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

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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

Florida Tech assistant professor of child psychology Felipa Chavez is here to help. 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.

In Part 1 of this two-part question-and-answer series, Chavez offered 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. You can find it here.

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: With new information coming in daily, how do parents adjust informing their kids?

FC: I think parents need to use their discretion. Because it’s a hot topic, no matter what channel children are turning to, they keep seeing pieces of information about coronavirus. As a result, they become over-stimulated by watching the news because, based on their level of cognitive development, each report feels like a new event or new piece of information to add the massive accumulation of data from what they are seeing in the media. Ultimately this can only serve to escalate children’s anxieties over a problem that may then appear far more severe than intended. For example, when 9/11 happened, parents were encouraged to keep their children away from the television because in a child’s mind, even though the footage was of the same event, he or she processed each viewing as a new event. So it was creating a vicarious traumatizing effect because of the aggregated experience of each viewing and news report being processed as discrete events in children’s very rigid, concrete way of thinking.

Also, I would say not to bombard young children with a whole lot of data, but instead only offer them information as it’s pertinent to their lives, which ultimately is what is most important for them based on their limited, egocentric worlds. That is, elect to focus solely on offering what reflects new information that will result in big changes impacting their lives.

Q: What would you suggest to parents dealing with social distancing initiatives?

FC: Young children are fairly uninhibited. They will run up to you, hug and kiss you if that is what they feel moved to do – and think nothing of it. Human contact and touch are natural ways that children communicate their feelings and relate to adults, as well as each other. However, as we become adults, we become more inhibited with our growing appreciation for social boundaries, and we start to restrict our social contact with other adults. So, yes, social distancing initiatives will definitely need to be a conversation that takes place with young children in which parents reframe the focus as preserving health and hygiene, so children don’t view the social distancing as rejecting their natural tendencies, but rather as a way of taking care of others and themselves, and thereby as an alternate way of conveying their affections. So if they have a grandparent in the home, parents may want to remind their children about their important role to help keep everyone safe and healthy. “If grandma and grandpa were to get sick, they would experience a harder time recovering and bouncing back from the germs than younger folks.”

Parents, children and grandparents could work together to come up with other fun and creative ways to greet one another. Perhaps instead of a hug and/or a kiss, they could fist bump, rub elbows or tap shoes, or, maybe safest yet, consider a non-touching hand gesture. Turning a greeting into a fun game in which there’s a secret password that the children can use to communicate with their elders may be a way that promotes healthy social distancing without sacrificing the essential human need for warm, nurturing bonds and connections with others.

Q: How important is play time as we look toward potentially many more weeks of sheltering at home?

FC:  Playtime is especially important now for children who have had to adjust to being continuously at home.One of the most significant changes impacting children during this pandemic is the loss of social engagement with peers they may have been used to seeing regularly. When significant, life-altering events occur, it is especially important to try to help children quickly regain some sense of normalcy, which offers comfort and security that there is something they can count on, and in the end, provides them with a sense that things will be all right. It is, therefore, important to quickly regain a routine that will provide alternate means for children to reconnect with their friends through calling, video chats or virtual play dates.

Thus, newly established routines should not solely focus on completing academic tasks, but also include fun activities and play. Play is so essential; adults sometimes interpret play as being frivolous. However, for children that is simply not the case. Play is a mechanism of communication, and the language that children use to process their day, while fostering their cognitive development. It is essential that both structured and unstructured play activities are built into their daily routine. Older children may already be familiar with organizing social interactions remotely through the use of video gaming, in which they log on with their peers and can engage in conversation via their headsets.

But most importantly, parents should play with their children. There should be structured time where you all are playing together as a family and having fun. In psychology we talk about the inability for two competing behaviors to co-exist. If you are beefing up the fun and enjoyment as a family and being together, that’s going to outweigh any kind of anxiety children may have as a function of their world changing, because their more immediate and proximal world – as a family – is changing for the better.

Q: What sorts of activities would you recommend?

