friends anymore.

As I distract Alice with a phone interview on this very topic, she spots her son making a break for it and calls to him to return.

“You’re not allowed out there. We can’t go and play with the neighbours.”

Alice’s children, like most, have had a simple crash course in Covid 19.

“We started saying that it was a four-week holiday but then we had to introduce the word ‘lockdown’ and we said that is to stop the bug spreading around the world.”

Family life has had to carry on but it’s not as we know it and for Alice it has been challenging.

“When I was listening to Jacinda Ardern announce that we were going into Level 4 I think the enormity of it hit me and I definitely felt quite emotional.”

The children have already brainstormed their ideas for the month: everything from nature walks, art and gardening to building huts and cooking outside on the brazier.

So Alice, who is self-employed, has shelved her small business to corral the kids while her husband works from home.

But she plans to allow a few things she can control into her own day like walking or reading a book.

“Whatever that is, just making sure that we create some choices in our life so that we feel in control and that’s really going to help with our levels of anxiety.”

 Clinical psychologist, Catherine Gallagher, agrees these are ‘really strange times’ and that maintaining some sense of control is the key to managing stressful events.

“When there are things that make life uncertain and that we cannot control, turning our focus to those things that we can control reminds us that we still have some power and influence.

‘’This helps us settle and feel safer,” Ms Gallagher said.

But she reminded parents there were ways they could help their children adapt to the ‘new normal’, including acknowledging emotions.

“It’s really important to allow kids and us to feel frustrated, bored, sad, excited, worried about all of this stuff.

“If we rush too quickly to tell them that it’s going to be fine then we don’t acknowledge the really real and appropriate emotions that the kids are having.”

A photo of Catherine Gallagher

Catherine Gallagher Photo: Supplied

That could leave children feeling misunderstood and wrong.

Ms Gallagher warned parents to limit young children’s exposure to media about Covid 19 but said honesty was still important when answering questions.

‘’Otherwise they make stuff up." 

They could also worry more about issues and ‘think about more complicated things than we give them credit for."

Many older children would already have accessed information about the virus through social media and parents often had little influence over this.

What they could do was have conversations with their children about what they were viewing and from which sources, Ms Gallagher said.

‘’If they’re saying ‘Well, actually all my friends are saying this and there’s this many deaths and Oh my Gosh that makes me anxious’, then it might be the time for you to go ‘Hey, it’s totally your right to look at that information but how helpful is that to you right now.’”

Parents could instead watch or listen to a regular news update with their children and then steer them towards another activity.  

Because, of course, parents could get anxious too.

Catherine Gallagher said anxiety was normal and, in fact useful, as it ensured people would continue to focus on hygiene and observe social distancing.

However it was important to keep it under control around kids.

‘’They are watching you to see just how scared to feel.”

That didn’t mean that parents couldn’t be scared or flummoxed about the Covid 19 situation.

But it did mean they should get the help they needed to manage their emotions.

‘’The kids are looking to me to be on top of this so, even if I’ve got anxious I need to breathe through and to let them know, ‘Gosh, that kind of took me by surprise. I’m OK.’ I’m going to have a shower or talk a walk and then we’ll talk about that thing some more.’  

Parents who didn’t manage their anxiety could also be more susceptible to illness.

‘’If you remain highly stressed it actually reduces your immunity and guess what, that makes you more vulnerable.’’

Unchecked anxiety could also explain why some people tried to protect themselves at the expense of others, including those who ‘fight over the loo rolls’ at supermarkets.

‘’It isn’t that people are stupid and selfish although some although some are doing a pretty damn good impression of this.

‘’It’s that this is how their worry brain is telling them how to behave to keep safe.”

It was important to let children know that their worry brains could be wrong and that connecting with other people was a better way to cope with stressful situations.

Ms Gallagher could understand why toilet paper hoarders wanted a ‘wee secret stash’ but said anyone with a garage full should consider other ways of coping with their anxiety.

‘’Otherwise you’re teaching kids that the needs of others don’t matter and this really isn’t a helpful lesson for them to be learning right now or ever, actually.’’

 Children’s own anxiety could be eased by the knowledge that they too could take control of the situation by helping.

Alice’s children were aware of how to do their bit.

Loving worried mom psychologist consoling counseling talking to upset little child girl showing care give love support, single parent mother comforting sad small sullen kid daughter feeling offended

Photo: 123rf

“They know there’s a bug out there and we can help by washing our hands regularly, sneezing into our elbow and staying at home for four weeks.”

Catherine Gallagher said there were many online resources to help entertain kids and she believed the holiday break would mean many were eager to start their distance learning in two weeks.

However she said a complete four week break from school wouldn’t harm younger children.  

Alice believed her children would get everything they needed from play during the lockdown.

‘’We’re not implementing any type of school schedule. We are just allowing them to play because I think their mental health is probably the most important thing.’’

The lockdown was bound to create “rupture and repair” as family members became frustrated, Ms Gallagher said.

 She recommended conversations about likely triggers and some ground rules to keep good relations on track.

‘’We’re in each other’s space. Hopefully most of it’s going to be positive. Probably not all of it’s going to be so how are we going to be forgiving of ourselves ? How do we take space if we need it?”

A game plan would require all family members to be tolerant of each other’s needs.

‘’So, if little Jimmy likes to play his trombone and that does everyone else’s head in, we’re going to do a different activity so that Jimmy gets to do the thing that he loves to do.

‘’Or maybe we’ll take some time from your choice time if you can’t be patient with Jimmy’s choice.’’

Large families should take turns at going for walks in different groupings to ensure timeout for all.

Alice was positive about the time ahead.

‘’It’s weird but I feel pretty good about it.”

She believed a lot of it was to do with mindset.

‘’We’re going to use this time to create stronger family connections and we’re going to get some stuff done around the house.”

Catherine Gallagher said families should also take comfort from knowing they were actually helping to halt the spread of Covid 19 by washing hands and social distancing.

 “At the moment it’s this little stuff that’s going to be making the difference

“We’re all powerful.”

Ngā Taonga kōrero

Tips for Staying Sane during the Lockdown

  • Be honest with your children about what’s going on but don’t overload young children with too much information.
  • Accept that older children will get their information from social media and other sources but help them evaluate what they’re seeing.
  • Acknowledge emotions such as worry, boredom or sadness so children feel heard before moving to reassure them.  
  • It’s OK to be anxious but manage your feelings in front of children and look after yourself by getting some exercise or de-stressing in some other way.
  • Set ground rules for the lockdown by allowing time for each family member to do an activity of their choice.
  • Cut yourself some slack and relax a few rules including those around screentime. (Just don’t go crazy).
  • Be kind and tolerant of each other’s needs.