How Do I Explain This Pandemic to My Child? (Part One)

A Florida Tech Psychology Professor Offers Insights
 for Parents Amid the Coronavirus

In the coronavirus pandemic, normal routines have been flipped upside down. Schools have closed, companies are encouraging employees to work remotely, and gatherings have been severely limited, among other changes.

It is an uncertain time for all. For parents, there are particular challenges as they face difficult questions from their children about the pandemic, even as they themselves may have questions regarding how to handle this severely altered way of living.

Felipa Chavez, Florida Tech assistant professor of child psychology

“Parents should try to use this as an opportunity,” said Florida Tech assistant professor of child psychology Felipa Chavez. “We are developing into a society where children and parents don’t talk to each other; in which children are often more engaged with their electronic devices than their familial interactions and relationships. So I would invite parents to consider reframing this event from a crisis to be approached with fear to an opportunity to become closer and more connected as a family.”

Chavez has a clinical background in early child development and many years of experience focused on myriad issues related to children and families. She is also the director of Building Blocks, PCIT at Florida Tech, Building Healthier Families, which specialized in offering Parent Child Interactional Therapy (PCIT) to families at Scott Center Community Psychological Services and in classrooms to improve negative child behaviors.

Florida Tech Ad Astra spoke to Chavez about what parents can do with and for their children to help them better understand and handle life amid a pandemic. In Part 1, she offers guidance on explaining the pandemic to children, how to empower them to feel involved in fighting the situation through the practice of healthy hygiene, and the critical need for maintaining children’s sense of normalcy and security by establishing a structured, consistent and predictable daily routine. In Part 2, Chavez talks about how to handle the daily deluge of news, how to respond to social distancing, guidance for how parents can deal with elevated stress, and suggestions for healthy family activities.

Q: How best can parents introduce a discussion about the coronavirus situation?

Felipa Chavez: It’s really important that children feel like they have a safe arena to have discussions with parents ahead of time, which can allow parents can tailor how the information is received. In those communications, you don’t want to be overly anxious and alarming. When children are talking to someone, if the person they’re talking to is anxious, then the child will be anxious. If that person is calm, then the child will be calm. So it’s important that the parents have good information about the coronavirus, and that they are keeping their own anxieties under wraps and having the conversation in a very matter-of-fact way.

Q: For parents of younger children, what’s the best way to explain what’s going on with this pandemic?

FC: Children’s egocentric nature means theytend to ask lots of questions to help understand their place in the world. So when addressing questions or concerns about coronavirus and COVID-19 it will be important to describe the situation to them in a way that is developmentally relatable and answers their fundamental, underlying question, which is most likely, “How is what is going on relate to me?” Thus, with younger children, the thing to say to them is that we have a situation where a lot of people are getting sick, like having a bad cold or flu. It looks like when you get sick. You just don’t feel very good. Children will then be able to relate, because they have more than likely experienced being sick before. If a child is healthy, you can inform them that from what we know, when children get this, for the most part, they tend to bounce back.

What parents will want to say to their children, in a very matter of fact way is, “Well, we have a situation where a lot of people are getting sick. Like when you get sick, we keep you home to get better and be safe, and make sure we keep others healthy and safe by not spreading our germs. Also, folks who are sick staying home makes sure they don’t spread their germs to you, because we would not want everyone to get sick. So right now we have a situation where a lot of people are getting sick, so that’s why we’re taking steps to make sure we stay home so everyone can be healthy and safe.

If your child asks, “Well, how is this different from a regular cold, where everyone didn’t have to stay home?” The parent will want to provide some basic information without being overly alarming, and most importantly offer their children the underlying reassurance they are looking for, which is that the adults in their lives, whom they trust and depend on, have things under control, with plans for managing the situation to keep them safe and healthy. So the children don’t have to worry. Parents may say something like, “This virus is pretty special and new; and we are getting to learn more about it. So it is best to make sure we can limit the spread of these germs by folks staying home. As we know more, if anything really important changes, I will let you know.  For right now, what we do know is that when people do get this virus, they tend to be sick with a fever, and have a sore throat. They may have coughing, and it may be hard to breathe. What is most important is that you let me know if you ever feel like you’re getting those kinds of symptoms, so we can get you feeling better with medicine.”