FC: Schedule time to exercise together, which is critical to healthy self-regulation and offers stress relief for children and adults. Make it fun! Families can still go for walks or hikes as long as they practice social distancing. If you have a basketball hoop, shoot some baskets. If you need to stay indoors, there are tons of videos on yoga and aerobics that you can do as a family to stay healthy and help children burn off energy so they are better emotionally regulated and better prepared for online schooling. You can have a dance contest, or do musical chairs. You can do walking races around the house. These are all small, doable activities that can serve as incremental breaks in between school tasks to decompress, re-energize and re-focus children in their learning, much like gym and recess.

When trying to come up with fun family activities, parents should think of things they use to do for fun as children. Consider cooking. Generally, helping to prepare meals, followed by sharing the meal as family, provides an opportunity to commune and can give children a sense of importance for how they can contribute and support the family, while also teaching them good life skills. Food preparation, which also highlights the need for a healthy, clean space, will further serve to reinforce those messages we want to impart to children about healthy hygiene during such a critical time. Cooking together can also provide opportunities to become closer as a family by passing down secret family recipes and traditions that give children a strong sense of pride in their cultural identity. Establishing strong cultural identities helps bolster children’s ego strength and subsequent ability to go into the world with a confidence about who they are. This makes them more resilient and less susceptible to bad influences.

Finally, arts and crafts are always an excellent, simple go-to, especially when infused with altruistic goals of compassion. Perhaps you could get children to make thank you cards for first responders or medical providers. One of the best ways to combat being self-preoccupied with one’s own anxieties is to focus on others. In this way you are not just reducing children’s anxieties, but shaping good citizens who give back to their communities.

Q: What advice do you have for stressed-out parents?

FC: One of the things I would recommend is for parents to figure out and work on managing their own stress level. Children are like litmus paper, taking on the chemistry and energy of their environment. Therefore, if parents can better manage their anxieties, their children will be less stressed and anxious. With the social distancing mandates, more and more parents are working from home, and there may be some real-life economic concerns for families that make getting work done from home a necessity. If there are two-parent households, it is important for both parents to share in the responsibilities of childcare by establishing a rotation schedule in which each parent has time to focus on work. Children will greatly benefit from the individual time with each parent given their exposure to different strategies for approaching the same task, and the various talents and strength each parent has to offer. The key is to understand and remember that as a couple and a family, you are all in this together. So make sure you are supporting one another as parents, so that stress doesn’t build up and subsequently filter down to the children. Similarly, as adults we reach out to other adults, friends and relatives, to vent, decompress and receive support. Make sure when having such stress-relieving conversations about the coronavirus for you as an adult that the children are not within ears’ reach. Such conversations could serve to heighten children’s anxieties, given their underdeveloped cognitive abilities to accurately and efficiently process the information in healthy ways.

Q: Is there a silver lining to this pandemic?

FC: Maybe the most important thing is to really think about the opportunity this unique situation presents us as a family and as a nation. Everyone is so focused on the negative aspects of the virus, the shutdowns and cancellations, the closures, the mandates for staying at home – and that is valid. However, when you have done all you can do, there could be an opportunity for us to turn positively inwards towards our families by nurturing our relationships and becoming close, in a way that we may have let fall by the wayside with overbooking distractions, which have taken over our family life.

Perhaps it’s best to reframe this unique time as a break, one which offers the opportunity to slow things down, get back to remembering what’s really important: family (however you define that), having quality relationships with those we love, and relearning how to appreciate one another. Taking this positive stance then offers new perspective that shifts our cognitive set positively and takes away some of the fear parents may feel and risk trickling down to their children. No one asks for bad things to happen, and while we may not have had any control of over the creation of the virus coming into our world, as adults we can make the decision about how we allow coronavirus and COVID-19 to affect and control our lives. So take back your power, and choose to let this situation affect your life for the better, in positive ways. This will be one the best lessons we can impart to our children regarding resilience, and the victory that comes from overcoming unexpected hardships – what researchers (Masten, 2001) call Ordinary Magic.

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I write and record video about research at Florida Tech. For any inquiries, contact me at 321-674-8937 or rrandall@fit.edu.

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