It was around two o’clock one morning in the second week of March 2020, that I awoke with a jolt because I heard our six-year-old daughter Azul screaming for me from her bedroom.
My husband Alex and I blinked at one another. I leapt out of bed and ran down the passage. I found her sitting upright, tears streaming, chest heaving. She’d been having a nightmare.
“Monsters,” she told me, voice quivering.
Apparently, monsters had infected a bar of soap with which people were washing their hands. The people would die, come back to life, and then die again every time they used the soap. Azul was so shaken by the imagery that I invited her to spend the rest of the night with us in the main bedroom.
Full disclosure: It was her second nightmare that week.
Clearly, the growing anxiety generated by the sweep of COVID-19 across the world was impacting her more than any of us would have imagined. Of course, we are navigating new waters with this pandemic — and its consequences are becoming more and more significant.
My husband and I have been as cautiously direct as we considered sensible when speaking with our daughter about the Coronavirus. We’ve probably not been as careful when speaking among ourselves and with other adults about the aggressive tsunami the virus seems to have become. We’re all anxious. Will one of us be next?
Azul’s nightmares got me thinking. What should we do to reassure our kids during such difficult emotional times? I decided to ask AKILY co-founder Natalia Ulloa for some advice:
Fear mostly comes from feeling one cannot control or take action in a given situation, Natalia tells me. When we have enough information and think we can do something, we feel we’re less in the dark. Outcomes are less ‘unknown’. We feel more at ease.
It’s practically impossible to prevent our children from hearing something about a topic that’s constantly top-of-mind and under general discussion like COVID-19. Trying to avoid an open conversation about it will only ignite greater curiosity. It will make the topic even more mysterious and out of our control.
If your child is asking questions, get into a conversation by asking what the child knows at that moment. Then allow the child to ask all the questions they may have. Give honest answers, and stick to the facts. Under no circumstances should you try to make promises about things when you know you’re unable to control time, circumstance, or consequence.
As far as the Coronavirus is concerned, explain that the vast majority of cases are very mild and those people who have been taken ill are likely to fully recover. Tell your child that pets will not be affected and that both you and other adults around them — as those responsible for them — will take whatever precautions are necessary to keep everyone safe.
COVID-19 is actually an opportunity. It’s an amazing opportunity to explore and highlight the wonderful way the human body works. Explain what a virus is, how the body can protect itself from infection, and how the body can get stronger by eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and drinking plenty of water.
Most importantly, empower your child by talking about the many things they can do to be in control.
“Kids feel empowered when they know what to do to keep themselves safe,” says Jaime Howard Ph.D., a senior clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.
The crucial thing to do is to keep your child’s hands clean!
Review the process with your child and then invite them to ‘judge’ while you go through the process yourself several times, making obvious mistakes that the child will notice. It’s fun to play detective this way!
Give your child the responsibility of cleaning surfaces in the house with cleaning wipes; this helps them feel ‘in charge’ and part of the team making sure everything will be fine.
Be sure to validate the emotions your child is feeling, listen to them, and acknowledge them. In fact, it’s okay to let them know what you are thinking and feeling and how you are coping with it!
Remember that emotions are tools that help us navigate life. We can’t let them dictate the way we behave or ever go so far as to surrender our ability to act to our emotions. Ask your child to draw the things that scare them, and then draw solutions that can address those fears.
While you can keep viruses and illnesses at bay with tried-and-tested personal hygiene, getting rid of the monsters is a little trickier! The information barrage your child is exposed to may be too much to process then and there, so children employ their other assets to make sense of the fuss: their imagination and penchant for imagery.
Luckily, you have the best expert available: your child. Since these monsters are of their own making, they also know the monsters’ weaknesses. Even if they’re not sure what those weaknesses are yet, you can help them figure it out. For example: some of them can be instantly overwhelmed by bright or dim light; others simply won’t come close if a flower is in the room. In Azul’s case, a gigantic vacuum cleaner was the ultimate weapon: it could suck them all up!
We know it’s easier said than done, but as parents and responsible adults, we must make sure our kids feel safe.
We’re all anxious about COVID-19, and our kids are bearing an emotional weight along with us. We wanted to give you some ideas for you to consider how to help your kids cope under the current extraordinary circumstances.