Q: Is there a way I can allow my child to feel involved in combating this pandemic?

FC: Yes, we definitely want to empower children to feel they have some control over the situation. Doing so will not only help allay their fears, but also provide them with a sense of self-efficacy and mastery over their environment, which makes them feel good.  This in turn will serve to bolster their ego strength, self-esteem, and self-worth and help them cultivate an industrious identity.

The thing that’s most important to communicate to children is the importance of practicing good hygiene. Parents will want to impress upon their children that keeping everyone healthy and safe is a partnership, for which they will play a very important role by thoroughly washing every part of their hands regularly, while singing the ABCs, or any other song that makes washing hands fun. (Baby Shark has just come out with a washing hands song that is very catchy.) Also, encourage children to keep their hands away from their mouth, nose and eyes and to keep mini packages of tissue in their pockets. In this way, they will be doing their part in both their family’s and community’s fight against spreading these germs. It’s enough to make any child feel like a superhero. Practicing good hygiene will be especially important if they reside in multi-generational homes where there may be elderly relatives present. Then their very important jobs will then also be about keeping grandma or a grandpa healthy and safe.

Q: Even with online school now taking up a few hours of the day, how important is it to establish purpose for homebound kids?

FC: The nation’s self-quarantine and social distancing measures most definitely create some unique circumstances that can disrupt families’ daily routines and rituals. This may especially be the case from the perspective of the children, who may feel out of sorts due their natural craving for structure (which fosters healthy emotional regulation). As a result, some ingenuity and creativity will be required as parents and children learn to reconfigure and adjust to the challenges of being together 24-7.  Consistent with conversations with one’s children regarding the important role they play in keeping everyone in the home healthy, it will be important to have children realize the critical role they play in the healthy functioning of their families. Their jobs will include keeping up with their school work to impress their teachers with what great learners they can be, as well as assisting with household tasks the make their home run smoother. The reason why their jobs are so important is because mom and dad, who are probably working from home, may need time to get their work done as well, so if everyone is working collectively as part of a structured routine, it just helps make things more manageable.

Parents should make clear the specific desired behaviors they are looking for, such as completing school assignments during designated times. Because of children’s required need for structure in fostering healthy emotional self-regulation, it will be important for parents to quickly establish a structured routine for the family’s new normal with respect to children’s online schooling, play time, and social engagement in family interactions, ranging from completing chores to pleasurable activities. Such structured routines afford children a sense of consistency and predictability that they find comforting. Thus, it is recommended that parents have a variety of timed incremental activities, consistent with their children’s attentional capabilities, with built in mini incremental incentives for accomplishing school tasks, such as earning time with their electronic devices for each assignment completed.

Q: Speaking of electronic devices, how can I manage my child’s access to those? What about allowing for more general play time?

FC: While the temptation may be great to allow children unlimited time with their electronic devices, it is best to limit this time and consider, as mentioned, making earned-time contingent upon the completion of school-related tasks. (Those tasks should be incrementally timed and spaced out with brief breaks throughout the work time.) Parents should also be mindful to monitor what children are exposed to on their media devices as there may be an inundation of information about coronavirus, which may only serve to increase children’s anxieties, especially without the cognitive ability to accurately process the validity of information they are receiving.

Finally, realize the practical importance of play in children’s cognitive and emotional development, and wherever possible try to make things like learning fun. It is important for parents to understand that play is the language of children, and it promotes their healthy neurological, cognitive and emotional development. Play allows children to process their day as they attempt to make sense of things they are seeing in the world, as well as to practice a variety of problem-solving strategies. So wherever possible, if you can turn any activity into a game, even learning math or doing chores, do so. Making things into a song or setting activities to fun music also helps move children through less desired tasks. Your children will not only be more engaged but better developed because you played. So when in doubt, play!

Parents may also find that engaging in such activities may also help them decompress and manage their own daily stressors. In fact, research has shown that increased play time with one’s children did wonders for improving a parent’s mood (Agazzi, Tan, Ogg, Armstrong & Kirby, 2017).


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